Women's Tefillah Groups Grow and Face New Challenges
By Laura R. Shaw Frank
In 1986, when the Women’s Tefillah Network was formed, the number of women’s tefillah groups could be counted on one hand. There are now at least 55 women’s tefillah groups in existence world-wide. It is safe to say that women’s tefillah is one of the fastest growing institutions in Modern Orthodoxy today.
Women’s tefillah groups consist exclusively of women who join together to pray. Women, under Jewish law, to not constitute a minyan, as they are exempt from the commandment of communal prayer, but by separating themselves from men, women are able to lead the tefillah and read from the Torah.
In addition to being forums where women join together in prayer, women’s tefillah groups have become places to celebrate life-cycle events such as b’not mitzvah, aufrufs for brides, and baby-naming ceremonies for newborn girls.
Over the past twelve years, the Network has fielded hundreds of questions dealing with halakhah, public relations issues, background, and statistics on individual groups and on the movement as a whole. It has served as a resource to assist groups just starting out, groups that were expanding, and groups that were facing some sort of challenge or difficulty. It has been able to provide halakhic background material, rabbinic resources, and even representatives who travel out to individual groups to assist them in getting off the ground.
The increased visibility of women's tefillah groups has, naturally, created controversy. Some groups have come under attack in their communities, and others have been forbidden by their rabbis from reading from a Torah scroll or meeting on synagogue grounds. Perhaps the most well-known incident of this type in the past few years was the vote taken on January 14, 1997 by the Va'ad Harabonim of Queens, New York, approving a p'sak (rabbinic decision) that women's tefillah groups were against Jewish law, therefore all groups should be forced to disband and new groups should be prevented from forming. In response to this p'sak, the Women's Tefillah Network placed a full-page ad in Jewish newspapers containing an open letter to the Va'ad.
Interestingly, many credit the Va'ad with the large turn-out at the First International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, which took place one month after the p'sak was issued. Many men and women felt that the Va'ad had acted only out of political concerns, as women's tefillah groups meet all standards of halakhah. Some also felt that the Va'ad had violated the principle of respect for p'sak of the moreh d'atra (rabbinic rulings of individual rabbis) in that it sought to ban existing women's tefillah groups which met with the full authority and support of their local rabbis.
Women's tefillah has become an important spiritual forum for Orthodox women, and we can only hope that our detractors will come to see that women participate in these groups out of a strong desire for dveykut, closeness to God, and act l'sheym Shamayim, for the sake of heaven.
Laura R. Shaw-Frank is the editor of the Women's 70' Rah Network's newsletter and is a member of its executive board. She is a lawyer at the firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, L.L.P.