I live in a town with one Orthodox synagogue. That is not simple if you prefer progressive Orthodoxy. It's sometimes not even simple if you like old-fashioned Modern Orthodoxy. But the community is diverse, our friends are here and we have carved out a liberal outpost for ourselves in "Kol Echad", a partnership minyan. A partnership minyan is a mechitza minyan, with a divider between men's and women's sections; where women read from the Torah; receive aliyot and lead prayers on for selected parts of the service.
It meets once a month in people's homes. But a few weeks ago the rabbi of our community gave a speech in which he spoke of the absolute impermissibility of partnership minyanim.
The speech was billed as discussing "the tefillin controversy" but after a small appetizer on women wearing tefillin (not allowed), it became an extensive argument against partnership minyanim on halachic grounds.
Perhaps the prime-time nature of the talk indicates that after 10 years, our minyan is big enough and has enough traction that it poses a threat.
Those who heard the speech — my husband and I were not in town that Shabbat – and who consider halacha immutable said it confirmed their understanding of halacha as a static system whose evolution ended with the publication of the Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, written in the mid-16th century. For those who seek a dynamic religion and a more inclusive, egalitarian, participatory service, they were struck by how selective and superficial the rabbi’s analysis of the sources was. And yet, this is the rabbi of our community. How do we navigate this conflict? Here is my five- point plan.
1. Dialogue and Persuade. I recognize that a partnership minyan is not for everyone. Nonetheless, it is a good alternative for those who do not experience the spirituality they seek in a traditional service. Given this motivation, why would a rabbi choose to marginalize the participants, members of his own synagogue, rather than encouraging them to do/study more to achieve the spirituality they seek? In this world of increased access to information, the model of a local rabbi who uses coercion instead of persuasion seems outmoded and, ultimately, ineffective. This approach may work in a homogeneous yeshiva setting. But if the goal is to enrich and engage people religiously, this leadership style won't work in a modern community. Wouldn't it make more sense to learn and discuss topics like this together even if we disagree?
2. Educate. We make copies of Rabbi Daniel Sperber and Mendel Shapiro's analyses, which permit partnership minyanim as within the bounds of halacha, and offer to study them with anyone interested in the subject. Knowledge is always good.
3. Review halachic development with an eye to the future. I have confidence in my judgment of what is right for me after studying the sources and discussing the issues with rabbis and other learned people who understand and share my worldview. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to engage with the sources in the context of what the Orthodox community looks like/thinks/does today. A rabbi who chooses to ignore the social context in which I function will not be able to reach me.
Our rabbi is correct when he asserts that the great majority of Orthodox rabbis today disapprove of partnership minyanim, but I believe we are at the cusp of a change in practice. Many years ago, women studying Torah and, more recently, Talmud, were seen as beyond the pale. Today the first is an accepted fact of life even in the most charedi communities and the second is an accepted part of a Modern Orthodox education. Similarly, the great sages of previous generations were opposed to bat mitzvahs and women saying Kaddish. Yet, today these are standard practices in our synagogue. Does this not suggest that in practices like partnership minyanim may be acceptable in the future?
4. Ignore the negative. I try not to hear the mean-spiritedness with which some people talk about us. The fact that they say we are guided by anger speaks more about them then it does about me. It ignores the fact that the people who attend Kol Echad have not severed their connection to the synagogue and that they make no claim on the propriety of fellow synagogue members' actions and motivations. It is unfortunate that spiritual striving is something that too many Modern Orthodox people pay lip service to but do not actually respect in action. We need to develop hard shells so that we can act with integrity.
5. Stay involved in the community. I will continue to stay involved in my synagogue. I pay my dues, I donate time and money and participate in events. Why should I allow myself to be marginalized? But I will continue to work with others to create an Orthodox environment in which men and women can pray together to the full extent possible within halacha.
Will the rabbi's talk impact our partnership minyan? Most likely not but if it makes us look at ourselves more critically and strengthens our resolve to be more fully engaged in Jewish ritual and study, it will have been a good thing.
Audrey Trachtman is interim executive director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.