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!
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • 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.