Tag Archives: partnership minyanim

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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Who may, and who must, issue halakhic rulings? Underlying issues in the partnership minyan debate

For more of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s Torah, please click here.  Please also like our Facebook page and subscribe to Rabbi Klapper’s weekly dvar Torah by emailing moderntorahleadership@gmail.com

In one of the later volumes of his misnamed Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, the late Douglas Adams has a character learn two life lessons:

a)      One should never go back for one’s handbag (lest one miss an essential opportunity)

b)      One must always go back for one’s handbag (lest one blow an essential opportunity)

The problem is that the two lessons contradict, and the character never learns which rule applies when.

The issue of “partnership minyanim” is appropriately generating much polemic and counterpolemic  and antipolemic, but I have no interest in adding more at present.  Instead, I’d like to ensure that the discussion – presumably all leshem Shomayim (for the sake of Heaven)  – generates some Torah lishmoh (Torah for its own sake) as well.  I think this is vital, because in the course of polemic debate each side runs the risk of sacrificing the capacity for reexamining evidence, lest changing one’s mind about what a particular text means be taken as a sign that one’s overall commitments are weakening or as an admission that they are insufficiently grounded in the Tradition.    

So – Rabbi Herschel Schachter’s public letter regarding “partnership minyanim” emphasizes that not every student who has learned in yeshiva, or in kollel, or even received semikhah, should consider themselves as competent to issue halakhic rulings.  In response, my friend Rabbi Ysoscher Katz notes that the Talmud (Sotah 22a, Avodah Zarah 19b) cites R. Abahu quoting R. Huna quoting Rav interpreting MIshlei 7:26 as criticizing in parallel those who issue halakhic rulings when they should not, and those who don’t issue halakhic rulings when they should.

מאי דכתיב

כי רבים חללים הפילה

ועצומים כל הרוגיה“?

כי רבים חללים הפילה

זה ת”ח שלא הגיע להוראה

.ומורה,

ועצומים כל הרוגיה

זה ת”ח שהגיע להוראה

ואינו מורה.

What is meant by

for many are the corpses she has miscarried, and atzumim are all those she has killed”?

for many are the corpses she has miscarried

this is a scholar (talmid chakham) who has not reached the level of issuing halakhic rulings

and issues halakhic rulings;

and atzumim are all those she has killed

this is a scholar who has reached the level of issuing halakhic rulings

and does not issue halakhic rulings.

I think it is inarguable that R. Abahu teaches both lessons – the question is whether or how any of us can reliably know which rule applies to us, regarding what areas of halakhah, which degree of halakhic complexity, and under what political, social, and religious circumstances.

Rabbi Katz argues that

  1. Maharsha and Rashi disagree as to whether R. Abahu is criticizing all competent scholars who fail to issue halakhic rulings (Rashi), or only great scholars (Maharsha). 
  2. However, Shulchan Arukh 242:14 rules in accordance with Rashi against Maharsha:
  3. Pitchei Teshuvah YD 242:8 explicitly makes the point that Shulchan Arukh rejects Maharsha
  4. Rabbi Schachter’s critique assumes that a scholar risks more my overestimating than by underestimating their stature.  Since the Talmud equated the risks, he must implicitly be following Maharsha against Rashi and arguing that the risk of underestimation applies only to scholars who are great.   However, scholars who may be competent, but are certainly not great, have no obligation to rule, and therefore run no risk by refusing to do so.
  5. However, we follow Shulchan Arukh and Pitchei Teshuvah in ruling like Rashi.  Therefore we run equivalent risks either way, and each person must make their own fraught determinations as to when to go back for their handbag.

I am not convinced that Maharsha and Rashi disagree in the way Rabbi Katz argues, or that either Shulchan Arukh or Pitchei Teshuvha relate to that alleged disagreement.   

