Women in the Modern Orthodox Shul

by Rabbi Dr. Martin Lockshin

Introductory note from Rabbi Klapper: It is always a pleasure and privilege to engage in Torah discourse with Rabbi Dr. Lockshin, especially as he often forces me to rethink.  I am very grateful to him for taking the time to respond to my article.

I am grateful to Rabbi Klapper for giving me an opportunity to respond to his thoughtful paper. He and I do not agree on this issue, but I always learn from what he writes.

For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the term, a “partnership minyan” (PM) is a service where prayers follow the standard Orthodox service precisely and where a mechitzah (a partition down the middle of the room, from front to back) separates the room into two equal sections, one for men and one for women, attempting to have the same sight lines for both groups. Some parts of the service are led only by men, but other parts, particularly Torah reading, are led both by men and by women. As Rabbi Klapper notes, a small minority of Orthodox rabbis have endorsed this type of service as being acceptable according to halakhah. I am one of those, and I see PMs as a positive development. I would estimate that some 50 to 100 other Orthodox rabbis, with semikhah from a wide variety of yeshivot, pray at a PM, either regularly or irregularly.

PMs do not have the support of the “gedolim,” the great Torah sages of our generation. In this, PMs are like many other innovations introduced into modern Orthodoxy in the last two hundred years—they proceeded from the grass roots. Many of them later won the (often grudging) approval of some gedolim. In this category I would list, among others:

  • Sermons in shul in the vernacular.
  • Beardless rabbis.
  • Believing that the world is more than 6000 years old.
  • Bat mitzvah celebrations.
  • Orthodox Jews studying humanistic subjects in a university.
  • Women’s tefillah groups.
  • Women teaching Torah to men.
  • Women reciting mourner’s kaddish in shul.

Implementing these innovations, it was argued in almost every case, would ultimately lead people to abandon Orthodoxy. Rabbi Henkin has made the same claim about PMs. Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik took another approach when he gave his unenthusiastic support to women reciting mourner’s kaddish in an Orthodox shul. He said that if we did NOT permit this, women would be likely to go to a Conservative shul to say kaddish. Clearly, it is difficult to know in advance which approach will prove correct. It is certain, though, that wherever PMs now exist, the founders chose to have a mechitzah in the synagogue. No one forced them to do that. They also chose neither to establish a Conservative or egalitarian minyan nor to join an already existing one, though they could have.

PMs are a very recent phenomenon. The first ever PM, Shira Chadashah in Jerusalem, just celebrated its bar-mitzvah (i.e. the thirteenth anniversary of its founding) a few months ago. Despite strong opposition, the practice has spread to many other locations in Israel, the United States, Canada, England and Australia. In the last half a dozen years I have prayed at PMs in Canada and the United States in ten different locations (and also a few in Israel). During that same period of time I have prayed much more often at various standard modern Orthodox minyanim (SMOMs) in North America and in Israel, where women play no roles. My comments about the differences between the models are only about North America; Israel is more complex.

PMs are not “modern Orthodox Judaism lite.” When it comes to commitment to halakhah, I am unable to find significant differences between Jews who pray at a PM and those who pray at most SMOMs. Both groups have participants with and without strong allegiance to halakhah. Both have more knowledgeable and less knowledgeable Jews.

All North American PMs have a strong “do-it-yourself” approach, where both women and men who have not led parts of the service in the past are encouraged to acquire the skills to do so. This approach occasionally includes an anti-clerical attitude—in other words, celebrating the fact that the minyan has no need for a rabbi. (The presence of a rabbi at an Orthodox religious service is not required by halakhah; Orthodox minyanim all over the world function without a rabbi.) This attitude, however, is changing. More and more PMs are seeking out an Orthodox rabbi to serve as their “halakhic advisor,” answering questions of Jewish law. I serve as the halakhic advisor or rabbi for partnership minyanim in four North American cities. (I receive no pay for serving in this role.)

In three of the four, the PM meets just once a month. During the rest of the month, at least 90% of the PM members pray at a local SMOM. Almost everyone who attends the PM is a member of a SMOM. So I see no evidence that anyone in these minyanim is on their way out of Orthodoxy. I often hear from people in these PMs that they would never have become involved with an alternative minyan had they seen any signs of adjustment to modernity (as I will outline below) in the SMOMs that they still belong to.

In the fourth PM with which I am affiliated, the minyan meets weekly or more frequently and so most of the people there are not members of a SMOM. Have they left Orthodoxy? Perhaps structurally they have, but they turn to an Orthodox rabbi (me) with halakhic questions regularly. These questions most frequently have nothing to do with women’s roles but cover a wide variety of issues from all volumes of the Shulchan Arukh. Not surprisingly, I receive many more halakhic inquiries from members of that minyan, since they, as opposed to the members of the other three PMs with which I am affiliated, have no other Orthodox rabbi to turn to.

