Parsing the Partnership Minyan Debate

by Dr. Yoel Finkelman

Introductory note from Rabbi Klapper: Dr. Yoel Finkelman’s keen observations on the Orthodox community in general, and the Modern Orthodox community in particular, are generally vital reading for anyone who cares about maintaining and improving them.  I am very grateful that he has taken the time to write comments on my article.

If the debate about so-called Partnership Minyanim has been marred by bitterness and nastiness, certainly Rabbi Klapper deserves kudos for writing, כדרכו בקודש, with insight, fairness, and evenhandedness. In particular, he deserves credit for articulating clearly that “Orthodox” is not a synonym for halakhically and Jewishly positive or acceptable. He has graciously asked me to respond, but unfortunately, time considerations and professional commitments prevent me from offering a full-length response. Still I would like to raise four points briefly.

  • I do not know if partnership minyanim are an Orthodox phenomenon, but arguing about whether they are an Orthodox phenomenon most certainly is itself an Orthodox phenomenon. Historically, orthodoxy came to be only when non-observant Jewish ideologies gained influence, and in those contexts orthodoxy has always needed and thrived upon an obsessive concern for its own boundaries.
  • The word “legitimate” and particularly “illegitimate” in these conversations need to be parsed. What do Orthodox Jews mean when they refer to an idea or practice as illegitimate? How does that differ from using such terms as assur, misguided, or improper. The term “illegitimate” is meant to pack somewhat more of a punch, to suggest a deeper and more profound mistake. It too relates to questions of boundaries, since some practice (say, kapparos with a live chicken,) might be misguided or problematic, but do not put one out of the pale and beyond legitimacy, while the particular practices of partnership minyanim raise questions of their and their practitioners’ legitimacy. My sense is – and I don’t really have empirical data to demonstrate this – that Orthodox Jews use the term illegitimate when A) a particular idea or practice bothers them B) the textual evidence to reject that belief or practice is not a slam dunk, C) some (perhaps quite healthy) intuition tells them that something of great importance is at stake, something which potentially threatens their ideological, theological, or practical sense of individual or collective identity. Generally, claims of illegitimacy are generally made by the right against the left, but rarely in the other direction.
  • Klapper is certanly correct that halakhah is more than the letter of the law, and he ties the question of the non-technical aspects of halakhah to authority and to the presence of a community that is committed to halakhah as divine law. But what makes those the standards and how does he know? Like many of the arguments about partnership minyanim, it runs the risk of becoming circular. Much of the debate about partnership minyanim transcends the technical questions of whether a particular synagogue practice can be defended in the sources, but instead revolves around questions of who gets to make those determinations and what gives them that authority. Hence, arguments (from both of the left and the right) about their positions often become circular. One side claims: My practice is “legitimate” because I can defend it technically in the sources, and that is all I need. The other side responds: No, your practice is “illegitimate” because it is not backed by authorities with the shoulders broad enough to make such determinations, or it is incompatible with the spirit of the law, a determination that only those on my side are qualified to make.

So, what is the nature of Rabbi Klapper’s claim that Halakhic determination on technical grounds is problematic in the absence of both authority and a community committed to halakhah. Is he making a technical, legally defensible constitutional point – the texts tell me that these criteria are required for good pesak? Or is he making a sociological point, that it is hard to imagine decisions functioning as pesak without those two elements? Or, is this an ideological position: the halakhah to which I am committed contains those two elements?

But note also that Rabbi Klapper’s two criteria – authority and a community committed to halakhah – are precisely two of the great anxieties of historical orthodoxy. Along with obsessing about boundaries and legitimacy, Orthodoxy has, since its founding in the 19th century, always been obsessively concerned about the nature of authority and about the creation of communities of committed laypeople. I tend to agree with Rabbi Klapper’s criteria, largely on sociological grounds, assuming that pesak is likely to be stillborn when it is issued by people who lack a political place of authority within their own communities, or when issued within communities not committed to observance. But the argument remains circular in important aspects.

  • Rabbi Klapper asks a fresh and important question. Why do people care so much about whether a particular institution or practice is or is not considered “Orthodox”? Why is this question worth fighting about? He suggests, among other things, that Orthodoxy is a label of identity, and people do not easily give up on labels of identity. To declare my own practice non-Orthodox is to become somebody new. Agreed. Perhaps another way to think about it, however, is a question of branding. Terms, symbols, and images come with networks of connotations and emotions that can have a huge impact on how people make their decisions and spend their money. Companies invest enormous resources branding themselves and in protecting their brands. At its best, orthodoxy as a brand connotes authenticity, tradition, and “real Judaism” (though Orthodoxy is not always at its best). No wonder people desire that brand for their product, while others are willing to go to the mat to protect it from interlopers.

 Dr. Yoel Finkelman is the curator of the Judaica collection at the National Library of Israel.

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