How to Count to Ten - Episode 55
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times! I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, and I'm here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Mechon Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. How are you doing today?
Rav Eitan: I'm doing great, Avi, how are you?
Rav Avi: I am great! I'm very interested in this next question. It falls into a category of questions that maybe I'll call "living in a world where not everyone believes exactly what you believe," which I think is probably most of us. There's probably very few of us who really live, especially in a Jewish context, live and practice where every single person that they interact with is on exactly the same page. So this question comes out of that reality.
The questioner writes: "When someone who believes in gender egalitarianism in ritual context is leading services or bentsching after meals for a group of people who don't all share that commitment, how should one decide if there is a minyan if there are 10 people? Should you count irrespective of gender, even if others present would only count men? Should you only count women who would count themselves in a minyan?" So, I'll just say by way of background here, that the questioner is referring to, I think, in this both the services and the context of bentsching after meals, there are certain lines and certain tefilot that you would only say if you see a minyan in the room, and the question is if different people have different understandings of minyan, how do you reconcile that if you're the leader?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, this is a great question. It's definitely come up for me — I'm sure it's come up for a lot of our listeners, and it can be really perplexing to know what to do. What I really like about this question is it's the kind of question where at first blush you feel like, oh, this is the sort of insanity you're plunged into in the contemporary world where everyone's coming up with newfangled theories, ideas, and practices, and there's no way, you know, the traditional set of texts and the canon that we always turn back to on this show could really have anything to say about it. And when you actually sit down and look for analogues, like what are the things that are similar to this, you realize, as is usually the case in these topics we take up, that that is totally not true, and this ground has been tread in the past. I mean, if you think about it, any case where people argued and disagreed over what makes up a minyan would generate this same basic conundrum, this same problem of how to act.
And we know that actually there have been some very significant disputes around minyan — specifically we'll get to the case of whether you can count a child, a small child, a not-quite bar mitzvah, but sort of a ritually competent child, towards the minyan. And that actually generated a lot of controversy in different Jewish communities over the ages. But I want to start back from sort of two bigger-picture questions here, that I think should frame how we navigate this sort of, this sort of discussion, this sort of dilemma that the questioner presents here. The first is, I think, whenever you have a situation like this, where people are disagreeing over how to do something, there's sort of a first question of just how big is the disagreement between them. Sure, the two sides disagree, each side thinks their way of doing it is right or the better way or what they're comfortable and familiar with. But is that just sort of, I do it this way, you do it that way, but I kind of fundamentally respect your way as an alternate way of doing it? Or do you actually find the other side to be reprehensible, a cheapening of the area of practice that their position affects?
Or through the looking glass from the other way, do you have any sort of charitable disposition towards the person who's not counting someone in a minyan? Or do you just actually think that view is totally silly and therefore there's not really any integrity to worry about to the extent you would kind of go against their wishes? So that's kind of question one that I'd want us to think through.
Rav Avi: Right away that question makes me really hone in on one of the interesting aspects of this question is that the person asking the question has been asked to lead this service, or to lead this bentsching. And, you know, from the framework of the people whose home you're in don't have any respect for the way that you practice your Judaism, you would find it somewhat surprising, potentially, that they asked you to be the leader of this piece of ritual.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, well, I think if I have a sense of the context in which a question like this is coming up, it's probably at a lunch table or at a kind of pop-up minyan where you're thrown together with people where there's not a long track record of everyone knowing exactly what everyone thinks, there's maybe a way of psyching it out, this certainly happens all the time to me around my shabbat table where I have guests and I don't know exactly what they think about every issue around gender, in a way that, yeah, I think if people have spent 20 years together, there's already some sense of who does and doesn't do what.
So, good. Let's come back to that, that's question one. How big is the gulf between these people? The second piece is, even if there is a very large gap between the two viewpoints, then I think we have to zero in — what sort of ritual are these people participating in? Is it the kind of ritual where the ritual actually has no meaning unless the group kind of coheres in terms of their understanding of what's going on, or is the role of the group in the ritual a kind of objective reality that presents the opportunity to do this ritual, let's say, that requires a minyan — it's just sort of an assessment of, do I think there is a minyan here, but the individual conscious, kind of, buy-in of each member might not be significant for the ritual itself. So I want to take those two separately for this really interesting question.
