Partnership Minyanim: A Follow Up Response to Rabbi Freundel – by Dr. Chaim Trachtman

Rabbi Freundel’s detailed analysis of the halakhic basis for Partnership Minyanim demonstrates an impressive mastery of the relevant texts. But, in assessing this new practice, it is important to examine not only the halakhic responsa but also some of the underlying assumptions about women, men, and the formulation of law within the Orthodox community that are implied in his analysis. 

One recurrent theme among those who contend that Partnership Minyanim is not supported by the halakha is that people like me who attend Partnership Minyanim and find them meaningful are ends-driven. That is to say, Partnership Minyanim supporters are thought to act solely on an emotional basis and to use halakha in service of their personal needs and desires, to satisfy ulterior motives. On a very simple level, I would invite anyone who questions the validity of Partnership Minyanim to attend one. After observing the delicate maneuvering around the mechitzah and careful attention to roles during the tefila, I would ask if they cannot recognize the effort to remain firmly connected to Orthodox practice. What kind of ulterior motive would someone have for the spending the same amount of time on Shabbat morning, saying the same tefillot, listening to a Dvar Torah with women doing select portions unless they felt themselves to be Orthodox?

But taking this one step further, it is untenable to assert that advocates of Partnership Minyanim are the only people who are argue their case with a hidden agenda in mind. Everyone comes with a context.  Partnership Minyanim supporters are criticized for a failure to engage with the traditional Orthodox sources in an intellectually honest manner and their analyses are seen as an attempt to retrofit the law to their desires. However, I posit that the notion that one can distinguish between purely emotional and rational grounds for halakhic decision making is a straw man. Life is complex and both elements, in varying proportion, motivate religious people to ask questions about their practices and examine their interaction with halakha. The derogation of emotional or subjective factors in religious conduct can be destructive of genuine spiritual striving. It assumes that people’s emotional state can be reliably read and judged. Unfortunately, this presumption is more often made about women than men. Moreover, the contribution of non-legal factors and personal priorities is given much greater leeway in other areas of law that do not impact on the status of women. Witness the vigorous debate between different segments of the Orthodox community in Israel today about how to best observe shmita as evidence that how the Jewish jurisprudence assesses the corpus of law changes dramatically depending on context and personal preferences. All sorts of factors have been brought into play including the viability of Israeli agriculture in a global market and enriching Arab farmers at the expense of Jewish farmers, environmental concerns, public education, and attitudes towards the performance of mitzvot. There are always meta-halakhic issues that are involved in decision making – consider the rabbinic imperative to do whatever is possible to avoid mamzerut. Halakha ideally represents a balance between intellectual clear headedness based on foundational principles and emotional responsiveness to each person and each circumstance. The best psak achieves this objective.  

Second, I think the difference of opinion about whether Partnership Minyanim are consistent with an honest and rigorous reading of halakha is one that transcends the interpretation of any single or group of sources and responsa. I read Rabbi Sperber’s work as a legitimate validation of the practice of Partnership Minyanim and opponents of Partnership Minyanim reject his opinion. Perhaps, supporters of Partnership need to press the case more articulately and frame the case in a more compelling manner. But this will not eliminate the conflict.  People can and do argue about the nuance of legal opinions in every society and halakha is no different. I propose that there is a larger divergence in the approach used to read sources – static and timeless versus dynamic and contextual. Contextualizing the law does not by its nature render the decision Conservative but is just as much a part of Orthodox jurisprudence. This is not unique to Jewish law and plays out in current arguments about the US Constitution, between those who favor interpretation based on original intent of the framers versus those who favor its application as a “living” document. Suffice it say that, again, I think the situation regarding the halakha is complicated. On occasion, the law is relatively fixed and unyielding. But there is ample documentation of rabbis who, in the face of opposition to change of any kind, have addressed divisive issues in innovative ways. This includes the permissibility of economic interactions with Christians and the heter mechira at the time of the early resettlement of Palestine in the late 19th century. There will be those like Rabbi Sperber who will view the desire for Partnership Minyanim as an authentic religious goal and strive to create a space within the halakha for it. In contrast, there will there be others condemn it as “chadash.”

