There is a relatively new phenomenon in Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy called the Partnership Minyan. One such Minyan, Lechu Neranena, is located in Bala Cynwyd, Pensylvania which in on the western edge of Philadelphia.
Michael Gordan who is the president of this Shul has written an article about it. Here is how he describes it:
(A Partnership Minayn is) where women are able to participate more fully than in traditional Orthodox synagogues. Though services are conducted with a mechitzah, or divider, between men and women, women may speak before the congregation, make Kiddush and lead Kabbalat Shabbat, the service of psalms and poetry welcoming the Shabbat. In those minyanim that meet on Shabbat morning, women may have aliyot, read from the Torah and lead some other parts of the service.
I am not going to go into the technicalities about the Halachic problems involved here. I believe there may in fact be such problems. But for purposes of this post I will concede that everything they do falls within the parameters of the strict letter of Halacha.
I will even concede that there may actually be a place for such Minyanim. If there is no technical violation of Halacha, it is far more preferable to attend this type of Shul than it would be to attend a non-Orthodox Shul. Or even a Traditional Shul where there is no Mechitza. So I do not support any bans against them. But that does not make me any more comfortable with the idea of such radicalism.
For those seeking a more tailor made prayer experience – there is a lot of latitude in the way a Shul can operate and still be considered within the mainstream.
There are Modern Orthodox Shuls with Halachicly minimal Mechitzos. There are Chasidic Shtieblach that have women in an entirely separate room. There are high walled Mechitzos, balcony Mechitzos… One Orthodox Shul I attended in Canada has women seated in a balcony whose walls facing the men are made out of ordinary ‘see-through’ glass!
The style of prayer is widely varied. Yeshivsh, Baalei Battish, Chasidish, Agudah, Mizrachi, Young Israel, Modern Orthodox… Some have weekly speeches by the rabbi on a wide variety of subjects – some don’t. There are singing shuls and dancing shuls (like Carelbach). There are rabbis wearing Shtreimlach, Hamburgs, Fedoras, and knit Kipot, suade Kipot, and velvet Kipot.
There are fast shuls and slow Shuls; Shuls with a Kiddush and Shuls without a Kiddush.There are Shuls that will have men and women together for the Kiddush and Shuls that will sepearte them.
There are even MO Shuls that allow women to speak after Davening from the pulpit.
The point being that a very wide variety of choices are available that are well within the mainstream of Orthodoxy where the Shul experience will be relatively confortable for just about anyone. But when one begins to tamper with the essential features of a Shul to the point where it starts looking like something else altogether – that goes too far in my view. Those shuls start looking like they are prioritizing something other than prayer.
I happen to believe that these Partnership Minyanim are sourced in a culture that is foreign to Judaism - the radical feminist ideal of equating the sexes in all areas of life. In Orthodoxy that idea is doomed to failure. The mere fact that women can never be counted towards constituting a Minyan means that equality can never be fully achieved in the sense that feminism requires it. Even if there are a hundred women and 9 men, there is no Minyan. And there are many other such impediments for Orthodox women with respect to the synagogue.
Many Orthodox feminists will counter by saying that they understand that Halacha comes first. But they insist that they should be allowed to get as close to feminist ideal of equality of the sexes as possible. They will therefore seek novel ways to do so sometimes bordering on violating Halacha – like Rabbi Avi Weiss’s innovation of allowing women to lead Kabalas Shabbos.
Just because Halacha has technically not been violated that doesn’t mean that you are doing the right thing. No matter how sincere those who advocate such shuls are – the Partnership Minyan makes a priority of feminist ideals first albeit while making concessions to Halacha in the process. It’s like taking a horse, attaching elephant ears and a trunk; painting it grey -and still calling it a horse. Yes – it’s a horse. But it sure looks like an elephant. We should not be making horses look like elephants.
Advancing the cause of feminism is not the purpose of a Shul. The purpose of a Shul is prayer. A Minyan enhances our prayer. That’s it. Everything else is peripheral. Not that peripherals are bad. On the contrary. Many of them are very good. But not all of them.
One of the points made by Mr. Gordan is the following:
Partnership minyanim have gained support from some rabbis and opposition from many more. The debate they have inspired reflects how central the public prayer service is to the identity of Orthodox Jews. Apologists for the current state of affairs in Orthodoxy will contend that the true seat of Judaism is the study hall, but the resistance to allowing any change in women’s roles in the synagogue makes clear the importance this institution has in Jewish life as well.
Perhaps this is where the problem really lies. As important as a Shul is – it is not the central focus of Judaism. But in Heterodox movements this has certainly been the case. Just as the church is the central focus of most Christians so too has the Shul been the focus in Heterodoxy. I think this is one reason Orthodox feminists are so focused on the Shul – seeing it as a central defining part of religion.
The truth is that Orthodox Judaism is a full time religion. Halacha mandates that we pay attention to God throughout our day and provides many rituals for both men and women to do so. The Shul is a place where one of those rituals take place. It is our house of prayer. But it does not define us in our totality.
As I said I would not ban these Minyanim. I would even encourage Jews who might be attracted to the egalitarianism of Conservative and Reform Judaism to give these Minyanim a try first. But in my view these Shuls are not the wave of the future. Nor should they be.
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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