Rav Avi: Okay, great. So, we'll start with that first question — how big is the gulf between the two people?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, let's begin with that. So let's go straight to the analogue that I mentioned, which is the debate over whether to count a child as the tenth towards a minyan. If you go into the Talmud and look in the very brief sections that get into who counts in a minyan or who doesn't, you find that there is a tradition by the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that you are allowed to count a small child — even, actually, a child sitting in a cradle, an infant — towards the count of 10. There's some discussions as to whether that count of 10 is for all aspects of tefilah, of prayer, like kaddish, barchu, and all kinds of other things in the synagogue that require 10, or whether maybe it's more restricted to cases of the grace after meals and the quorum of 10 needed for the special invitation that invokes G-d's name, but simplifying for our purposes, there's a view that says you can count a child certainly as the tenth towards the minyan in certain contexts.
Rav Avi: This may not directly help us answer our question, but I'm just so curious I have to ask — are there communities that hold by that, that you see them counting babies in cradles as part of their minyan?
Rav Eitan: Okay, good. So, here we're gonna, here we're gonna move right into the meat of it. So the question is, what is that position's kind of staying power over time? And here it's essentially a debate over how to read the Talmud — does the Talmud conclude on a note in that passage in Tractate Berakhot where it kind of throws that position out as an outlier position because it throws out a lot of strange positions in the passage where that tradition is taught? Like, for instance, there's a tradition in the Talmud that says you usually need three people to make a zimun, to do a kind of collective invitation for the grace after meals, but if two people are doing it and it's shabbat, you can count shabbat as the third person. Okay? Now, it's pretty clear —
Rav Avi: Getting even more extreme!
Rav Eitan: Even more extreme. It's pretty clear that the Talmud rejects that position, but it's a little less clear as to whether it rejects this view of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi around counting a child, even an infant, as a tenth. The big picture in the Middle Ages is most people assume that the Talmud did reject that tradition. So if you look at someone like the Rambam, like Maimonides, in his code, it's very clear a minyan is 10 adults. And you cannot even have a tenth, one of the ten, be a small child.
But Rabbenu Tam, in twelfth-century France, at least in theory felt that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's position was perfectly valid law, and therefore you could count even an infant in a cradle as the tenth. Now, in practice, he was nervous about doing this, and he said I'm not really prepared to do it, it seems to crazy to me, but in theory I think it's okay. What that sets up is basically a whole lot of compromising around this. You'll have some people who for sure reject Rabbenu Tam altogether and won't count a child. Then you'll have some people say well, I'll count a child, but not an infant, someone who already displays more mental capacity and awareness, maybe someone who's nine or 10, and certainly someone who's 11 or 12.
You have another weird position which crops up, which is, well, I'll count a child, but only if they're holding a Chumash, they're like, holding the sacred text of the Torah in their hands, and that makes them more important. One way or another, however this plays out, a split emerges, where basically subject to whatever conditions, there are communities that are willing to count a child at least of some age towards a minyan, and others that are not. And then the question comes up, just as in our case, of, well, what do you do if you show up to a place where, let's say, you feel very strongly that children should not be counted, even as the tenth, towards the minyan, and you are present and there are eight people other than you who are adults, and a child. And they want to go ahead and start saying kaddish and barchu and all of this. What's your role in that kind of situation? Which is really strikingly similar to what the questioner asks here.
There too, I hope it's not surprising, there is a split in opinion. You essentially have people who say, look, we don't follow that view, that's not the normative view, but if you're in a situation where that's what people are doing, it's fine for them to rely on it, and you can sort of grant that position enough legitimacy that you can count towards their minyan even though if you were running the minyan, you would say we've gotta wait for a tenth. And that's an example of saying the gap between these positions is small, we disagree, but we can kind of consider that an erroneous but legitimate position.
Rav Avi: So in that story, just to be clear, the person going along with something that is not their practice is not leading, they're just in the room.
Rav Eitan: That's right. We're even just at the level of being in the room.
Rav Avi: Right. So that is actually the right story for our context of this question — it's just that the questioner is saying, should I take it into account that someone showed up who has a different belief? And the answer is, well, if the rest of the community is all on the same page and they're relying on some sort of, some teshuva or something that's accepted somewhere, then it's probably okay for you to just go along with it.
