Since The Jewish Week reported that the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale had held a special minyan featuring a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, the Modern Orthodox Jewish establishment has been apoplectic with yet another example of R. Avi Weiss pushing the envelope of women's roles in Judaism. Cutting through most of the distracting rhetoric is R. Michael J. Broyde who posts his thoughts on Hirhurim Torah Musings.
R. Broyde does not argue against the halakhic merits of women leading Kabbalat Shabbat but rather:
Our opposition to women being leaders of Kabbalat Shabbat is thus, I suspect, grounded in our sense that even though technical Jewish law permits this conduct as a matter of hilchot tefilla, we fear that such conduct produces a reality that is hard to present as a stable status quo, and we are worried that people will grow confused as to what only men can lead: women leading Kabbalat Shabbat will easily slip into women leading Maariv, which is precluded by halacha as commonly understood. For this reason, Orthodox communities have never let women lead those parts of davening that technical halacha does not formally prohibit them from lead.
Changing the custom so as to allow women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat as a chazan seems to me to be a practice that badly obfuscates between situations where a proper shaliach tzibur is needed and where one is not, and thus a bad innovation, likely to lead people astray.
R. Broyde's rationale is a slippery slope argument, suggesting that if women are permitted to lead Kabbalat Shabbat, people will become "confused" as to what parts of the service women can and cannot lead in an Orthodox service. For example, R. Broyde implies that if Kabbalat Shabbat was a davar shebikdusha - a distinct prayer of holiness which requires a quorum of 10 men1 - then ostensibly women would be prohibited from leading the community in that prayer.
For R. Broyde, women leading Kabbalat Shabbat is a "bad innovation" because of the potential to cause more harm - either within the Orthodox community itself or through external perceptions - and ostensibly, should be avoided in Orthodox congregations as a matter of universal policy.2 After all, once a self-described Orthodox institution condones a practice, for those not fluent in halakhic nuance, the social identity of "Orthodox Judaism" does in fact become "confused."
Since this decision is not halakhic but a social, we can defend R. Broyde's position based on his subjective assessment of the Orthodox and non-Orthodox (including non-Jewish) communities. However it does reveal an attitude and perspective as to how confusion is identified and addressed. In this case, R. Broyde's response is to preempt confusion by avoiding a particular action. But there is of course an obvious alternative solution to cure the community's confusion through reeducation.
Let us compare for example a discussion in the Orthodox world regarding women saying kaddish for a deceased loved one. The practice of saying kaddish is not an obligation, but a custom - albeit one with significant therapeutic and religious value (e.g. sanctifying God's name in public). There are two important distinctions between women saying kaddish and leading Kabbalat Shabbat. The first is unlike Kabbalat Shabbat, reciting kaddish is personal not communal. On the other hand, the recitation of kaddish is considered a davar shebikdusha, thus requiring the quorum of ten men. Thus while there is an affirmative reason to permit women to say kaddish, the risk of communal "confusion" ought to be greater.
One approach, taken by R. Reuven Fink, is strikingly similar to many arguments against women leading Kabbalat Shabbat:
There is a long history documented in our halachic and responsa literature that deals with the topic of a woman reciting the kaddish. The poskim dealt with the matter in their usual sensitive and thoughtful manner. Their collective conclusion was that a woman may not recite the kaddish for the host of reasons given above.
It would therefore seem that an attempt to "improve" or alter our sacred traditions and halachic precedents is in reality not a positive move but a negative one. Given the zeitgeist that prevails today, which serves as the impetus to change our time-honored laws concerning modesty, identity, and role differentiation, this change is both pernicious and dangerous. The synagogue is an institution that has always served as an educational tool to teach our people authentic Jewish philosophy, cultural attitudes, and behavioral norms. Tampering with the synagogue's customary practices is clearly a step fraught with great danger.3
One cannot deny an author the right to side with those authorities who forbid a daughter to say kaddish. But he must be prepared to include in his presentation those sources with which he does not agree. The halakhic legitimacy of women saying Kaddish is unassailable if not universally accepted. Thus, even if a rabbi feels that it is in society's best interest not to allow an orphaned daughter to say Kaddish, he should make it clear that he knows that other poskim hold otherwise. That is the approach responsible poskim regularly follow in all other areas of halakha when answering personal questions. In a healthy halakhic community, people generally feel bound by their personal halakhic authority.
While many will pass up the opportunity to exercise an option which all agree is not obligatory, finding solace in a more passive role, a woman who regularly attends shul will feel resentment when she learns later that a most meaningful, legitimate option was withheld from her. The rabbi, in his role as counselor has an obligation to bring all legitimate options to the attention of the mourner.4 [Emphasis added]
Despite the potential for greater halakhic confusion in women reciting kaddish, the personal nature of the custom and the inherent benefits appear to outweigh the risks of communal confusion - at least enough for it to be considered an acceptable practice for Orthodox congregations. Thus it appears to me that the controversy over women leading Kabbalat Shabbat in a synagogue is not even a matter of "confusion" as much as a violation of what can best be described as an Orthodox aesthetic. While certain types of confusion may be corrected through education and public discourse, matters of aesthetics evoke far more visceral emotional responses which preclude productive dialogue.
Unfortunately, I fear this is the true source of our confusion.
1. See B. Berachot 22b, Shulhan Aruch O.C. 55.
2. I should point out that such minyanim have existed for some time even cropping up in Washington Heights. It is important to distinguish between such informal minyanim which often take place in apartments or community rooms, and services which are components of an established congregational body of the Synagogue. In terms of social impact, the implication of official institutional validation instills greater social significance to what otherwise could be considered personal or individual actions. I suggest a further distinction between an official synagogue minyan and an independent prayer group which happens to convene in the synagogue's building.
3. Fink, Reuven. "The Recital of Kaddish by Women". The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 31, Spring 1996. p. 23-37. Thanks to Shaya Potter for directing me to the PDF available here.
4. Wolowelsky, Joel B. "Women and Kaddish," Judaism 44:3, 1995, 282-290. PDF available here. Also see R. J. Simcha Cohen's view here.