Partnership minyanim: The slope is not so slippery

January 10, 2017 10:46

After umpteen invitations, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, David Lau, finally visited our shul in Modiin, a couple of years ago. Nothing strange about that you might think, after all Rabbi Lau lives in Modiin and ours is an Orthodox community. But in actual fact his visit was surprising because ours is a partnership minyan. Men and women sit separately, but women read from, and get called up to the Torah. They also lead parts of the service, including Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur. 

Despite the cosmic confluence of circumstance involving a chief rabbi and a partnership minyan, the sky did not fall in; thousands of Israeli children did not convert to Christianity, nor alas did President Obama bring peace to the Holy Land.

Perhaps none of these things transpired because Rabbi Lau was not actually present for the service; instead giving a sermon following its conclusion. This recalls the custom of some Orthodox synagogues where the batmitzvah girl addresses the community at the end of the proceedings, rather than earlier, when the rabbi usually speaks.

Rabbi Lau opened by briefly mentioning his well-known opposition to partnership minyanim. He then promised to deliver a Torah lesson that had “absolutely nothing to do with this”. The thrust of his message was that not everything that is halachically permitted is religiously desirable.

Some shul members took offence. They understood this as a rebuke of our partnership minyan. I interpreted the rabbi’s message in an affirmative sense: if something is halachically permitted, then there can be a fruitful debate concerning its desirability. For example, the Modern Orthodox argue for Zionism and studying science and the arts; the charedim argue against.

Opponents of partnership minyanim might retort that the above parallel is invalid, as the debates over Zionism and secular studies are ideological not halachic, whereas partnership minyanim are, in their view, against the halacha. However, there are Orthodox rabbis who rule in favour of partnership minyanim, and even if they constitute a minority this does not mean their view should be disavowed. Moreover, much of the opposition to partnership minyanim is based on ideology.

The father of the anti-modern charedi ideology, the Chatam Sofer, famously argued that “everything new is forbidden by the Torah” and most Orthodox rabbis were initially anti-Zionist. Yet this did not deter the Modern Orthodox from embracing Zionism and modern science. The same was the case with women studying Talmud. For many years the Orthodox frowned upon this, some for halachic reasons, others for ideological. Today, the study of Talmud by women is increasingly accepted within Modern Orthodoxy; though a considerable amount of frowning remains.

In recent years, partnership minyanim across the world have become home to some of the best Jewishly educated and most dynamic young communal leaders around. This is good news for Orthodoxy, but bad news for much of the rabbinical establishment who seem to fear their political power being challenged by the educated, the committed and the dynamic.

At the heart of opposition to partnership minyanim lies another fear, namely that it constitutes a “slippery slope” which ends outside of Orthodoxy, in non-observance. However, the people attending a partnership minyan do so because they are observant and Orthodox. If they wanted to become secular there is nothing to stop them, and if they seek a full egalitarian synagogue experience, they can join a non-Orthodox community. Instead many walk extra miles just to attend an Orthodox partnership minyan. Moreover, a batmitzvah girl does not choose to dedicate time to publicly leyn the weekly Torah portion because she wants an easy life.

Still, when family and friends, who usually attend a regular Orthodox shul, visit our community they often do so with a certain amount of trepidation. Afterwards many report being pleasantly surprised by the familiarity of the service, while simultaneously being unexpectedly inspired.

Finally, there is the potential for partnership minyanim to help bridge the religious-secular divide. At a time when many secular Israelis associate the religious approach to gender with making women sit at the back of the bus, partnership minyan offers a different image, inviting and challenging, both to the non-observant and to chief rabbis in Israel and elsewhere.


Jonathan Rynhold is Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University

January 10, 2017 10:46

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