Rav Eitan: Right. So, that's one side of that, one branch on that true. There are other views — Rav Ovadiya Yosef, for instance, is one of them — who is very adamant — the first view, for instance, is Rav Moshe Feinistein, says, you know, in pressing circumstances it's okay to rely on that position, and so certainly if you show up in a place where they're doing it, you don't have to make a whole stink about it. Rav Ovadiya Yosef basically says absolutely not, you may not participate or in any way aid and abbett this sort of minyan from forming. And he quotes a position of the Maharam miRotenberg, a German medieval sage, going back to the thirteenth century, who, weighing in on this debate in his own time, says if you show up to a minyan and there are eight adults and a child, and they are about to say barchu and kaddish and all of those things, you are obligated to leave the room. Shalo tavo takalah al yadcha, so that the, sort of, perversion of the halakhah and the practice of minyan does not happen on your account and with your assistance. And he toes that line and says no, this is not just a disagreement; this is actually a far-out position that, even if we're not going to wage a holy war to completely stamp it out, we are surely going to say that when you have an ability to stop it by not actively participating in it, you should not be granting any credence to that approach.
Rav Avi: Well, I'll tell you a personal story in the context of that piece of text. There was a period of my life where I was davening as part of a morning minyan at a synagogue that was Conservative but had previously not been, and had become egalitarian in the somewhat recent past, and I was frequently the only female who showed up for the morning minyan. And there was one male who, if I was the tenth, he would leave and stand in the parking lot until a different person came in order to make that statement, which he felt very strongly about. And I'll say, it really did make a statement.
Rav Eitan: Right. No, it's a very demonstrative display of displeasure — that's clearly what this posek, you know, was wanting. Obviously I think the effects of that on a child who's not yet grown, as opposed to a woman of the age of mitzvot, are quite different, I would imagine, in terms of the psychological and religious impact. But the basic dynamic in terms of drawing those lines is indeed the same.
So that's question one, right? I think one issue here is how much do you see the divide here as sort of a chasm that's unbridgeable? To the extent that your understanding of, let's say, the non-egalitarian folks in the room is, well, that's not what they do, that's not the way they would run their table, that's not the way they would run their minyan, but they have sort of enough respect for what the halakhic articulation might look like of an egalitarian practice, then it's much more reasonable to say, well, okay, I'm just gonna do what I'm gonna do, and I don't feel like I'm putting them in any kind of uncomfortable position. As opposed to, you might have more hesitation — this will bring us to part two of our question — if you really feel it's not just the way they do it, they really think you are wrong, and therefore are you actually sort of actively co-opting them to violate something that's important to them if you count them as part of your quorum.
Rav Avi: I don't know if you'll feel comfortable sharing this on the radio, so to speak, but I'm curious if you've ever encountered a situation where you walked in on a service where something was happening that felt so counter to your narrative that you felt a need to leave.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I would say that's definitely happened. I mean, I would say the place where I feel most uncomfortable is I have a few times been in a minyan where there is a practice of having nine adults and an open ark count towards the minyan. And this is actually one of those outlier positions that, you know, is mentioned in the Talmud but is pretty clearly rejected, that you might do that. And it's felt — it just feels to me, both intuitively, like, anthropologically, religiously, to say nothing of textually, halakhically, that that position has sort of ended up so off the radar screen of normative practice that when I've been in situations like that, I am very uncomfortable, and have definitely had times, without trying to be overly demonstrative, where I have, you know, slink out or come to recognize that that's the way that minyan is practicing. I would say, actually, more for me, it's less about walking out in the moment, which often is a — you lose more than you gain, in terms of the people you're hurting — but it has, for certain, shaped where I feel I want to go back to pray, because I don't want to be in a situation where I'll feel I should be walking out, if that makes sense.
Rav Avi: Right, right. Yeah. I think that's helpful.
Rav Eitan: So, let's go to the second thing. Let's assume, though, that we're talking about a wider divide here. Because as I said, if you think, well, it's two different positions here, and I prefer one but I kind of understand the other — if that's the range we're dealing with, then I really don't think you have to worry too much about, let's say, counting everyone in the room, because at the end of the day they may be willing, in that context, to essentially rely on your point of departure for thinking about this. But let's say it's a more serious divide. You know you're dealing with people who think that your positions on gender equality in ritual spaces are really wrong. They don't think they are legitimate, they don't think they're meaningful within the bounds of where halakhic discourse can bring us. Then I think we gotta drill down on, well, what's happening in the ritual? And there certainly are rituals and practices where, if you don't have the buy-in of the people, it's not happening.
