In a recent post, R. Michael Broyde expressed puzzlement over a story about R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and a woman who wished to wear a tallis in an Orthodox synagogue. I have come across another, more positive discussion in the writings of R. Chaim Navon. R. Navon’s recent book, Gesher Benos Ya’akov, is a fascinating and eloquent presentation of a moderate position (to my left) on women’s ritual roles within Orthodoxy which I hope to discuss soon. In the meantime, I present his discussion of R. Soloveitchik’s story.
But first, the story as told by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer (“Women’s Prayer Services – Theory and Practice I” in Tradition, 32:2 Winter 1998, p. 41):
R. Soloveitchik believed he had good reason to doubt that greater fulfillment of mitsvot motivated many of these women, as illustrated in the following story, related to us by R. Yehuda Kelemer, former Rabbi of the Young Israel of Brookline, Massachusetts. During the mid-1970′s, one of R. Kelemer’s woman congregants at the Young Israel of Brookline was interested in wearing a tallit and tsitsit during the prayer services. After R. Kelemer had expressed to her his hesitations about the matter, she approached R. Soloveitchik — who lived in Brookline — on the matter. The Rav explained that in light of the novelty of the action, it needed to be adopted gradually. Accordingly, he suggested that she first try wearing a tallit without tsitsit (which is, of course, allowed for women.) The Rav asked the woman to return to him after three months, at which time they would discuss the matter further. When the two met once again, she described to R. Soloveitchik the magnificent nature of her religious experience in wearing the tallit. The Rav pointed out to the woman that wearing a tallit without tsitsit lacked any halakhically authentic element of mitsvah. It was obvious, therefore, that what generated her sense of “religious high” was not an enhanced kiyyum hamitsvah, but something else. Under such circumstances, the Rav maintained, wearing a tallit was an inappropriate use of the mitsvah. Consequently, the Rav forbade the woman from wearing a tallit with tsitsit.
R. Chaim Navon writes (Gesher Benos Ya’akov, pp. 147-148, my translation):
Let us return to the story of the woman who desired [to wear] a tallis with tzitzis. What would have happened if she had recognized the halakhic facts and rejected R. Soloveitchik’s advice to wear a tallis without tzitzis? Allow me to speculate that even in such a situation, the Rav would not have permitted her to wear a kosher tallis. I suggest that this would have been his reaction even in a third situation: if the woman had returned to him and said that she felt in her heart that her mitzvah was deficient. Even then, the Rav would not have breached this boundary [and permitted her to wear a kosher tallis].
If so, why did R. Soloveitchik devise this test? I suggest that he wanted to show this woman how irrelevant religious inspiration (hislahavus ha-dasis) is to this question. We should assume that this woman’s intention was for the sake of Heaven but the path she chose to demonstrate her intent was mistaken [in R. Soloveitchik's view]. An inspired religious experience does not guarantee that a change [in religious practice] is proper and successful.
The principal of the religious girls school “Pelech” in Jerusalem spoke of a time when 250 of her students were waiting for a minyan of men to arrive before beginning Kabbalas Shabbos. One of the young (female) teachers went to the front of the womens’ section and began singing “with a sweeping Chasidic melody” the prayers of Kabbalas Shabbos. The students answered her, “at first hesitantly but afterward with a song that strengthened from verse to verse, that intensified from chapter to chapter, a prayer of the like that has never been heard before.”
I do not necessarily oppose womens’ [-only] Kabbalas Shabbos prayers. There are two sides to this question and in specific communities, the scale tilts–in my opinion–in favor of womens’ [-only] prayer like this on occasion. However, I think that the inspiration and emotion are not decisive considerations in the question of whether to hold prayers like this. Every innovation breeds inspiration. We have to examine how much inspiration a woman will have in her thousandth time praying like this, not her first. I question whether we will find unique inspiration in the thousandth prayer.
On the other hand, let us assume for theoretical purposes that even after twenty years of womens’ [-only] Kabbalas Shabbos prayers we still find soaring inspiration. Even then, I would say that inspiration is not the only spiritual consideration. Prayer with pure intent is a lofty level and an important religious value. But when it will disturb the fabric of the religious life fashioned by tradition, we have to weigh the damage with the benefit.