Wednesday, June 22, 2005

'Prayer leader for the women'

As a side note to the discussion on Women's Tefilla Groups, I'd like to refer people back to what I wrote a few months ago about Avraham Grossman's book, 'Pious and Rebellious,' and about 'Mothers and Children: Jewish family life in Medieval Europe.' Both these books made clear that in the High Middle Ages, a time which is generally considered oppressive for women, Jewish women took on a whole range of roles and obligations which today would be unthinkable, including as Sandek in a Brit, Shochetet, mohelet, and in certain small communities, receiving aliyot and reading from the Torah. They also participated in Zimmun, and there is ample evidence of women, mostly from the 'upper classes,' wearing a tallit, tzitzit, and (on a more limited basis, apparently) tefillin. Eg. Rav Avigdor Kara, a thirteenth century French sage, wrote of 'some righteous women who were accustomed to wearning teffilin with a blessing and to enwrap themselves in zizit.'
Something I didn't mention in my previous discourses on the subject was women's prayer. It appears that women's sections in many synagogues back then were completely seperate from the men's. In others, they were connected to the men's just by a 'small and narrow opening.' In yet other communities, the 'women's synagogues' were actually in seperate buildings from the men's. The upshot of all this is that in women's 'sections' in general, there was the need for a woman to lead the prayers, either because they were in completely separate rooms or buildings from the men, or because they just couldn't hear them properly. From the Grossman book:

'The worship arrangements in the women's synagogue indicate that the women felt the need to express their religious feelings. Confirmation of this may be found in those women who served as cantors... As the halacha at that time forbade men and women singing together, this was done seperately.... The title given to Richenza in the Nurnberg memorial book, 'Prayer leader for the women,' makes it clear that this refers to a woman who served as cantor for the women....
Incidentally, he goes on to describe how women leaving prayers early was considered 'a serious transgression' (modern authorities please note).
Now, why am I mentioning all of this? Partially as a historical curiosity. Those who argue about 'women's traditional roles' should be aware that this phrase covers a much greater range of options than they are imagining, and there is precedence for women doing a great deal more in communal life than they do today, or than any authority in the Orthodox world would dream of allowing them to.
I also mention it because of the arguments that have been set forth in the comments section here and elsewhere to the effect that women davening by themselves is in some way either forbidden, or not 'meaningful,' or undesired because davening with a quorum of men is considered preferable. There were clearly centuries where women davening alone was the way religious men preferred it, for both cultural and halachic reasons. So again -- with a bit of historical background, things are not as black and white as some might make out.


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