I think the most dramatic example of this is a case described in Masekhet Eruvin, which is dealing with, basically, the laws of constructing an eruv — not the laws that we talked about on a much earlier podcast of the wires and physical boundaries that bound a space on shabbat and make it permissible to transport objects throughout it, but the actual eruv, the mixing, which refers to people kind of pooling their resources and their space within that bounded area. The traditional way you construct an eruv is people essentially, symbolically, contribute food into one shared space, usually that's like a box of matzah in some synagogue somewhere, but beyond that there's sort of a sense of everyone merging their property, one with the other. And if you think back to sort of old rabbinic-style, Roman-era courtyards, you would have a kind of common space in the middle, and everyone would have their little apartment on the side. And the way you would make an eruv was basically to say, does everyone kind of agree that we are going to treat our property as communal for the purposes of shabbat? And that was a process known as bitul reshut, essentially making a verbal declaration of, for the purposes of shabbat, we're going to treat this apartment building, as it were, as one big complex, one big room where none of us really has private authority and domain, over the course of shabbat.
And the Mishnah says something really interesting — it says anyone can participate in that process, any Jew can be a part of that process, except mi sheino modeh b'eruv, someone who thinks that the whole rabbinic conception and mechanism of an eruv is stupid, and doesn't acknowledge it. Which, for instance, we know, you know, the figures referred to in rabbinic literature as the Saduccees, the tzadukim, in the Second-Temple period, we know they rejected this whole mechanism, this whole way of pooling space. You can't have that person go through the charade of saying they surrender their private property to the collective if you know they think the whole thing is a bunch of baloney.
Rav Avi: Okay. So this sounds to me like we're gonna get into some trouble very quickly, because do we have to ask every single person who comes into the room whether or not they buy into the concept of minyan before we start davening together? That feels like it could become very cumbersome.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. That's exactly right. And I think even if — let's say we lowered the standards a little, and we said, well, by default you don't assume someone's in a category of rejecting a ritual they're willing to participate in — still, when you have some pre-existing information about people and the sense of their religious proclivities and their opinions around gender, et cetera, et cetera, yeah, do you indeed need to sort of check and assess? So, that model lurks out there — I want to make the case that there's actually a strong argument that minyan, like praying together, saying kaddish, kedushah, all of these things, repeating the amidah, that the Mishnah and early rabbinic sources say you can't do without a minyan, does not work that way. And actually, it is a ritual where we don't really care about full consciousness and intent to participate.
I want to give a few examples of cases that have come up that point us in that direction, even as I'm aware, and we can sort of have some back-and-forth on this, you could potentially shoot down each individual one of them, but I think collectively they add up to a larger picture. The first is Rabbenu Tam on infants, who I mentioned already. Whatever you want to say about an infant in a cradle, there's no way they're buying into some conception of collective prayer, right? You're dealing with someone who, to the extent their presence is significant, it's because they're a Jew. They're part of the Jewish people, and therefore their presence does something to kind of bring G-d's presence down in the context of a Jewish ritual. And actually when Rabbenu Tam appeals to the validity of this ruling that you can count an infant as the tenth, he says that's because the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, just dwells among all 10 Jews. There's a kind of objective articulation of the reality that there's enough of G-d's presence here that we can proceed. And interestingly enough, even though Rabbenu Tam, as I mentioned, is attacked by many people who think it's a horrible idea and totally illegitimate to count an infant as a tenth, they never really attack him based on the logic of, well, how could you say that about someone who's not fully conscious? Right? There's a sense here of, that's just not an overriding factor in this discussion. So that's one example.
