A couple weeks ago or so, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the man responsible for the far left Orthodox enclave in Riverdale called Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (as well as for the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz and the left-wing seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah that the OU won’t recognize), announced that he would be permitting a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat.
To be clear about what he means by this, he does not mean Friday night services as this term occasionally means in more liberal streams. Weiss was saying that he would be allowing a woman to lead the collection of psalms, songs and piyutim that may make up the not strictly obligatory preliminary service for erev Shabbat.
Very interestingly, a commenter identified only as Josh left the following comment, which I found very enlightening:
First off, Weiss is not going from the Tanach on this- this is pure rabbinic Judaism going on here. Also, this conversation is uniquely Orthodox, which I find interesting.
The issue is as follows, from the Orthodox perspective, and very superficially: Women do not have an obligation for public (e.g. minyan) prayer. Therefore, they cannot lead public prayer. Those prayers that typify public prayer are called divrei shebikdushah. They include barchu, kaddish (not mourners), and the repetition of the amida. Kabbalat shabbat is not obligatory prayer in a loose sense- it was adopted from a kabbalistic tradition of saying prayers to welcome Shabbos. In fact, in some congregations, boys under the age of 13 lead this service.
So why can’t women lead this service? The answer seems to be along a couple of different lines:
1) This is a break from mesorah (tradition) and therefore is in and of itself a bad thing to do.
2) Probably the most compelling reason (to the extent that any of them are) is kavod hatsibur, which is “honor of the congregation”. This reason is also generally the one that disallows women from getting aliyot/reading torah.
3) We’ll be like the conservative and reform movements.
For more on this, see http://text.rcarabbis.org/?p=909.
Don’t shoot the messenger on this: I’m perfectly fine with a woman leading kabbalat shabbat, just trying to explain what’s at play. The fact is that Orthodox Judaism is at its weakest explaining why women can’t lead KS (as opposed to, say, Shacharit).
My only quibble with Josh is that there is anything even remotely compelling to the notion that a congregation the minimizes the participation of women has any more honor than any other congregation. But other than that, very well put.