Single Malt Scotch for Feminists

The Masculine Dilemmas of the Partnership Minyan

By Mishael Zion

Published December 25, 2011, issue of December 30, 2011.
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In the second part of the book, Sztokman asks men what makes them “abdicate their rights” and attend partnership synagogues, expecting to find a group of male feminists. To her surprise, she discovers that “men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons, the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.” This finding is in line with a well-known fact of synagogue membership: People don’t join synagogues on the basis of ideology or denomination as much as out of an existential need for community and a desire to be “seen.”

Sztokman’s research is at times deeply insightful and at times heavy-handed. She is caught in the assumptions of second-wave feminism and would benefit from the use of new theories of agency, such as explanations by Talal Asad and Saba Mahmoud of how people construct empowered identities within traditional structures. And yet, the book remains a vital contribution well beyond the scene of liberal Orthodoxy.

Understanding the confluence of gender identity and Jewish identity is key to creating vibrant Jewish communities — and it cannot simply be set aside in the name of a gender-blind egalitarianism. To the liberal movements, for whom a “man drain” has become the latest cause for concern, this book might give some useful insights into how to create the kind of communal experiences that both use gender identity (like the Kiddush club) and reconstruct them.

Reconstructing gender identity is key to a question that Sztokman’s book discusses only tangentially, but one that is crucial: As minyanim grow into true communities, they are challenged to create more meaningful leadership structures. Many of the partnership minyanim are characterized by an anti-clericalism that is in keeping with the feminist challenge to traditional male authority. Instead of centralized (and traditionally male) leadership, they strive to create a broad lay leadership. But — though Sztokman cannot bring herself to say it — these communities must find some new model of the rabbinate, beyond the masculine model, that offers communal services but does not wield patriarchal authority. This is not simply a question of ordaining women but about creating a new set of gendered expectations from leadership and members.

As Sztokman’s book shows, while feminism might be the driving force of the partnership initiative, the key to its popularity is the sense of belonging that comes from the Kiddush clubs, the pastoral support, the children’s services and the shmoozing that makes people want to stay connected. Some of those institutions might indeed need to continue to work in the ways the “men’s clubs” of old used to work, creating and strengthening this or that “box,” though working within new paradigms. Sztokman’s book provides the intellectual tools through which we can reconstruct traditional gender identity in novel ways. I can now sip single malt during haftorah with a renewed sense of purpose.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is co-director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices” (ZHP, 2007).


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