Rav Avi: I just have to say that description of what makes a minyan and the idea of the Divine Presence dwelling is just so moving to me, that it's like, you say that sentence and I'm like, okay, I'm bought in. It makes sense to me.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. There's something powerful, I mean, and there's something sort of ontological about it. It's a sort of claim that just as we say, just by being born a human being you are created in the image of G-d, and then really does it matter what you do or don't do or believe or don't believe to sort of deserve that, by being a part of the Jewish people you are a vehicle for a certain kind of collective Jewish expression. That doesn't necessarily always have to do with your beliefs. That's at least one way of reading out Rabbenu Tam. Another piece of evidence that's suggestive —
Rav Avi: I just want to stop, also, and say the way this questioner phrases "I have egalitarian values, I don't know if everyone in the room does" — I think sometimes for someone who feels strongly in counting women, to really put their foot down, it seems like, oh, you're just being difficult. And I think using that language of, no, it's not a matter of being difficult, it's a matter of this is what I see as theologically true in this moment, is something very powerful, and it's helpful language, that's, I think — it's not about fair, whether or not I'm counted, it's that I'm a human being and therefore I count.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. Maybe we'll get, in a future podcast, to Rabbenu Tam's position and more deeply what it teaches about minyan, possibly, which relates more broadly to how we think about gender. Another interesting indicator that consciousness and presence and intent to participate are not essential: the Maharam miRotenberg, the same one we cited requires you to walk out if they're gonna count a kid as the tenth, says, well, you're allowed to count someone who's still in the middle of the amidah and won't be answering to the repetition towards the count you need for the repetition. Meaning, if you have 10 people in a minyan and you want to know, can I start repeating the amidah, the Maharam says you don't have to wait until they're all done. Right? The fact that there's 10 of them in the room, even though three of them, four of them, aren't gonna be answering at all, is enough to say, okay, but there's sort of, you know, there's warm ritual bodies in the room, in the sense of what matters is the presence, even though the sort of verbal assent that seems to be so much part of the call-and-response of a public prayer will not be fully realized.
And this, then, morphs into a really interesting ruling by some later authorities — the Maharil, for instance, and Rav Yaakov Berav, the latter is lesser known, but the great teacher of the Beit Yosef, Rav Yosef Caro — they both rule that you can count someone who is asleep in a minyan, because, basically, they're there, and they're Jewish, and they're eligible to count in a minyan. And the fact that they are not conscious or present at all doesn't really affect what this ritual is about, which is, is the microcosm of the Jewish people present in the room in the number of 10.
Rav Avi: Right. That's very helpful, actually, because that answers the question of, do all 10 people have to think of themselves as being counted? Because obviously a person who's asleep does not think of themselves as anything.
Rav Eitan: That's right. Now, there are some sources that potentially point in the other direction. The most significant is that of the Rosh, Rav Asher ben Yechiel, also thirteenth century, starts off in Germany, ends up in Spain. And the Rosh says, actually, you need to be very careful to make sure that there are nine people, at least, answering the leader, paying attention to and saying amen and answering the leader, when the leader repeats the amidah out loud. Because otherwise, the blessings that he says are krovim lehiyot levatalah, they're close to being blessings said in vain.
Now, that sort of slightly evasive formulation leads people to cut both ways on the Rosh: some say, well, there's the Rosh saying very clearly, you know, you need people who are all answering, and therefore that might lead you to say, well, the Rosh would say that if I know in the room there's gonna be someone who's not gonna answer because they don't think women count in a minyan and the only way you're gonna get up to that minyan is by counting them, well, then you're doing something totally inappropriate by counting them because you're setting yourself up for a situation where people are not participating. However, others read the Rosh — and I think they're actually right here — as saying he deliberately uses the word "karov," "krovim," there's this sort of close to a situation, because he himself is sort of aware that, well, truth be told, presence is enough, but why would I set myself up for a situation where someone is saying blessings as a leader and not being answered? That feels wrong, that feels yucky, feels aesthetically disrespectful, and he uses this sort of preaching language of, you know what this is like? This is like saying a blessing in vain. But then he sort of realizes and knows it's not that it's really a blessing in vain.
For the most part, I would say people do not follow the Rosh's lead, and that's part of the chain of argument that I would say could be laid out to essentially say, look, when you're dealing with tefilah, if you are leading and you look around and see that there are 10 people there, and you consider there to be a minyan, I don't think you have to get into preemptively stopping yourself before you have verified that everyone is on the same page. And if anything, I want to actually quote as further support the fact that the Maharam miRotenberg says you have to leave the room if they're about to count a child as the tenth — I think it's not too much of a stretch to suggest that that shows that you would not just necessarily be able to raise your hand and say excuse me, I don't agree with what's going on here, and thereby get the leader to stop. You would actually — the burden falls on you, if you are uncomfortable, to leave, rather than on the leaders of a certain space to assume that they have to take you into account without you making that demonstrative statement.
