The recognition that women’s prayer services are not a passing fad has compelled rabbinic scholars to confront and address the issue with increased earnestness. Yet, the years have not brought the halakhic authorities any closer to unanimity; if anything, the opposite is true. Essentially, three fundamental halakhic approaches to the subject have emerged. The first and most lenient position maintains that women may carry out a full service, including all those rituals and texts which normally require a minyan quorum. The second school is more stringent and openly opposes women’s prayer groups on a host of halakhic and sociological grounds. The final approach argues that women’s prayer services, if properly performed and religiously motivated, can be halakhically sanctioned, although some question their advisability on hashkafic and public-policy grounds.
Our survey and in-depth analysis of the responsa on this subject will be divided into two sections. In the first part of this paper (entitled “Theory”) we will explore the basic question of the halakhic permissibility of women’s tefilla groups. However, even if one should conclude that women’s tefilla groups are fundamentally permissible, a host of practical issues arise that must be faced if such services are to be carried out within the guidelines of Jewish law. We discuss these latter issues in the second section of this paper (entitled “Practice”), which will be published in the future. Needless to say, the views presented in this work are those of the authorities cited by the authors, and not necessarily those of Tradition or the Rabbinical Council of America. Let us turn now to the responsa themselves and the threshold question of whether women’s prayer groups can be, in principle, halakhically permitted.4
A. THE LENIENT SCHOOL
The most lenient responsum on the permissibility of women’s services was penned in 1974 by Israel’s late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, R. Shlomo Goren.5 After reaffirming that ten women do not constitute a quorum for communal public prayer, R. Goren proceeds to contend that ten women may nevertheless carry out a full service, including all those rituals and texts which normally require a minyan. The gist of his argument is as follows: Jewish law generally frees women from those positive commandments which, like sukka, shofar and lulav, are not continual obligations but are, rather, time-determined—mitsvot asei she-ha-zeman geramman.6 However, while a woman is exempt from such commandments, she may nonetheless perform them on a voluntary basis, as a petura ve-osa (one who is exempted, yet performs the commandment).7 The question arises, though, whether she may also recite the