Partnership minyans are not going away

Orthodoxy needs wider debate on the participation of women in services

By Dr Miri Freud-Kandel, February 23, 2014
Carrying the Torah at a partnership minyan in New York [photo: Dave Berman]

Carrying the Torah at a partnership minyan in New York [photo: Dave Berman]

Over the past few months, the term “partnership minyan” or PM, has increasingly been on people’s lips Though rather clunky, it refers to a relatively new concept on the Orthodox prayer scene in which women play a larger role in tefillah.

The reaction has already set in. One senior United Synagogue rabbi, Yitzchak Schochet, of Mill Hill, dismissed PMs as “partnership shmartnership”. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis offered a more measured view. Although he stated that PMs cannot take place under United Synagogue auspices, suggesting that this reflected a “virtually complete consensus within the Orthodox rabbinate”, he did not cite any specific halachic arguments against the innovation.

Now that an entire edition of Tradition, the journal of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, has been devoted to arguments against PMs, we might ask what is it that deserves such attention?

PMs try to offer those women who seek it a presence in communal prayer. As one rabbi noted, they are incredibly “halachic”. While clearly accepting limits imposed by halachic practice, PMs build on certain interpretations that suggest women can assume limited roles in public worship — leading certain parts of the davening and receiving aliyot and leyning from the Torah.

This is all done within a conventional Orthodox framework, with the use of the traditional siddur and a mechitzah separating women and men. In many ways then, they perpetuate a male-structured legal system and are not egalitarian.

Opponents of partnership minyans have struggled to make a halachic case against them

A critical feature of these minyanim is that they are only for those trying to address perceived gender imbalances in Judaism within the parameters of established boundaries in Jewish law. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, PMs are a marginal phenomenon. This only exacerbates the question: why all the fuss?
Independent PMs on Shabbat have been held over recent months in Borehamwood and the Hampstead area, with some occasional Sunday morning services in Golders Green and Hendon. It is acknowledged that they rely on one interpretation of the sources. Alternative views not only exist but are dominant and represent established practice.

Yet, established practices do vary. One can daven Ashkenazi or Sephardi, attend hashkamah (early morning) minyanim or perhaps kiddush club services in which whisky often takes priority over worship. In vibrant communities which offer a range of services, the question is, can PMs be one Orthodox option.

At South Hampstead United Synagogue, the rabbinic team have tried to address women’s role in the community by bravely introducing certain innovations. But on PMs, after consulting a variety of modern Orthodox authorities, they found no one willing to support this innovation. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the relatively early stage in development of the idea, but it sets a challenge for proponents of PMs.

South Hampstead members were told that PMs “cannot be halachically acceptable within modern Orthodoxy”, a position going further than Rabbi Mirvis and many of those who have engaged with this issue. Although notably not characteristic of South Hampstead, this instinct for boundary-marking has come to define Orthodox Judaism.

Such boundaries ignore Judaism’s embrace of variety, its talmudic and rabbinic tradition that acknowledges alternative and minority views, such as the characterisation of the disagreements between the houses of Hillel and Shammai as arguments for the sake of heaven. Much that is troubling about contemporary Orthodoxy follows from the retreat to boundaries establishing who is in and outside.

One rabbi who argues emphatically for PMs is Daniel Sperber, the eminent British-born halachic scholar, who teaches Talmud at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. He notes Rav Kook’s teaching on the principle in the Shulchan Aruch which asserts, “It is forbidden to prohibit that which is permitted”; for Rav Kook, this includes that which has not previously been permitted but which it could be possible to allow.

Rabbi Sperber will be in London to explain his halachic reasoning in a question and answer session on Sunday week. This event, open to all, is intended as an opportunity for probing questions on PMs because a genuinely modern Orthodox Judaism is open to debate and welcomes engagement.

Simply put, if the halachhic argument for PMs doesn’t stack up, such innovation cannot be supported just because it chimes with contemporary values. Its validity in Jewish terms must be established. But while the objectors to PMs are vehement, they have struggled to make their case on halachic grounds. Opposition essentially rests on the divergence from accepted norms and established practice. There is a fear of the motivations which have incited the search for change.

As ever, the catch-all claim of the slippery slope is also invoked. Tova Hartman, a founder of Shira Hadasha, the first PM in Jerusalem, embraces the slippery slope: “We will find it leads to God,” she says.

The challenge now for modern Orthodoxy is to pursue an open and honest debate on this question. Acknowledging that this is not an halachic dispute, PMs go to the very heart of defining the nature of modern Orthodox Judaism. What differentiates modern Orthodoxy from Charedim is its openness to those values from our surrounding society that strengthen, rather than conflict, with Jewish teachings.

Dr Freud-Kandel is fellow in modern Judaism at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

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Last updated: 12:45pm, February 23 2014