Rav Avi: Yeah. It's interesting — something I've been thinking about since we started this question is, like, I imagine — I don't actually know who submitted this question, whether it was a male or a female, but I imagine you and I, for example, would have very different experiences of the struggle described in this question. Because at the point where I am the leader of the service as a female rabbi, I would imagine that most of the people in the room can have a sense that I'm gonna count the women in the room as part of the minyan, and they could act accordingly. I feel that it's pretty reasonable for me to put that onus on the people in the room, to say, well, if they didn't want me to count the women, they wouldn't have offered me to lead the bentsching after the meal. And I think probably if you're a male-presenting person, then that's a less obvious question, especially the less well they know you.
Rav Eitan: I think that's absolutely right. And that goes to this sort of question of who's assuming what about whom, and psyching what out about whom. And I, I really like and prefer the statement that, again, going back to the Maharam's formulation with a child where it could be that someone, the right thing for someone to do is to leave when they're in a situation like that. And, you know, perhaps we should be charitable about that, of understanding that, look, at the end of the day people have the right to police their own boundaries, we can't lock people down in a room in order to form a minyan, and if they are, you know, einah modim, if they are not sort of acknowledging what's happening in the room to the level that they're willing to leave, I'm not sure we should necessarily vilify them for that.
But it could be that we will expect that it's that person's responsibility. I mean, it's kind of the way I actually feel about what's happened to the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, which is, there's something compelling about the notion of, if someone's willing to stand up and actually hold the floor and talk for 20 hours about why it's really important to them that you not pass a certain bill, there's something compelling about letting them gum up the works in that way. When it just becomes that someone can pass a note and say, because I would be willing to do that, you won't actually make me do that and I can just hold up all that legislation, that starts to go to a place that feels absurd.
Rav Avi: The examples that you just brought — I'm curious if you think there's any difference in applying them to leading services versus leading bentsching, or the grace after meals.
Rav Eitan: Yes. So, I actually do. And this goes to the point of thinking about what is the ritual doing. If you ask me about the quorum of 10 in the synagogue and around kaddish and barch, that's about a group of people and a leader looking around and saying, do we think there are 10 people here, is G-d's presence here, I'm gonna go ahead and say these special parts if I think there are. Zimun, the invitation to the grace after meals, and collective grace after meals, is actually something a little different, that I think when you look at the details of those halakhot, it is much more about whether the group has actually come together to do something as a unit. You know, the original formulation, the zimun, the invitation, in a group of three, happens when three have eaten as one. Sheloshah sheachlu k'echad chayavin l'zamen. And there's all sorts of qualifiers that that then puts on this ritual. You know, if three people are standing around in a room, but they never sat down together, well, then there's no real obligation for them to do that joint blessing, that joint invitation. Like, has the group been formed, set, in some way, such that there is a group identity?
And I feel, actually, that when you're sitting around a table and there's a question of, did we just all do the same thing here, did we have a sense of, we were not only, you know, eating next to each other, but sort of with the intention that this will culminate with the 10 adults around the table praising G-d as a collective, or were some of us here in a stance of, I'm happy to share this meal with you but I don't feel that it's reaching a crescendo of us having eaten a collective meal or 10 or more? That, in terms of just the actual DNA of the ritual itself, feels like it has a different impact. And again, here there are fewer sources that I have found that play it out in terms of debates around the identity of those present. But there's plenty of other details that have to do with, did the group think of themselves as a cohesive group? That comes up around gender, the question of men and women doing a zimun together in general, revolves around that axis.
And speaking personally, here too I often, at my table, make a judgement of that sort. That is to say, there I'm not just looking around and saying, do I think there's a requisite quorum here? That's my first point of departure, but to the extent that I'm sort of very conscious, in a family setting, or close friends who have a different practice around gender and bentsching — to the extent that, you know, I feel that by saying the grace after meals with G-d's name is gonna artificially create a group that actually never existed there, that starts to feel like I'm doing something that's against the grain of the zimun itself. So I would say my bias is to assume that it's my house, it's my rules, it's sort of my perspective, but then I'm sort of looped back to our first question, which is do I feel that people are at my table and really there in a way of, I'm in your house and I'm present for you to do the way you do it? Or, I'm here, but, you know, we actually have this sharp divide on this thing, and I didn't come over so that you could co-opt me into something I'm not comfortable with.
