By: Sarah Rudolph
Attending a halachah seminar for women at a prominent Orthodox institution several years ago, I found myself—along with two others—cast in the role of “rebel” for an unlikely reason.
The week-long course was taught almost entirely by men, and we were informed on the first day that we would break at a particular time each afternoon so the men could join the Minchah minyan down the hall.
Upon hearing this, my two friends and I turned to one another with similar expressions of . . . surprise? Amusement? Exasperation?
Here we were, a roomful of adult Jewish women, all of whom had chosen to attend a halachah seminar; clearly we all valued halachic observance. Some of us were unmarried, some childless, some (like myself) had young children at home and some had seen their child-raising years come and go. But regardless of our familial responsibilities, during those few afternoons of the seminar, there were no claims on our time preventing us from taking advantage of the benefits of public prayer.
So why were we not invited to do so? Why did my friends and I have to huddle together and strategize: Should we ask if we can go? Should we just go find the minyan and see if there’s a spot where we can stand, apart from the men but close enough to be able to hear and respond to the prayers? Should we give up and find a corner in which to say Minchah on our own? But there was a minyan right there; how could we not make an effort to be part of it?
With all of the views in halachic literature on women’s obligation in prayer and their relationship to public prayer, there is much room for respectful disagreement. But even the (majority) view that states that women have no obligation at all in public prayer allow and encourage women who have the interest in attending a minyan and the ability to do so to do just that.
We were able and we were interested. So why were we not encouraged to walk down the hall and pray with the minyan?
I have prayed twice daily throughout my adulthood, in accordance with my understanding of my halachic duty. I have never, however, made it a priority to attend minyan regularly—in accordance with my understanding of what is not my halachic duty. But if I am at a place where a minyan is readily available, and my children are not in need of my supervision, why should I stand around and schmooze rather than join a community of prayer?
Some women start movements “of the wall” or “for the wall”; I am a woman in search of a wall.
I am frequently confused and frustrated by the assumptions that lead some men to announce things like “if any of the men want to daven . . .” And then, inevitably, the men take over the entire area, leaving no space for the one or two interested women.
In the midst of all the discourse throughout the observant world about women and halachah and whether or not traditional assumptions about women’s participation in halachah or Jewish communal life should change, this innovation should be a really easy one. I’m not asking to lead the service, or to be counted as part of a minyan. I’m not asking to stand in the middle of the men, sans mechitzah. I’m asking for a space for women, for a mechitzah. Some women start movements “of the wall” or “for the wall”; I am a woman in search of a wall.
Interestingly, no one has ever made me feel anything other than welcome and respected when I do end up attending a minyan. At the seminar, for example, when my friends and I gathered the nerve to go find a spot where we could hear and respond to the minyan, no one objected. The first time I attended a parent function at my children’s school and marched to the designated space for Maariv along with all the men, the head of school saw me and immediately began looking around for a suitable spot for an improvised women’s section—which is wonderful, and I appreciate it. But if I am welcome, I should be invited.
Why, instead of simply welcoming me to my corner when you notice that I came, do you not announce from the beginning, “There will be a minyan in five minutes; this part of the room will be the men’s section, and this part will be the women’s section”? And perhaps if we were invited, more women would consider attending.
It is a frequent source of frustration to me to see women standing around chatting when a minyan is going on right in front of them. Old habits die hard, both individually and communally. I understand the habits, on both levels: an individual woman, especially if she has or had young children, can easily and legitimately fall into the habit of skipping formal prayer and certainly public prayer. And communal habits stem from individual habits. Since so few women attend regular minyanim, it is only natural for the men to start spreading into the women’s section, and for everyone to forget that some women might actually be interested in praying with a minyan.
But habits can be broken, and this one should.
We can respect all the reasons for women to skip public prayer while still creating a community that encourages those who are able and interested to attend.
Let’s keep the gender distinctions where there’s a halachic reason for them, and break the habits of exclusion when there’s a halachic reason against them.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance blogger who has contributed to various web sites, including The Times of Israel, Kveller and others.