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The Historical Framework Of Women in Public Prayer

While it may seem that the issue of a woman’s presence at synagogue services has only become an issue in recent times, it has actually been under discussion for over 2,000 years. Accommodations for women at prayer services were discussed during the time of the Beit HaMikdash.

The Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park covered this issue during a webinar given by Dr. Shana Strauch Schick on Sunday, October 18. Strauch Schick presented the historical framework of this very contemporary issue through discussion of women in holy spaces from the days of the ancient Temple to modern-day synagogues.

Strauch Schick, who grew up in Highland Park and graduated from Rabbi Paysach Ramon Yeshiva, opened with acknowledgement of the exclusion of women in public and religious life in recent times. Particularly with governmental restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus, questions have surfaced as to whether women should be given sanctuary seats that could be given to men. While Jewish law generally says that women are exempt from formal prayer, and they have a limited role in the service, it is acknowledged that when an entire community gathers together it adds to the sanctity of God’s name. The webinar presented evidence of precedent to include women in formal prayer and explained the historic reality that women have gone to services and participated in public activity for thousands of years.

Downloadable source sheets offered evidence that women went to the Beit HaMikdash on Passover, Sukkot and other times to present a sacrifice after giving birth. The women’s courtyard, Ezrat Nashim, was where all public activities were held—including Torah reading on Yom Kippur and the water drawing on Simchat Beit HaShoeva. It was noted that a section to separate men and women was erected to counter the frivolity that occurred during the water drawing celebration. The question was asked about how mere human beings could alter the blueprint of the divinely designed Temple. A drasha was presented that allowed the change by noting that at the “end of days,” women and men would mourn separately. If men and women are separated when mourning (at a time when there is no likely appearance of evil inclination), then they should be separated even more so during times of happiness. It should be emphasized that it is never mentioned in the Talmudic discussions that women should stay home and not attend. The discussion was how to create inclusion of women, rather than exclusion.

Interestingly, women were obligated to come to the Temple to give a sacrifice (yoledet offering) each time after giving birth. The cost of the sacrifice, coupled with the difficulty in traveling from areas outside Jerusalem, created hardships for many families. The rabbis made a ruling that women did not have to make the sacrifice for each and every birth; one offering would suffice.

It was also commonplace for women to participate in the public religious space during the Rabbinic period. Many texts of the period mention women at prayer services as a commonplace event. An example was given (Masechet Avodah Zarah) stating rulings on kashrut. Citing that if a non-Jew turns grilling meat while the man who started cooking it goes to pray, or if a non-Jewish woman stirs a pot on a stove while a Jewish woman goes to the synagogue, the food is still kosher in both cases. It is clear from this passage that it was not unusual for women to go to services.

Another example (Masechet Brachot) cites Reb Yonaton not being surprised that an older woman went to daily prayer services. What surprised him was that she passed several synagogues along the way, and specifically went to a further one.

It seems that the consensus is that it is not only permissible to use scarce synagogue space for women, but it is important to do so. Everyone, male and female, should have the opportunity to pray as part of a group and it is particularly important for women to learn to pray so they can teach their children.

Strauch Schick is a fellow of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University and teaches Talmud and halacha at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim and the Drisha Institute.

The Orthodox Jewish Forum of Highland Park and Edison is a community-wide educational endeavor to discuss contemporary issues and ideas. The next program, held on Saturday night, November 7, “Confronting Racism in the Orthodox Community,” will focus on two aspects of racism through the prism of Torah.

By Deborah Melman

 

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