A Five-Point Plan

How we're navigating the conflict over our partnership minyan.

Wed, 05/28/2014
Audrey Trachtman
Audrey Trachtman

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 negativeI 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.

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Your work was recently brought to my attention and I have a few questions as a American Jewish woman, raised in North Africa due to my father’s work, subsequently living around the global. I have experienced physical violence, discrimination and for 30 years now been a working mother. I believe I covered all the bases. So my questions are these to you:-
Do you feel that to divert away from one path to another is the most Godly act, when Middle Path becomes too difficult or does not suit one’s personal needs?
Do you feel that it is better to move away from the Synagogue instead of finding a way to build a better stronger place for all and how does one determine the difference between resistance and interference?
Let’s say hypothetically, this is not the right path, this new path created, what is the accountability of all those that follow, has this be even considered.

Please be clear I have no judgment of any kind and speak only for myself, that for me it is more important to ensure that my boundaries are clear and that I ensure the safety of all that follow me, first and foremost from all levels. I think we can all agree that not everyone applies this rule to their lives, but that is between this person or people and God. What is important is what we do and beyond this life time to remind ourselves to look at all revealed and not yet revealed. to feel our intelligence and not be lost in our humanity.

I tell my children and even my staff and friends…when asked if they said they right thing. Well if you have questioned your words or actions, that in itself tells you possible not nad you could have done better. But I do not reply in such a way. What I do ask, is that they imagine that moment again but this time with God with them and would they say these exact words again or make the exact same choice again.

I was reminded again that heroes of the Jewish people are revolutionaries indeed starting with Abraham, to be a light amongst nations, not start a new one, not to break down the nation but find a means within our convenient with God to build the best one we can. We should find our strength together, united. We should be in hope and in faith always, this enables us to believe that it is possible, that we can make a difference. To keep building new paths diminishes the light we have as a collective whole, does it not?

I applaud your courage and your voice as a woman and hope that you see beyond your words to what you are creating in the process of the good you have and hope to achieve.

Terrific article- well stated points in a conciliatory manner. This is a beautiful example of machloket leshem shamayim that brings peace to the world, and to your community, I hope.

I'm commenting anonymously out of concern over the tone of the negative comments - i lack the courage of the author of this commentary. Her points are clearly presented and she is enormously respectful of those who do not agree that such minyanim are necessary or permissible. She is making the case only for making this issue the subject of a dialogue as part of a continuum of halacha's historic ability to remain resilient and responsive in all times and places.

No point in being "respectful" by being un -respectful to Torah.

As a member of this same community, I was saddened by the tone used to air differences with our rabbi. Like many other congregants, I do not alway share our rabbi's perspective on many issues and might wish him to do or say otherwise. However, I believe that Derech Eretz would demand that I approach issues with which I do not agree with him in a respectful manner. It is no wonder that our rabbi finds congregants who seek spiritual fulfillment by engaging in such strident discourse antithetical to his values.

If, by your own admission, the overwhelming majority reject partnership minyanim - as the Frimer article in Tradition documents and delineates - why should your rabbi have ruled otherwise? As Orthodox Jews, both he and you should be bound by Halakha, not by wishful, disproved thinking.

Nothing worthwhile is attained without an uphill struggle . Kol Ha Kavod to the writer who is expressing what so many women throughout the Jewish world are experiencing viz.an attempt to delegitimize our claim for inclusion as full participants in the shul service and as fully competent co-members within Jewish society( c/f a woman's status as a 'witness' , in issues of divorce , in inheritance matters and much more )
Do take heart, I would encourage my fellow Jews , who believe in the creation of partnership minyanim .
All those thousands of years ago Tselophchad's daughters convinced Moshe, that their claims had validity.
Your, our ( all over the world you have kindred spirits ) aim will succeed.
We must not retreat in the face of negative responses .
Hold out , hold on , learn and present,our case calmly with knowledge, respect and the internal certainty , that eventually , justice must prevail.

I think it speaks volumes that the ones attacking Audrey are hiding behind the label of "Anonymous" instead of using their own names.

B'hatzlacha, Audrey.

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned anything about the tone and language of this article. Ms. Trachtman seems to be taking this opportunity to air her town's "dirty laundry", if you can call living by Torah values as such. She certainly makes clear the disgust she feels about the way in which the rabbi runs his shul, and even accuses the rabbi of strong-arm tactics to get what he wants, which seems quite ridiculous to me in a modern orthodox community. All of this from a woman who wasn't even present at the sermon to begin with, as she freely admits. Did someone take notes for her at the sermon and show them to her afterwards? If not, she missed a lot: the rabbi's tone, his mannerisms as he spoke, his facial expressions and the volume of his voice. This is clearly an article that was written in extreme anger, with no thought to its credibility even as an opinion piece. Unfortunately, the writer's credibility is also gone.

I am sorry that your reply is anonymous. At least come up with a good nick name. Your response to Audrey's anger filled article hit the nail on the head!

"Anonymous" is incorrect in describing my feelings. I like the Rabbi very much and as he has said to me before and after this letter was published, we are good friends. That being said, I do not agree with his style of Rabbinic leadership on this topic. A frontal address on a controversial issue that many Orthodox people so no problem with is not the same as joint learning where all relevant sources and articles (yes, including the negative one by the FRimmers) are explored and discussed in detail.

Well said!

Why are you wasting your life?
Your thoughts are also formed by the company you keep. Therefore keep them away from you. Realize it is G-D you were created to please foremost.
Do not "worship" your admiring associates, it is a trap for you, it is G-D's test for you.
Find yourself and the true G-D, time is ticking.

The writer and her group "seek" "(a) more inclusive, egalitarian, participatory service." We've seen this before with the Conservative and Reform movement. Ironically, although changing women's religious roles may appeal to some in the short term, it doesn't seem to increase participation among women in the long term. I know of many Conservative synagogues which embraced increased roles for women in worship in the name of increasing their membership numbers and the participation among their worshipers. It didn't work.

What you say about education is relevant to you as well. Why not study and distribute copies of the Frimer brothers recent article in Tradition which challenges Women's aliyyot and Parnership Minyanim?

1.Why not invite a speaker to town with the skill to discuss the halachic case for partnership minyanim.

2. Why not set as a minimal goal getting the rabbi to shift from saying forbidden to he does not approve. That would give you space to maneuver and buy time for the issue to play out over the longer term.

Thank you for sharing your story.

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