In an Anglo-Jewish community known for its internal rifts and often harsh rhetoric, the discussion surrounding Partnership Minyanim – Orthodox prayer groups at which women lead some parts of the service — has been a breath of fresh air. Although it is a highly charged subject, commentators on both sides, from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis downwards, have behaved with respect and sensitivity.
It is regrettable, then, that Hendon Ner Yisrael’s Rabbi Alan Kimche — often portrayed as a moderate voice — significantly lowered the tone of the debate last week, with a blog post that was sneering, inflammatory and unbecoming.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Kimche’s contribution is worth addressing, because — like several other opponents — he seems to allow that a halachic case can be made for PMs, even if he disagrees with it. So what is the issue?
Rabbi Kimche openly admits that the real considerations are social. Partnership Minyanim, he says, are reminiscent of Reform and feminism is a threat to Orthodoxy. Only rabbis of whom he approves can give permission to go ahead.
He is tilting at windmills.
The Orthodox community has a hang-up about not appearing “Reform”, but this is a historical issue. It stems from early-20th century America, when the Orthodox were relative newcomers to the continent, and were genuinely threatened by the much larger Progressive denominations. What has this to do with 21st century Anglo-Jewry?
Rabbi Kimche gives his sermons in the vernacular. Two hundred years ago this was a “hallmark of Reform”; does anyone question his Orthodox credentials?
Whether or not a feminist critique of Orthodoxy is a threat is irrelevant to most women. Feminism is here to stay, and trying to push it back out of the Orthodox community is like King Canute trying to roll back the tide.
The desire of well-educated Orthodox women to seek greater involvement in Jewish ritual is not restricted to a few upstarts in north London. In Israel, women are demanding to take the rabbinate exams; in America, they are being ordained as para-rabbis. Nor is it just a feature of modern Orthodoxy. A recent piece in the Jewish Press — a conservative Orthodox paper — highlighted the frustrations of some frum women who support their families while their husbands learn Torah, but are sidelined Jewishly.
Part of the Orthodox community is trying to deal with these deep and irreversible social changes through halachic mechanisms such as Partnership Minyanim. Opponents need to explain what alternative, positive vision they offer these women (and the many men who support them); and why social restrictions that are increasingly problematic are worth defending when there are viable halachic solutions.
“We’ve always done it that way” is not enough.
Nor is the answer Rabbi Kimche brings, which is that is that Partnership Minyanim can only be approved by his list of rabbis. Rabbi Daniel Sperber, the senior rabbi who is the authority for Partnership Minyanim, and others who support him, apparently do not count.
The insistence that, on this issue, no rabbinic opinion that legitimises social change can ever be heard shows how panicked some parts of the establishment are at the groundswell of support for PMs.
Perhaps this is the real problem. When it comes to social policy within the Orthodox community, is this also subject to rabbinic decision? Rabbinic Kimche and his friends say “yes, and only we decide which rabbis”.