Why am I involved with PMs? Fourteen years ago when I started to read Rabbi Mendel Shapiro’s famous article I was very skeptical that he would succeed in making a reasonable halakhic argument for women reading Torah at a minyan with men present. But he convinced me. I find his argumentation solid and I am not impressed by the various attempts to dismiss his approach.

Just because something is permitted, though, does not mean that it is a good idea. I, however, am convinced that PMs are not only legitimate halakhically but they promote important causes both on the personal and on the communal level. I support them since I follow the words of the book of Proverbs (3:27), “al timna tov mi-be’alav (do not withhold something good from a person to whom it is coming).”

On the individual level PMs provide meaningful Jewish religious experiences to large numbers of people—women—who are denied those opportunities in other settings. Speaking personally, the religious ceremony that moves me more than almost any other is having an aliyah to the Torah, holding the atsei chayim (the handles) in my hands, thanking God for giving us a Torah of truth, looking at the text of the Torah written on parchment precisely according to the thousands of halakhot about the writing of a sefer Torah, the same way that it has been written for millennia, and attempting to read the words of God’s Torah to my fellow Jews accurately. I have seen many women, particularly adults who have been denied these opportunities for 40 or more years, but also younger women, who have been visibly moved when they were finally given an opportunity for this uplifting religious experience and I am glad to help them have such experiences.

On the communal level, I am sad that modern Orthodox Judaism has failed to incorporate some of the positive social developments of the last fifty years into our SMOMs. I feel that Orthodox Judaism would be richer if we did.

We live and work in a world where men and women have equal duties. Women give men instructions, hire and fire men, and speak in public to both men and women. I am happy to live in this world and not in the world of my grandparents where these changes were unthinkable. I teach at a university, where I have reported to women for my entire career. I feel that having the voices of women heard in the work world is good for women and good for men.

Outside of work, when I daven at a SMOM, women are absent or at best invisible. Whether they attend the service or not is a matter of indifference; the service proceeds the same way. On weekdays, the service at most SMOMs is a boys club. The only two places where I still sometimes hear sexist comments these days are in a men’s locker room or at a weekday minyan where no women are present.

On shabbatot and chagim you find women and men at most SMOMs, but in my experience women, even ones who don’t have small children, show up in much smaller numbers than men. One advantage in PMs is that women come in pretty much equal numbers to men: they feel their presence is needed and appreciated and they make the effort to be there.

I have heard the argument from a number of women that they actually like the fact that nothing is ever asked of them in synagogue. Some say that they have so many responsibilities in the work world and at home that they like coming to shul and having nothing ever asked of them. I am in favor of leaving alone both women and men who want to be left alone in shul. But we the community lose when we fail to find outlets in shul for the voices of some of the most accomplished, brightest and most compassionate members of the community.

We cannot eliminate all gaps between our Orthodox shuls and the outside world. I do not believe that complete egalitarianism can be halakhic. PMs are not as egalitarian as the work world. But the cognitive dissonance between SMOMs and the work world is of a different order of magnitude.

Haredi synagogues that teach that modern changes in the status of women are bad and that women ideally should not be taking public roles anywhere are still able to explain why women do nothing in shul. But how can a modern Orthodox shul explain the exclusion of women from every active role?

SMOMs that take the problem seriously could take steps, short of becoming partnership minyanim, to let women know that their presence is appreciated and acknowledged. They could have a mechitzah down the middle of the shul, equal sight lines for men and women, and (ideally) equal space for men and women. The Torah could be marched through, or at least up to, the women’s section when removed from and returned to the Ark. On a weekday when a tzedakah box circulates, it could circulate in the women’s section, too. Modern Orthodox shuls could establish a policy that weddings may not take place in the shul unless a halakhic pre-nup is used, even if this means forgoing catering fees. A man could be called to the Torah as, for example, Yitzchak ben Avraham veSarah, not Yitzchak ben Avraham. These initiatives would make women feel more part of the minyan. None of them is halakhically radical.

The genius of PMs, however, is that women not only feel welcome; they feel that the service depends on them. Something would be missing if they were not there. Many women who attend PMs have (at least initially) no interest in taking any active role in the service. They still appreciate being in a minyan where other women do, and where they could if they wanted to.

SMOMs could create a similar feeling by having women be the ones primarily responsible for:

  • Delivering divrei Torah .
  • Making announcements.
  • Reciting the prayers for the governments.
  • Reciting the mi she-berakh prayer for the sick.

If possible, SMOMs could also have a regular parallel Torah reading for women by women, while the men are reading the Torah in another room.

At present modern Orthodoxy attracts only five percent of the Jews of North America. Telling half of that group, the women, that their voices are not needed in synagogue is not in our own best interest. Through PMs and modified SMOMs we can try to make Orthodoxy more responsive to the needs and wants of twenty-first century Jews.

Martin Lockshin is a professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of the Department of Humanities at York University in Toronto.  He also serves as rabbi or halakhic advisor to four partnership minyanim.

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