Here are the texts of Rashi and Maharsha:

Rashi to Sotah 22a

ועצומים – לשון “עוצם עיניו” (ישעיהו לג) שסוגרים פיהם ואינם מורים לצורכי הוראה.

VaAtzumim – derived from “one who forcefully closes (otzem) his eyes” (Yeshayah 33:15)

Rashi to Avodah Zarah19b

ועצומים – המתעצמים והמחרישים ומתאפקים מלהורות – הורגין את דורן ועצומים לשון “ועוצם עיניו”.

VaAtzumim – those who overpower themselves and are mute and control themselves from issueing halakhic rulings – they kill their generation;

VaAtzumim is derived from “one who forcefully closes (otzem) his eyes”

Maharsha to Sotah 22

ועצומים כל הרוגיה – זה ת”ח שהגיע כו’ –

פירש”י מלשון עוצם עיניו

ויש לפרש כמשמעו

ור”ל גדולים וחשובים שהגיעו להוראה

כמ”ש לעיל ספ”ק

“ואת עצומים יחלק שלל” –

כאברהם יצחק ויעקב וק”ל:

and atzumim are all those she has killed – this is a scholar who has reached etc.

Rashi explains atzumim as derived from “one who forcefully closes (otzem) his eyes”

But one can explain atzumim in its literal sense,

so that it means “great and important”,

as the Talmud writes at the end of the first chapter (Sotah 14a):

“and with atzumim he will take a share of spoils” (Yeshayah 53:12) –

just like Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov

Rabbi Katz reads “great and important” in Maharsha as adding a qualification beyond “reached the level of issuing halakhic rulings”.  But I think Maharsha is merely offering an alternate etymology.  The question is how the Hebrew atzumim can refer to “those who have reached the level of issuing halakhic rulings but do not issue such rulings”.  Rashi argues that atzumim means “those who are otzem their eyes”.  Maharsha argues that this is not compelling, as no other instance of the noun form atzumim in Tanakh means that.  Rather, atzumim consistently means “powerful”, and is often paired with גדולים = great.  Therefore, here as well the etymology of atzumim is “great, important”.  In other words, for Maharsha anyone who has reached the level of issuing halakhic rulings is described by this verse as great and important.  Rabbi Schachter of course agrees – the remaining question is whether one can use the equation in reverse, and conclude that anyone who is not great and important has not reached the level  of issuing halakhic rulings. 

Shulchan Arukh 242:14 writes as follows:

כל חכם שהגיע להוראה

ואינו מורה –

הרי זה מונע תורה ונותן מכשולות לפני רבים,

ועליו נאמר: ועצומים כל הרוגיה

Every sage (kol chakham) who has reached the level of issuing halakhic rulings

and does not issue halakhic rulings –

behold he is withholding Torah and placing obstacles before multitudes,

and regarding him Scripture says:  and atzumim are all those she has killed

Rabbi Katz argues that the opening “Every” is intended to reject Maharsha’s claim that only some scholars – namely, those who are great and important – are criticized for not issuing halakhic rulings when they have reached the level of doing so.  However, I argue that Maharsha never made such a claim, and therefore everyone agrees that the criticism applies to all competent scholars, and the only question is the definition of competence.

Pitchei Teshuvah YD 242:8 writes as follows:

“כל חכם כו'” –

עיין במהרש”א בח”א פ”ג דסוטה שכתב

ובדורות הללו

אותם שמורים הלכה מתוך הש”ע

והרי הם אין יודעים טעם הענין של כל דבר

אם לא ידקדקו תחלה בדבר מתוך התלמוד

שהוא שימוש ת”ח –

טעות נפל בהוראתן

והרי הן בכלל מבלי עולם

ולכן יש לגעור בהן

ע”ש.