Rav Avi: And when someone throws you a, you know, Rav Eitan, will you lead us in bentsching, and you are at someone else's home, do you act differently, or do you think about it differently?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I'm making an assessment there. And there have certainly been times where I thought there were 10 people in the room but I did not invoke G-d's name because it felt so self-evident to me that there were not 10 people in the room who felt they had signed up for that. And whereas if they had asked me to lead davening or we were in a minyan scenario, that would feel a little different to me, because it would be, like, well, I'm saying kaddish, I mean, they'll answer or they're not, but I don't feel I'm doing anything problematic — the act of zimun is not one person sort of performing something in the presence of a public; it's actually an invitation to do something as a group that's bought in. And that feels more like the eruv case to me.
Rav Avi: We've viewed this question now, at this point, from a lot of different angles. I want to ask you one other additional question, which I think is maybe less halakhic and more sociological. Which is that one way out of this dilemma is obviously to say to the people in the room, what should I do? You know, it's to, like, turn around before you start leading davening and say, do we think we have a minyan here? You know, to just sort of name the question, to name the calculation that you're having internally. And I'm really curious to hear from you what affect you think that discussion-raising and that naming has on the effectiveness of the ritual that you then have. Because I can think of different communities I've been a part of, some that swing very strongly in one direction or another, you know, a community where I cannot possibly imagine someone saying to the table, well, do we have ten people or not? And, you know, on the reverse, communities where I feel like probably every time they daven they turn around and say, do we have a minyan here? I'm just curious to hear what you think of that as a practice, how effective or ineffective it is.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. I will say my own bias — this is probably as much sort of aesthetic and personality-based as anything else — I really don't like the sort of moment of stopping and checking and doing a poll and figuring out what everyone thinks. I am much more comfortable with informed risk-taking, in the sense of trying to read the room, trying to get a sense from what I know of people, what's expected, what would be over the line, and then to make my judgement call and to do that. And sometimes that means the risk I'll be taking is to project more of my own assumption of what should be happening, and sometimes it's a sense of, I'm really actually a guest or a minority in a framework that is not oriented around the way I'm thinking. And then you can make mistakes. And I feel like that's okay. There are worse things in the world than not saying things that require 10 when perhaps you could have or ought to have, and there are worse things in the world than you making a judgement that you feel is an assessment of the facts but, okay, it turns out, you know, it wasn't the right assessment, and maybe you didn't have the buy-in of all the people present. I don't know. How do you think about it, how do you experience it?
Rav Avi: Yeah, it's interesting. I'm not surprised that that's your answer. I think I agree with you, actually. I feel really grateful when people who are the leaders of a community do their homework beforehand, but my feeling is that the homework has to be done before the moment of the ritual is upon you, such that, you know, I'm very grateful if someone is asked to lead, you know, let's say, you know, there's gonna be shacharit before my son's bris and I invite you to lead, I really appreciate if you say, well, who's gonna be there and what's the practice and what's the expectations, before you show up, but that in the moment when you're already there is not the time to turn around and say, well, who's in the room and what do we plan on doing this morning? And that, for me, is the balance between those two things. And I appreciate the idea of saying it's okay to take a risk because that means it's okay to fail, and that requiring of people to check everything beforehand may also have a side effect of putting the stakes too high if they get it wrong. You're then disappointed in them for not checking thoroughly enough.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, and again, I like the balance, on some level, of saying some people might have to leave, it might not work for them, it might not be the right context for them, and to actually respect that, and not harangue people for that. And that when people set up spaces and lead them, it's according to some assumption that they're generally entitled to assume holds, and the fact that there might be one or two people in the room who are outliers is perhaps something they should be sensitive to once it's clear — that goes back to the sort of long-term relationship, if you know someone has walked out in the past, I think it's then problematic to sort of sneak in counting them before they've gotten a chance to leave, but that barring that, you have the right to assume that if you're acting with your own integrity, your own understanding of what the halakhah should be, you don't have to go around in constant fear that there may be someone else in the room who disagrees with you.
Rav Avi: Great. I think this was helpful, I hope it's helpful for the listener and for all the listeners who find themselves in this situation in the future.
Rav Eitan: Okay.
Rav Avi: Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected] Or you can leave us a voicemail message at (215) 297-4254.