When a Woman Leads Services, A Community Struggles With Its Identity

Recently, the Ritual Committee of my congregation, Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem, asked its members whether we might occasionally allow
Kabbalat Shabbat
to be led by a woman. The question, spurred by requests from the daughters of several members and raised at a specially convened and very well-attended Seudah Shelishit before Rosh Hashanah, has set off a lively debate in the community, at times bordering on acrimonious.

People have threatened to leave the community if this change is adopted, or suggested that those in favor of it go elsewhere if that is what they want to do. Even the left–right political debates that have occasionally wracked our community have rarely been so divisive. Where it comes to politics, people want the other side to shut up; Where it comes to the debate over Kabbalat Shabbat, they want them to leave.

In a community like ours that pioneered the lengthwise partition and the customs of passing the Torah through the women’s section, women dancing with the Torah on the holiday of
Simhat Torah
, women’s Torah readings, women standing before the whole community to give
divrei Torah
and read the Megillot, and girls singing Shirat Hakavod, why is this particular question so divisive?

Some see the proposed change, which halakhic authorities respected by and within our community insist is no more halakhically problematic than the others, as another step in realizing the ideals of Yedidya’s founding generation; others see it as a step over a line in the sand separating Orthodox Judaism from the rest. Why do some feel that this innovation is what will push us out of the Orthodox world – and why do they care so much about it? Why do some of the very members who participate enthusiastically in some of the above practices, or have even initiated them personally, feel that having women lead Kabbalat Shabbat goes beyond their comfort zone?

Some of our members come from strictly Orthodox backgrounds and have moved in a more liberal direction; others started from non-Orthodox or even secular backgrounds and were drawn to Orthodox ritual and practice. All, it seems, rally to the cry of “We do not want to be (considered) Conservative!” There’s something about egalitarian services that rankles and debilitates, that does not feel “like us.” For a significant proportion of our members, men and women alike, a woman head of the community (we’ve had many) or a woman standing before the ark is acceptable, while a woman leading a service (or having an aliyah to the Torah – a proposal debated and rejected several years ago), even a non-obligatory one, is not.