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September 21, 2014 / 26 Elul, 5774
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Partnership Minyans Growing Despite Condemnations

Ruth Lockshin of Toronto leads a partnership minyan at a conference in New York of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, December 2013.

Ruth Lockshin of Toronto leads a partnership minyan at a conference in New York of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, December 2013.
Photo Credit: Mike Kelly / JTA

In recent weeks, a flurry of articles by leading Orthodox rabbis and scholars have taken aim at the growing phenomenon of so-called partnership minyans, which feature traditional Orthodox liturgy and mechitzah dividers separating the sexes but allow women to read from the Torah and lead certain parts of the service.

Last week came news of a penalty for a rabbinical school student who had attended one such minyan: Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary had threatened to withhold rabbinic ordination from a young man who had hosted a partnership minyan in his home.

The threat came in the form of a Jan. 13 letter to the student signed by RIETS acting dean Rabbi Menachem Penner, who said women leading services or getting called to the Torah for an aliyah are practices “deemed prohibited by all recognized poskim,” or religious authorities.

A rabbi ordained by RIETS “would be expected to not participate in such activities nor create a public impression that he supports such activities in normative practice,” said the letter.

After news of the threat leaked, YU announced it had secured a commitment from the student, who had successfully completed his course of study but had not yet formally been granted his certificate of ordination, to uphold the institution’s principles. The student is now cleared to participate in the RIETS ordination event on March 23.

The battle over partnership minyans is just the latest scuffle in the war over women’s roles in the Orthodox community.

Some changes that proved deeply contentious at the time of their inception are now normative in Modern Orthodox circles, such as women’s Talmud study and women’s-only prayer services. Others are still highly controversial, such as ordaining women clergy.

For Orthodox Jews who support expanding women’s roles, the innovations of partnership minyans are a way to bring some of the egalitarianism they experience in other areas of their lives into Jewish practice without breaking the limits of Jewish law. Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and the most prominent Orthodox authority on Jewish law who backs these minyans, says the halachic principle of “human dignity” provides an opening to allow women to take public ritual roles in the synagogue.

To their opponents, these changes are dangerous deviations made more insidious by the fact that they are happening inside the Orthodox community by Jews who claim to be acting according to Jewish law.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a yeshiva head at RIETS, has been the leading voice in the recent chorus of condemnation. In a recent article, he argued that having women lead services or read from the Torah constitutes a religious breach that corrupts the spirit and violates Jewish laws regarding women’s modesty, public dignity and the requirement of deferring to Torah sages.

Partnership minyans have existed on the fringe of the Orthodox community for more than a decade, starting with Shira Hadasha, which was established in Jerusalem in 2002. Over the last decade they have spread rapidly in the United States, including Kol Sasson in Skokie, Ill.; Minyan Tehillah in Cambridge, Mass.; Darkhei Noam in Manhattan and Rosh Pina in Washington. More than two dozen are listed on the website of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, though they don’t all meet every Shabbat.

None of the minyans are full-time congregations with daily services, and they operate without congregational rabbis and meet in rented space, usually in Conservative or Reform institutions. Though they draw mostly from the Orthodox community, they also have attracted Jews raised in the Conservative movement looking for more observant communities. The minyans generally avoid calling themselves Orthodox but say they operate within the letter of Jewish law – even if their services upend centuries of Orthodox tradition.

About the Author: Uriel Heilman is managing editor of JTA. An award-winning journalist, he has worked in a variety of positions for publications in the United States and in Israel, including as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post.


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9 Responses to “Partnership Minyans Growing Despite Condemnations”

  1. Dan Silagi says:

    The horrors! Women reading from the Torah! Next thing you know, there will be MIXED DANCING, and from that stems MIXED MARRIAGES. Gevalt!

  2. Benny Gamal says:

    Judaism once allowed "polygamy" so why would later outlaw such marriages? YU is a modern institution which has changed so much (for the worse) since its founding as a Rabbinic Ordination and Preparatory Seminary Rabbi Bernard Revel, that today's YU is run as a (pretty poor) business in which top-level administration executive make huge amounts of money for nothing more that "cutting expenses" of teachers, departments, a legendary sporting coach, all in an effort to cede control to a bunch of right wingnut dingbats who don the latest in CharediWear, but have left their brains and heart at the Sephorim Store in San Francisco.
    THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT YOUR FATHER'S YESHIVA UNIVERSITY!

  3. Benny Gamal says:

    Mr. Shapiro you are a cretin.

  4. The RAMBAM stated that decisions on halakha which may have been affected by the times and societal ethics may be overturned. It is high time that some of the exclusionary laws regarding women be reexamined.

  5. Donn Gross says:

    Allowed or not..it is not to my tastes. On this issue I am going to say; to each his (whoops… her) own.

  6. Itzhak Kremer says:

    Yes – that's more or less what happened with the reform movement. You know where it begins but you don't know where it will end.

  7. Dan Silagi says:

    Itzhak Kremer I guess you didn't catch the sarcasm in my post.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I have known for a long time Ruth Lockshin who is featured in the photograph. She is a very fine and knowledgable woman. She is married to Rabbi Marty Lockshin, who for many years has given outstanding shiurim in English and in Ivrit to people in his own shool, to many different audiences, and is world-renowned as the author and translator of a critical edition of Rashbam's commentary on the Torah. Marty, though, 'politically' is on the far-left of Modern Orthodoxy – he was a signatory to the ill-advised Helfgot statement on same-sex issues – and not surprisingly he is very encouraging of his wife's greater participation in services. One of my own daughter's has been a beneficiary of the positive side of Ruth's activities, having chanted one of the parshiyot of Megillat Esther a few years ago at a reading organized by Ruth. These are good people and even those who may disagree with their interpretations should be aware that they have brought understanding and inspiration to many other Jews of very different backgrounds.

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