ואפשר דדוקא בזמן הרב מהרש”א

שלא היה עדיין שום חיבור על הש”ע

אבל האידנא

שנתחברו הט”ז וש”ך ומג”א ושארי אחרונים

וכל דין מבואר הטעם במקומו

שפיר דמי להורות מתוך הש”ע והאחרונים:

“Every sage etc.” –

See Maharsha Sotah Chapter 3, who wrote

But in these generations,

those who issue halakhic rulings on the basis of the Shulchan Arukh

when behold they do not know the underlying rationale of every matter

unless they carefully examine the matter first on the basis of the Talmud

which is (the contemporary equivalent of) apprenticing with scholars –

error befalls their halakhic rulings

and they are in the category of “those who wear out the world”

and therefore one should castigate them

(see the source!).

But perhaps that was only in the time of the Rabbi the Maharsha,

when there was as yet no commentary on Shulchan Arukh,

but nowadays

that TaZ and SHaKH and Magen Avraham and other later commentaries have been written,

so that every law has its rationale explained right where the law is found,

it is fine to rule on the basis of Shulchan Arukh and the later commentaries.

Rabbi Katz seems to read Pitchei Teshuvah as relating to the word “every”, and arguing that even Maharsha would broaden the franchise today, when the existence of supercommentaries to ShulchanArukh lowers the risk that merely competent scholars will err.

I disagree.  I think Pitchei Teshuvah and Maharsha here are making a procedural , not a substantive point.  Maharsha states that there are some scholars who have reached the level of issuing halakhic rulings but only if they first study the primary Talmudic sources, as otherwise they will not understand the underlying principles of Shulchan Arukh’s rulings and misapply them.  Such scholars might feel compelled to issue rulings even when they only have time to look up the Shulchan Arukh, lest they fall into the category of “and atzumim are all those she has killed; but this would itself be an error on their part.  Pitchei Teshuvah notes that Maharsha’s argument may no longer apply, since the underlying principles of Shulchan Arukh’s rulings are now explained by commentaries on the spot and can therefore be understood without researching the primary sources.  This discussion has no necessary connection with Maharsha’s opinion as to the etymology of atzumim.

Nonetheless, both Maharsha and Pitchei Teshuvah make points that are relevant to the issue Rabbi Katz raises, in the following way:  Maharsha states explicitly that a person can be considered competent on the basis of research even if they might not be competent to answer other questions without additional research, and Pitchei Teshuvah states explicitly that a person can be considered competent if they know Shulchan Arukh and commentaries even though they do not recall the primary sources.  Each of these can reasonably be considered as setting a fairly low standard as to which scholars are not only permitted but even obligated to issue halakhic rulings.

However, here again I don’t think Rabbi Schachter would disagree.  On both Sotah 22a and Avodah Zarah 19b the Talmud continues as follows:

ועד כמה?

עד ארבעין שנין.

איני – והא רבה אורי!?

בשוין.

How old must one be (before one is considered competent to issue halakhic rulings)?

Forty years old.

But [Rabbah] (Rava) issued rulings (even though he died at 40)?!

(The permission and therefore obligation to rule applies to those under 40 only) if they are equal

(in scholarship to those above 40).

In other words, the question is not whether one is obligated to issue rulings in the abstract; it is whether one is obligated to issue rulings (when asked) even though someone else more technically competent is available.   Put differently, the question is whether competence is defined objectively, or relative to the available talent pool.   A related question is whether competence can be defined on a sliding scale, so that one can be obligated to answer basic questions and yet forbidden to issue rulings on more complex or weighty issues. 

My own opinion is that competence can be defined relatively, and on a sliding scale.  Nonetheless, I think it is reasonable to say that there is a standard of competence above which one may, and perhaps must, express an opinion even if others more technically competent are available.  I also think that technical competence is not the only consideration – sometimes a technically greater posek may be less aware of the social reality of a particular community, or have hashkafic positions less compatible with those of that community, or simply have done less extensive research, than a technically lesser posek.  Under such circumstances again, I suggest that the lesser posek may, and perhaps must, express their opinion.

Shabbat shalom!

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