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OPPORTUNITY VS. OBLIGATION: WOMEN AND PRAYER

Rabbi Ari Ellis, Herzlia Synagogue, November 9, 2010

Of all of God’s creations, only human beings were created in God’s image with the ability to speak, think, and choose. Both men and women were equally created by God BeTzelem Elokim (in God’s image). The Torah makes a point of telling us that God first created a single human being that was neither, or perhaps both, male and female. Only later did God split that individual into two halves. It is a fundamental principle of our faith than neither gender is greater or superior to the other. But equal doesn’t mean identical.
The original human being created by God was singular and alone in the world. By splitting the human being into two, God brought gender into existence, in order that they could learn to share their life experiences with each other. From the Torah’s perspective, men and women have complementary roles in life.
 
Opportunity and Obligation
As Orthodox Jews, our lives are dictated by Halachah (Jewish law). Unlike other contemporary Jewish movements, which dispense with the priestly status of Kohanim, we do not. Only Kohanim may ascend the Bimah to offer the priestly blessing on the Festivals. That is their privilege and responsibility. It has nothing to do with merit or fairness. It is the role assigned to them by the Torah.
Similarly, contemplating greater women’s participation in Jewish activities may only be done within the confines of the Halachah (Jewish Law). The Rabbis teach us Gadol HaMetzuveh VeOseh MiMi SheEino Metzuveh VeOseh. Rabbi Joel Wolowelsky translates this phrase as “it is more religiously significant to perform a Mitzvah out of a sense of obligation than as an allowable option.”
Based on logic you might argue that it’s preferable to do something because you choose to do so, however, Jewish tradition teaches us otherwise. For example, when push comes to shove, it doesn’t really matter why you give Tzedakah (charity), as long as the person in need gets help. He doesn’t care whether you put the money in the Tzedakah box wholeheartedly or out of shame because you didn’t want to be the only one in the room who didn’t. Furthermore, by giving Tzedakah regularly, you can train yourself to become a more generous person. This principle is a cornerstone of Jewish philosophy.
Generally speaking, women are exempted from certain Mitzvot (commandments or obligations) that require that something be done at a specific time (Mitzvot Aseh SheHaZeman Geraman). Practically speaking, this means that a woman, just as child under the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, cannot perform any of these Mitzvot on behalf of a man who is obligated. A woman may nevertheless, choose to voluntarily perform these Mitzvot. But the fact that they would be doing so voluntarily, invalidates their ability to discharge the obligation for one who is inherently obligated in doing so.
Therefore, among other things, women may not lead the public prayer service nor read publicly from the Torah or be called up for an Aliyah. And while women certainly can, and perhaps should, recite the Shemah each morning and each evening, they are under no obligation to do so, whereas men must recite the Shemah within the first three hours of daylight and must don Tallis and Tefilin each morning.
Interestingly enough, it is nearly universal that women come to hear the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah. In fact, many Shuls organize a second Shofar blowing after services just for the women who missed it earlier in the service. And though not universal, many women do fulfill the Mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot, though technically they are exempt.
Many explanations have been given for why the Torah exempts women from this handful of Mitzvot. The Abudarham, an early commentary of the Siddur, explains that since women are responsible for the welfare of their children they are exempt from these positive commandments. The basis for such an exemption comes from the principle of HaOsek BeMitzvah Patur Min HaMitzvah (if one is occupied with one obligation, they are exempt from another obligation).
For example, we are all exempt from performing positive Mitzvot during Aninut (the time between death and burial of a close relative) because we are actively engaged in the obligations of burial. Similarly, women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments by virtue of their being engaged in other responsibilities.
The Akeidat Yitzchak, a medieval Spanish commentator, explains that women’s roles are primarily private while that of men is public. Nevertheless, there are some public Mitzvot, such as the reading of Megillat Esther in which women are also obligated. And there are some private Mitzvot, such as the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” in which men are obligated. However, in general, the major role of men is in public while that of women is home based, though she may delegate those chores to others if she chooses.
An often quoted idea citied by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, among others, explains that “in order that men learn to sanctify time, the Law ordains for him many commandments that are governed by a calendar and a clock. Women, on the other hand, by the very nature of their physical constitution and the requirements of the Law regarding menstrual periods, needed little more to make them aware of the sanctity of time.”
 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.