combined effects of this religious and educational exploration were eventually felt in the general, more established Jewish community as well. One manifestation of this trend was the development of women’s prayer services. Women would join in all-female groups on a particular Shabbat or Rosh Hodesh morning or afternoon in order to recite together the Shaharit or Minha prayers. Similarly, these women would gather on Purim for a women’s reading of Megillat Ester or rejoice together on Simhat Torah, separate from the men, often dancing the hakafot with their own Torah scrolls.3*
Two different groups supported these women’s services. For some participants, a women’s tefilla was an act of rebellion against the traditional male-oriented ritual. Such individuals or groups were not terribly concerned with the halakhic propriety or parameters of their prayer forms. On the other hand, numerous other women, who articulated a commitment to the halakhic process, at the same time expressed their desire for a more active and meaningful involvement in the spiritual moments of public prayer. In addition, they argued, the prayer group could serve for them as a learning experience—an opportunity to study the relevant laws, to act as gabbai, read the Torah and the haftara, lead the services as hazzan, lift and roll the Torah (hagbaha and gelila), etc.—affording them a greater appreciation of the symphony communal prayer is meant to be. These women further explained that their identification with Orthodox Judaism prevented them from joining Conservative shuls or egalitarian minyanim. An all-women’s prayer group was consequently an attractive alternative.3**
This latter group turned to members of the Orthodox rabbinate for rulings and guidance on the halakhic permissibility of such women’s services. Some rabbis, while sympathetic to the religious sentiments expressed by these women, objected to the very idea of separate women’s prayer services, citing various halakhic and sociological arguments to support their position. Other rabbis, though, advised these women that they could have their service provided they forgo saying all those texts which required a minyan quorum; they were, after all, a women’s prayer group, not a women’s minyan.
In our extensive discussions with participants in such services, we have found that a significant percentage report the experience enriching, moving, and edifying, despite the halakhic limitations. Many testify to davening (praying) with greater kavvana (religious devotion) or to discovering new meaning in their prayers. Satisfying what is perceived by the members as a real spiritual need, women’s prayer groups have continued to meet in various communities on a regular basis for close to 25 years.