Revitalizing Women’s Tefillah Groups

As a Modern Orthodox high school student at Ramaz, I find meaning in women’s tefillah (prayer) services. After experiencing them at school, I decided to start a women’s tefillah group at my shul, Congregation Ramath Orah on the Upper West Side. As of now, three monthly meetings (including the Torah service and mussafare scheduled. For our first meeting, there was significant interest. More women wanted to leyn (chant Torah) than the available slots. While I am proud of this success, I wish it were more widespread.

Women’s tefillah has enormous value for Modern Orthodox women today. The Ramaz women’s tefillah is a beautiful place to daven (pray). It is optional, so everyone there has chosen to be there and feels invested in it. There is singing and the room is quiet during the silent parts of the tefillah. Anyone can lead, leyn, or have an aliyah (be called to the Torah). The davening is almost the same as the main minyan, just sans the men and the devarim shebekedusha (prayers requiring the presence of a minyan of 10 men, according to Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law). This similarity to the main minyan makes us feel like our tefillot (prayers) count and makes it easy to have kavanah (concentration/intention). In contrast, when I sit in the main minyan and listen to men davening, reading Torah, and getting aliyot, I feel like a passive audience member, rather than an active participant. While the boys daven in the main minyan at school, the women’s side of the mechitza (divider between the men’s and women’s sections of an Orthodox congregation) is largely silent as the girls either zone out or talk.

Given the significance of women’s tefillah, Modern Orthodoxy should seize this opportunity. There is a large group of young women who are being educated in Talmud, Tanach (Hebrew Bible), and halakha (Jewish law) just like boys. These well-educated young women are the adults of tomorrow, and there needs to be a place for us in Modern Orthodoxy within halakha.

However, Modern Orthodox rabbis have different views about whether women’s tefillah is halakhically permissible and, if it is, what is permitted. For example, at Ramaz, we say the traditional brachot (blessings) for the Torah reading, but at my shul, we are still discussing whether we will do that. More generally, a central issue is that women are not obligated in all the mitzvot that are required for men.  As a result, some rabbis say that either women’s tefillah as a whole, or some components of it (such as the Torah and Haftorah brachot), should not be permitted. Since women are not obligated in the mitzvot of, say, communal Torah reading, some rabbis say they should not be doing something that resembles it, as it may appear that they are completing a mitzvah when halakhically they are not. According to these rabbis, women should focus on mitzvot that they are obligated to perform, such as Talmud Torah. Yet other respected Modern Orthodox rabbis allow women’s tefillah, noting that just because something is not explicitly required is not a reason to disallow it.

I understand both sides of this issue. On one hand, halakha is central to Judaism and must be respected. On the other hand, if a women’s tefillah service can give women as complete a role as halachically permissible, this is extremely valuable, since it is so important to keep today’s young women involved. If something has meaning to a group of people and is not halakhically forbidden, why not allow it? Women’s tefillah makes women feel included and important in Modern Orthodox Judaism, sending the message that Hashem cares about women’s tefillot as much as men’s tefillot.

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