But that brings me to my third point. I am struck by the overwhelming demand for uniformity of practice that is required by those who oppose Partnership Minyanim and who consider supporters of Partnership Minyanim to fall outside the pale of Orthodoxy. Take a different example. I suspect there is quite a divergence in practice on the second day of Yom Tov among Americans who go to Israel for holidays. Some do not observe the second day at all, some do not observe the second half of day, some distinguish between public and private activity, some are lenient with positive versus negative commandments, and on and on. Ignoring whether they are adhering to the position of their local rabbi or an available source from the Web that supports their preference, I am unaware of anyone describing any of these patterns of observance as un-Orthodox or asserting that they threaten the fabric of Orthodoxy. Is it unreasonable to ask for the same level of tolerance, and I use that word explicitly, towards those who attend Partnership Minyanim?  

Finally, with regard to the view of women and men that would prohibit participation in Partnership Minyanim, I think it is worth stating clearly that there are laws that have provoked profound moral debate over the millennia. The command to annihilate Amalek is one. In 1904, Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook responded to a question about the status of black people (Letter #89). He asserted that, in fact, maintaining blacks in a state of servitude is for their betterment because that condition is their essential nature and is hard wired into things. The Rav taught that the status of women is cosmically fixed and determined. I will simply say that these are hard positions for some modern people to accept and that failure to embrace them does not disqualify someone as an Orthodox Jew in 2013. 

In closing, as a doctor, I realize that medicine and religion are two very different activities. But, there is much that one can teach the other. In this age of blogs, social networks, and instant communication, there is much available information and people feel empowered to make decisions for themselves. Specialists in all fields may bemoan this development. Doctors are no different and many dread the patient who comes to a visit armed with ammunition from the Internet. But, in medicine, this has lead to the realization that doctors are not the end all and be all in health care. There is a growing recognition that patients’ experience of illness is a critical component in the evaluation and treatment of disease. Failure to acknowledge the patient’s perspective can cause even the best laid medical plans to fail. Why should this be? Doctors spend many years learning their craft and why wouldn’t patients simply follow the advice and prescriptions of doctors? The obvious answer is that every patient comes with a story and their disease unfolds over time in a rich context of family, friends, community and work. The wise doctor knows he/she better pay attention for the patient to have the best chance of getting better. I would ask Rabbis to listen to congregants, whatever minyan they go to.

Chaim Trachtman

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11 Responses to Partnership Minyanim: A Follow Up Response to Rabbi Freundel – by Dr. Chaim Trachtman

  1. Fantastic! Thank you for doing your best to offer a fair and balanced analysis and perspective on the backlash of this (obviously) relevant issue.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “Rabbi Freundel’s detailed analysis of the halakhic basis for Partnership Minyanim demonstrates an impressive mastery of the relevant texts.”

    Obviously, Dr. Trachtman has not read carefully the essays by Rabbi Freundel, or he would not concede this point.

    Rabbi Freundel’s analysis is shoddy; he consistently misreads texts, takes texts out of their context, fits irrelevant texts into his own invented framework, and generally conducts halachic malpractice. It is profoundly dangerous to the integrity of the halachic process to allow Rabbi Freundel’s analysis to pass as “proper Orthodox methodology”.

    While Rabbi Freundel may be correct in his policy conclusions, his way of doing “halachic analysis” is wrong and has been rightly questioned, publicly by Rav Henkin, shlita, as well as many other talmidei chachamim.

    • Anonymous says:

      Can anyone supply a link to Rav Henkin’s questioning of Rabbi Freundel’s analysis?

      • davidbkopp says:

        The closest I can get for now is that Rav Henkin posted a short comment leading to the below link:

        “Rabbi Y.H.Henkin on February 28, 2013 at 5:52 pm
        See Chana Luntz’ criticism –I should say refutation –of R. Freundel’s arguments in the Avodah list, volume 31 number 26.

        http://lists.aishdas.org/pipermail/avodah-aishdas.org/2013q1/025836.html

        So, suffice it to say I think he agrees with Luntz’s thoughts on the issue.

      • Anonymous says:

        “Rabbi Y.H.Henkin on March 6, 2013 at 1:37 pm
        I do not endorse partnership minyanim, similar to what I have
        written about women’s aliyot. My disagreement with Rabbi Freundel pertains to the why. I am not convinced that tefilah berabim is not a halachic invention.
        (I also do not think that labeling something as Sephardic makes it irrelevant to discussion.)
        There was another reason for my posting: to bring Chana Luntz to the attention of a wider audience. I find her writings clear and cogent.”

