Dear Grassroots Folk,
We are writing to you as GRJ Co-ordinators to let you know about an important process we have been through as a community in the past few weeks. This year, following a general call-out for volunteers to blow the shofar, it so happened that a woman volunteered. This led us to explore the interface between our egalitarian values and commitment to halacha, and come to a decision in a very short amount of time.
The discussions that ensued have cut to the very heart of who we are as a community. We are moved and honoured to have witnessed the graciousness with which community members approached this delicate question. Yes, there have been a wide spectrum of opinion, views and feelings at play here, but every person who has contributed has sincerely considered the views of others and tried to stand in their shoes. No storming out, no silent treatment, no aggressive emails – this community recognises that its survival is dependent on effective and sensitive communication. This is particularly impressive when it feels like our values and our spiritual engagement are under the microscope. For some people this discussion has had personal implication and they have faced it with courage, grace and patience. Special thanks are due to them.
On each day of Rosh Hashana 100 blasts are blown. Our decision this year is for a man to blow the first 60 blasts, and a woman to blow the last 40 blasts.
Our intention at this time is for a supplementary 40 blasts to be blown by a man as part of Pesukei deZimra. Please arrive at 8.30 am if you wish to hear these. If anything changes we will communicate this prior to Rosh Hashana.
Since this decision had to be made in the shortness of time, we clearly state that this is a Pilot not a Precedent or a Position. It is simply the practical decision we have arrived at for this year. Accompanying this decision, we are also committing to inviting the community to further study and dialogue in the coming months. On this and other issues relating to GRJ’s approaches to halacha and egalitarianism. Please join us for these!
We anticipate that further learning and discussion may yield a different practical outcome for future years.
To paraphrase a much longer and more complex discussion…
The mitzvah of shofar is to hear the blasts. Therefore the person blowing is fulfilling the mitzvah for all those who are hearing it. The issue of gender in halacha is that according to the Mishna, shofar is one of the mitzvot that women can do, but are not obligated to fulfil as a mitzvah. It is of note that in orthodox communities, it is a very strong custom that women listen to shofar, even though they are not fulfilling a technical halachic requirement. According to the Code of Jewish Law (Shulkhan Arukh, OC 589), as a consequence of their exemption, women are then unable to blow for men to hear, but can blow for women to hear, because the person blowing needs to have the same “obligation status” as those listening.
By contrast, in progressive communities women blow shofar, as do men, in line with their egalitarian approach to Jewish practice, where adults are equally obligated, irrespective of gender.
Many of our community members turned to rabbis and texts to learn more about the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashana. It emerged that the “status” of the blasts can be divided into three categories. The first thirty blasts are considered d’oraita, that is biblically mandated. The second thirty blasts are considered d’rabbanan, as a result of rabbinic legislation.
The final forty are (to cut a long story short) considered either rabbinic law, or minhag, part of custom – which means they are still an essential part of the service, but carry a different legal status.
In line with consultations with community members, teachers and rabbis, we agreed that a woman will sound these final 40 blasts. In doing this we are honouring our commitment to halacha, and promoting the value of egalitarianism – as we do by inviting women to be Gabbaim, to lead services and read from the Torah.
Our rationale for having 40 blasts blown by a man at Pesukei Dzimra is so that those wishing to hear all 100 blasts blown by a man will be able to do so by arriving for this part of the service. They will complete their obligation to hear Shofar at Musaf with the next 60 blasts also blown by a man.
We recognise that this solution is a piecemeal one. To those keen to maintain the halachic framework, it may seem rushed and not sufficiently robust. To those from progressive communities where egalitarianism is well established, it may seem to compromise on the dignity of the community. We reiterate: This is a decision because the time came to make a decision, not because the debate came to a close. This is a Pilot, not a Precedent or a Position.
We propose the following commitments to accompany this decision, to ensure that it is seen as part of a process rather than a final product:
1) To communicate this decision, its implications and the expected follow-up discussions to the whole community via blog post on the website, a MailChimp email and verbal and written explanations on the day.
2) To find the best ways to continue studying and discussing this issue in greater depth in the new year
3) To invite anyone to email reflections to us for consideration after the festivals, which can feed into the discussions above.
Above all, as Co-ordinators we feel blessed and honoured to serve a community that recognises that being together is what facilitates our spiritual engagement. Keeping everyone in the tent sometimes involves rearranging the mental and spiritual furniture to create enough space. As we write, the Grassroots Ohel is being prepared for our High Holy Days experience. We look forward to seeing you there, and throughout the coming year.
Debbie & Hannah