Partnership Minyan and the Egalitarian Threat

Why Is Worship Form So Scary to Orthodox Establishment?

No Women Shall Lead: Rabbi Hershel Schachter and other Orthodox halachic authorities say Jewish law bars so-called partnership minyans.
Yeshiva University
No Women Shall Lead: Rabbi Hershel Schachter and other Orthodox halachic authorities say Jewish law bars so-called partnership minyans.

By Aurora Mendelsohn

Published March 25, 2014, issue of March 28, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Mainstream Orthodoxy has been taking pains to publicize its disapproval of partnership minyanim, Orthodox prayer groups where women lead some of the prayers and read from the Torah. Yeshiva University threatened to withhold ordination of a graduating student who held a partnership minyan in his home. Large, leading Orthodox institutions like the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America have issued statements condemning partnership minyanim as forbidden. Despite this, the numbers of them and their membership continue to grow. Why are partnership minyanim so threatening to mainstream Orthodoxy? And why are they so popular? The reason for both is one and the same.

The motivation behind partnership minyanim is to narrow the wide gap between the relative gender equality that Orthodox women experience in their professional and civic lives and the gender stratification they experience in their religious lives. As Josephine Felix pointed out in an opinion piece in Brooklyn’s The Jewish Press, Orthodox women pursue every career imaginable, and in some circles they do it in greater numbers than their non-income producing, Talmud-studying husbands. “They may become CEO of a company, but when it comes to being president of a shul board, they are forbidden by many Orthodox legal scholars. They may be doctors whose decisions impact the life or death of a patient, but when it comes to deciding halacha, they cannot contribute,” Felix writes.

Women are said to be unable to handle the intellectual rigor of Talmud. When Orthodox women are professors or computer scientists, it makes that argument hard to swallow. Women who live in a civic society where male and female lawyers, witness and judges are treated as equally reliable by the courts may question the validity of the ban on female witnesses in Jewish law. Essentially, despite efforts to prevent it, the positive values of human rights and equality that are the fabric of Western culture are absorbed viscerally by women through their lived experiences, and when compared with the values of traditional Halacha, eventually the cognitive dissonance starts to cause a strain.

Orthodox feminists (both male and female) have been campaigning to make changes to prayer and ritual that empower women within the traditional framework. They do not want to leave Orthodoxy for Conservative Judaism. They like the closeness of the community, the way Orthodoxy permeates and informs all aspects of their lives. As Elana Sztokman put it in these pages, they “love everything about Orthodoxy except for the gender thing.”

The reason people want to fix “the gender thing” in Orthodoxy is the same reason that mainstream Orthodoxy finds the approach so threatening. Fixing the gender problem means, by definition, stepping outside the comfort zone of insular, albeit authoritarian, coziness. One cannot have both the coziness of belonging to this kind of traditional community and the dignity and supremacy of Enlightenment-inspired rights. This is because once one admits that a secular value, or an idea from outside the halachic framework, is what drives the pressure for halachic and ritual change, the door is opened for other changes based on other secularly sourced ideas, like gay and lesbian rights, intellectual skepticism or the value of breaking bread with your neighbors.

Once the traditional way can be wrong about something, then one is admitting it can be wrong and insufficient, which is a frightening concept for an institution that is supposed to guide one’s daily life with authority. This challenges the very nature of religious authority and the religious decision-making process, both fundamental concepts in Orthodoxy. The very fact that the innovation comes from the laity and not from well-respected, established, traditional rabbinic authorities makes it so unacceptable. This threat of influence from secular ideas and the challenging of authority and not only a desire for retention of power and internalized misogyny (though, of course, those as well) are the reasons that mainstream Orthodoxy is so resistant to partnership minyanim.

The deeper the desire of the very Modern Orthodox to stay “inside” the circle of familiarity and acceptance and yet push for changes, the more likely they will find themselves defined by those who control the circle (who are never women) and eventually forced outside it.

Whatever comes out of the transformation of Orthodoxy through partnership minyanim, the rest of modern Judaism is standing on the outside of the circle, watching, waiting and welcoming.

Aurora Mendelsohn blogs at rainbowtallitbaby.wordpress.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.