  3. Roberta Kwall says:

    I am delighted to see this blog incorporate so many discussions concerning partnership minyanim. In December, I published a comprehensive law review article in the Cardozo Law Review entitled: The Cultural Analysis Paradigm: Women and Synagogue Ritual as a Case Study. The article demonstrates why the Orthodox rejection of women laining and receiving aliyot is primarily culturally based. Rather than discuss the work of even traditional Conservative authorities such as Joel Roth, I rely exclusively on Orthodox thinkers to make the halakhic case for a more inclusive approach (especially Professor Daniel Sperber and Mendel Shapiro). I also give the wonderful book edited by Chaim Trachtman on this topic considerable play. Trachtman’s global point in this post is absolutely correct–no law (secular or Jewish) is completely autonomous; extralegal factors and cultural influences always play a part. Sometimes within the Jewish tradition there is little wiggle room notwithstanding this reality. On the issue of women’s participation in these types of ritual, however, there is a very strong case for an alternative perspective. My piece explores in detail the underlying sociological reasons for the prevalent resistance to the adoption of more inclusive practices.

    There are two additional points I would like to make that I have not seen discussed by any of the posts on this issue. First, partnership minyamim operate from a grass-roots, bottom up perspective. But these venues are not always sufficient as people mature, have families, and require more institutional infrastructure. Second, the current resistance on the part of Orthodoxy on an institutional level impacts not only Orthodox women. Speaking as a “frum” Conservative Jew, I believe it also impacts young women raised as Conservative Jews but who gravitate toward Modern Orthodox synagogues for a variety of reasons as they enter their twenties and thirties. These women were taught how to lain and often feel saddened by their inability to do so in their new environments. Therefore, I would hope that the rabbinic leadership of at least some Modern Orthodox synagogues will seriously contemplate the themes that are being discussed in these posts and perhaps become more open a greater sense of inclusivity. That said, however, I am not overly optimistic about this happening anytime too soon based on my analysis of the reasons for resistance.

    Yasher Ko’ach to Dr. Trachtman for his insightful post and his work generally in this area!

  4. > I would invite anyone who questions the validity of Partnership Minyanim to attend one

    With all due respect this is a loaded question. Anyone who questions the validity of Partnership services will not attend one. All the “careful efforts” made to remain loyal to halacha will be seen in the same light as those used in Conservative temples to remain “faithful” to tradition.

  5. moo says:

    How patronizing for women – this blatant white-knighting. Only if you participate in the “Partnership” is there a minyan to be had at all. Only through your accommodation of the “delicate manuevering” and “careful attention to roles” is there any hope, even in your own formulation, of a tether to “Orthodox practice”. What reward is due to you for your sacrifice of your own Avodat Hashem from the women blessed enough to be allowed to participate in your services? Your post would gain credibility if you disclosed your own “ulterior motive”.

    Enlighten us as to what motivates someone like you to risk their own kavanah during tefilla, to act as an agent of change with its implicit rejection of prior practice as lacking somehow, and to tar those who do not share your enthusiasm for advancing the feminist imperative as less than “modern people”? My interest is genuine, even if my comment may be confrontational.

  6. StevenW says:

    Powerfully and persuasively argued. Well done.

  7. So as a physician let me present an analogy:
    When guidelines are promulgated in the medical literature they are generally produced by world experts, the kind of folks that read 1000 papers and critically analyze each before releasing their opinions. The average internist or family doctor, having read a handful of papers in comparison and at a far lower level of analysis, might also want to release guidelines on a given condition. And whose guidelines would you follow?
    In other words, you have major poskim in the Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist and Chareidi communities, men with encyclopedic knowledge of the halachic sources from all across the religious spectrum, who reject the partnership minyan. On the other side you have (maybe) a single posek and a bunch of well-meaning folks with a decent level of learning encouraging it.
    So whose psak would you follow?

    • Right, Garnel. All those men with encyclopedic knowledge and one unified goal. To maintain the status quo. Who’s psak would I follow? Give me just one rabbi who has shoulders broad enough to posken for equality for women within the halachic framework. I’ll hold by him. But I can’t wait until I can say, I hold by HER.

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