Heteronomy and Hierarchy: Partnership Minyanim and Their Relationship with Halakhic Authority

by Prof. Malka Simkovich

Introductory note from Rabbi Klapper: Malka’s honesty, openness, and intelligence contribute to every conversation in which she takes part. I am very grateful to her for taking the time to be part of this one.

I want to thank Rabbi Klapper for inviting me to respond to his thoughtful and insightful essay, which considers the question of whether Orthodox Jewry can make a halakhic space for partnership minyanim. It seems to me that the answer may be different for different minyanim, depending on their conception of and relation to halakhic authority. Rabbi Klapper opens his piece by clarifying that in order for partnership minyanim to find a place in orthodoxy, one must not only support it halakhically, but it must also have the support of authority.

I entirely agree with Rabbi Klapper regarding this point. The matters of authority and how administrators of partnership minyanim relate to halakha and halakhic authorities lie at the heart of the issue. The question of whether those who are involved in partnership minyanim are willing to regularly turn to halakhic authorities for guidance when making decisions about liturgical practice or other aspects of halakhic life is, I believe, a key factor that will in part determine whether these minyanim will remain within the fold of orthodoxy.

Rabbi Klapper suggests three possible values inherent to Orthodox Judaism that those involved in partnership minyanim recognize. He believes that the third value he mentions, “an appreciation of the necessity for halakhic authorities with authority,” (p.8) is the true motivator for those involved in partnership minyanim to stay within the orthodox fold.  This is the primary presumption of Rabbi Klapper’s article that I respectfully question.

The assumption that Rabbi Klapper, like others before him, have made regarding what motivates orthodox laymen to start partnership minyanim is that they are motivated by concern regarding how to better involve women in synagogue services. But I believe that another factor has been overlooked: many of these minyanim have been founded as a response to the profound disillusionment and dissatisfaction with rabbinic authorities and the control that they hold within the social framework of the synagogue.  Such dissatisfaction can possibly cause lay administrators of partnership minyanim who have selected halakhic authorities to guide them to minimize or in extreme cases, eliminate, the legal and social power of these authorities. In some cases that I know of, the rabbinic authority of a partnership minyan lives out of town, and only comes to lecture the congregation once every few months, or a few times a year. I believe that this sort of “satellite rabbinic leadership” may be intentional and is meant to make a space for lay participants in partnership minyanim to run the congregation in a more democratic way. Rabbi Klapper refers to this dynamic in his mention of “heteronomy” (p.2), but the question of how heteronomy interacts with his belief that partnership minyanim appreciate “halakhic authorities with authority” (p.8) is not, I believe, sufficiently addressed.

Orthodox authorities who are navigating relationships with local partnership minyanim must therefore ask: What is the exact role that this particular egalitarian community desires that a rabbinic figure or halakhic authority – male or female – play in their capacity as a religious leader? This question is important precisely because to reject this structure often means to marginalize rabbinic or halakhic authority in a broader sense – even if this authority is coming from a woman. While one would expect that these partnership minyanim would consider replacing this structure with one that places a female halakhic authority at the center, my understanding is that this is often not the case. This may be because the resistance to having a dominant halakhic authority running the congregation trumps the desire to promote female halakhic leadership.

Rabbi Klapper asks whether halakha can make a space for partnership minyanim, and whether there is a critical mass of rabbinic authorities to sanction it. I ask a different question: If it is the case that some of the minyanim at hand are by definition a “half-measure” egalitarian (p.5), as he puts it, would this egalitarianism require intentionally minimizing the role of halakahic leadership? If so, can these minyanim find space within the framework of traditional rabbinic Judaism?

One element that is at stake is the question of asking sha’aylot versus paskening for oneself. Recently, a friend of mine involved in partnership minyanim complained that halakhic infertility is the fault of “the rabbis,” and if they won’t solve it sufficiently, women must take the question of when to go to the mikva into their own hands. This seemed to me to be an interesting fusion of the two differentiating markers of partnership minyanim – the expansion of women’s roles and the wariness towards rabbinic authorities who determine halakhic practice. The conclusion that this friend made reflects his noble desire to empower Jewish women by giving them agency over their own bodies. For some, this agency takes priority over subjecting oneself to a rabbinic authority. But my point is that many participants of partnership minyanim, when faced with major individual and communal decision making, may self-consciously be making these decisions without consulting halakhic authorities – regardless of whether or not they directly pertain to women.

On the other hand, I am also aware of partnership minyanim that regularly consult with a halakhic authority. One partnership minyan that is located near my own neighborhood, for instance, uses a space that does not have a kosher kitchen, and food for Kiddush must be brought in by congregants who donate the food on rotation. This congregation asked their rabbinic posek to give a two-hour shiur on hilkhot kashrut, and then, with his collaboration, created an official kashrut policy regarding what food may or may not be brought into the synagogue. Needless to say, every partnership minyan is different in how it balances egalitarian leadership values with halakhic engagement.

The possibility that partnership minyanim are inherently at odds with active halakhic leadership (I say active, because I recognize that these minyanim do employ rabbinic leaders) that regularly gives p’sak at the request of community members is one that administrators of these minyanim will have to address directly, and do so soon. Otherwise, as Rabbi Klapper writes, partnership minyanim are destined to leave the fold of orthodoxy, which, as a doctrine focused on practice, looks up to halakhic experts for religious guidance.

As noted above, Rabbi Klapper writes that if partnership minyanim can be halakhically justified and can be supported by halakhic authorities, a space can be made for them within Orthodox Judaism. I would add a third criterion: these minyanim must involve a male or female halakhic expert who is, at the request of the community, regularly present to actively guide them through the navigation of halakha that is inherent to observant Judaism.

Malka Simkovich is a visiting professor of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and an editorial assistant for the Harvard Theological Review. 

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