The Road Not Taken: Avi Weiss, Michael Broyde And Women’s Roles

The Road Not Taken: Avi Weiss, Michael Broyde And Women’s Roles

Rabbi Avi Weiss’ recent introduction of women-led Kabbalat Shabbat services in his synagogue has produced yet another kerfuffle among his rabbinical colleagues, albeit one significantly subdued when compared with the recent “Rabba” controversy. And Rabbi Michael Broyde, a noted rabbinic scholar, has once again responded with an article that purports to outline the “normative” Orthodox position on Rabbi Weiss’ latest innovation. Not surprisingly, that position is different than Rabbi Weiss’.

Rabbi Broyde acknowledges that the issue at stake is not halachic, or legal, but only minhag, or custom, since the Kabbalat Shabbat recitals are not actually a part of the Friday evening prayers (ma’ariv) and could be eliminated entirely without compromising the “Orthodoxy” of a synagogue’s Friday night services. And although he declared Rabbi Weiss’s step a “vast breech” of Jewish tradition, he acknowledged a pragmatic reality: “our community…will not agree with us if we oppose this [Rabbi Weiss’ innovation] merely because it is an innovation.”

So why does he nevertheless oppose it? Because, according to Rabbi Broyde, it is a “bad innovation”.

If this were a debate about halacha, I would have to bow before Rabbi Broyde’s far superior scholarship. But this is about policy, not halacha.

Policy debates typically identify communal problems and then suggest, with appropriate justifications, preferred solutions from a number of possible alternatives. I do not know the specific problems Rabbi Weiss was seeking to address with his latest innovation, but I can guess. He may have been seeking to create an opportunity for women to meet the challenge of Jewish spiritual expression through prayer.

He may have viewed the failure of Orthodox synagogues to offer an accepted spiritual “home” for women, evidenced by the dearth of women currently attending prayer services at Orthodox synagogues, as a potential threat to Jewish continuity. He may have been seeking to co-opt the rapid growth of independent “egalitarian” minyanim, which in the absence of rabbinic leadership may stray beyond the realm of accepted halachic norms. He may have been concerned that rejecting societal norms that do not violate halacha potentially hurts Orthodoxy’s ability to retain its own followers or influence secular society.

These would all be legitimate Orthodox policy concerns, and allowing women an increased role in synagogue and communal functions in a manner consistent with halacha could potentially address them.

Rabbi Broyde, for his part, does not acknowledge the existence of any policy problems that might justify Rabbi Weiss’s innovation. He nevertheless declares Rabbi Weiss’ innovation to be “bad” because it “produce[s] a bad result.”

Rabbi Broyde cites another example of an innovation that he would consider “bad”: instituting communal prayer in English. He acknowledges that halacha permits this “without a doubt”.

So why is it bad? Because, according to Rabbi Broyde, it leads to systemic ignorance of Hebrew.

But that makes no sense. If the community were fluent in Hebrew, I would argue not that the innovation is “bad” (because I don’t believe people actually learn or remember Hebrew through prayer) but that it is superfluous or pointless. But what if the community is ignorant of Hebrew so the alternative would be no communal prayer – would the innovation still be “bad”? The point is that you cannot reject an innovation without also considering the underlying policy considerations – unless you believe that all innovation is per se “bad.”

And that’s the underlying problem with Rabbi Broyde’s critique; despite all protestations to the contrary, he appears unable or unwilling to balance innovation with countervailing policy considerations. For example, what is the “bad result” that he foresees in women leading the Kabbalat Shabbat recitations? It will inevitably result in women leading the formal prayer segment (ma’ariv), which would be a violation of halacha.

This kind of “slippery slope” argument, where a seemingly innocent event will inevitably lead to an undesirable consequence, can be, well, slippery.

For example, Rabbi Broyde himself notes that the Kabbalat Shabbat recitation customarily includes elements – like word repetitions during the singing – that would be problematic if incorporated into the formal prayer segment. So, pursuing Rabbi Broyde’s slippery slope argument, Kabbalat Shabbat – or at least the singing of it – should also be banned lest word repetitions inevitably slip into the formal prayer segment. Is he prepared to implement this innovation in his synagogue?

Moreover, is the halachic violation that Rabbi Broyde foresees truly inevitable? After all, he himself acknowledges that synagogues have long allowed pre-bar mitzvah boys to lead their Kabbalat Shabbat recitations, yet this has not resulted in boys coming to lead the formal prayer segment. And if our goal is to solve policy problems – such as making our synagogues more open and welcoming for women – while also addressing slippery slope halachic concerns, I could understand Rabbi Broyde employing his considerable scholarship to tinker with, improve upon, or suggest alternative innovations to that proposed by Rabbi Weiss.

For example, to highlight the distinction between the two segments, the non-halachic Kabbalat Shabbat recitations (led by either men or women) could be conducted from the Torah-reading pew (shulchan) while the obligatory ma’ariv segment (led only by men) would be conducted from the regular prayer pew (teyva), a relocation already practiced in many Orthodox synagogues. But Rabbi Broyde’s position is that we are facing a paradox, which offers only a binary set of choices: either accept Rabbi Weiss’ innovation and the halachic violation that will necessarily follow – or maintain the status quo. Once again, this suggests an approach that precludes innovation as a matter of dogma rather than pragmatically seeking to address community needs.

Rabbi Broyde claims that he supports innovation in non-halachic areas. For example, he claims that he would have supported the opening of Yeshiva College in 1928 despite the opposing rabbinic consensus of that time. Of course, one does not become a supporter of innovation by retroactively endorsing an 80-year old and widely accepted communal practice any more than one becomes a feminist by retroactively endorsing the struggle for women’s suffrage. But a recent observation in an article by author William Saletan made me view Rabbi Broyde’s comment in a different light: it simply reflects the way traditionalists embrace change. First, they resist it. Then they lose to it. Then they assimilate it and frame it as a fulfillment of their own longstanding values.

So when traditionalist Orthodox rabbis brand innovative ones “non-Orthodox” or, gasp, “Conservative”, that’s just what traditionalists do – before they themselves change. It’s a stage in a process that ends not with a defeat – but with an embrace. Whether or not they know it, Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Broyde are actually traveling in the same direction because they are both confronting the same thicket of communal problems – only Rabbi Weiss is rushing ahead in a bulldozer while Rabbi Broyde is slowly trying to tip-toe his way through the shrubbery.

Too bad: working together, they might be building a proper road for all of us to travel.

Yaacov M. Gross lives in Lawrence, NY.


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