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!
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • 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.