Partnership Minyanim: Let’s Live and Let Live. by R. Yosef Kanefsky

I might be wrong, and hope that I am. But I have a growing sense that a full-scale assault on Partnership Minyanim is brewing, the goal of which is to define these Minyanim as being “over the red line”, outside the pale of Orthodoxy. I do understand what might motivate such an effort, and I recognize the religious sincerity and constructive intentions of colleagues who might feel it’s an important thing to do. And at the same time, I am absolutely positive that doing this would constitute a terrible, even tragic mistake. And I would plead that they reconsider.

The reason that it would be a terrible and tragic mistake is that it would have precisely the opposite effect than the one intended. The move to write Partnership Minyanim, and the Orthodox Jews who daven in them, out of Orthodoxy is animated by the desire to prevent a slide toward (non-Halachik) egalitarianism. But the reality is that Partnership Minyanim are precisely the greatest bulwark against exactly that slide.

Contrary to common assumption, people who choose to daven in Partnership Minyanim are not doing so because they are seeking to evade or erode Halacha. They are choosing to daven in Partnership Minyanim davka because they are seeking to live within Halacha. Partnership Minyanim are the one and only way that these Orthodox Jews can simultaneously affirm their commitment to Halacha, and be true to their deeply held ideals concerning the religious dignity of both men and women. The Minyan is a lifeline.

But is the Halachik argument which supports Partnership Minyanim correct? This is the subject of passionate debate, with many Orthodox rabbis having written in opposition to it, and a small number having written in support. When determining our communal policy however, the pertinent question is not whether the halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is correct. It is rather whether the Halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is viable, is defensible. Because this determines whether these Minyanim are a threat to – or a safeguard of – people’s Halachik commitment.

And the answer to the question of Halachik viability is a firm “yes”. The Halachik argument is built upon a viable, defensible reading of the Talmud in Megilla, which in principle includes women among the public readers of the Torah. And it is built upon ample evidence that the concern for the “dignity of the congregation”, on which basis the Talmud rejects the inclusion of women as Torah readers, is a concern that is subject to change. Numerous Halachik sources in a variety of other contexts support the idea that a congregation may decide that its dignity is not compromised, despite the Talmud’s concern. There are, of course, other ways to interpret these sources. But the salient points here are that Partnership Minyanim conform with a viable reading of the Halachik sources, and that they are deliberately and thoughtfully conceived, designed and brought to life within a commitment to the Halachik framework. One may disagree with the interpretation of the sources. But one cannot deny the conscious Orthodox quality of the endeavor.

As such, Partnership Minyanim are clearly serving as the place within the Orthodox tent where people are able to remain faithful both to Halacha and to their commitment to the spiritual and ethical value of equal dignity. Take these Minyanim away, and you create a new and forbidding landscape in which young people raised with these twin passions are left with nowhere in the Orthodox world to turn. And even more tragically these young people will conclude, with justification, that the Orthodox rabbinate knowingly denied and suppressed viable halachik readings in order to bar women from greater participation in Jewish ritual life.

In 1956, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l expressed his opposition to Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and ruled that it is forbidden to mark a Bat Mitzvah in shul. We must count ourselves fortunate that Rav Moshe didn’t go so far as to draw a “red line” and categorize any shul in which a Bat Mitzvah ceremony took place as being “not Orthodox”. It’s hard to imagine the kind of hemorrhaging from Orthodoxy that such a decision would have caused over the ensuing decades.

We all need to be responsible and realistic about the consequences of our actions. The vocal opponents of Partnership Minyanim should of course, for the sake of Heaven, express their opposition, and explain their halachik objections. But I urge with all my soul that they resist the calls to draw a “red line”. Nothing good will come of it, and a huge amount of damage would certainly be done.

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27 Responses to Partnership Minyanim: Let’s Live and Let Live. by R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. Mr. Cohen says:

    Ari L.Goldman published an article in The New York Times on March 19, 1992, on page B1, about Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, who became the first woman in history to undergo the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, in 1922 CE.

    According to this article, the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was originally invented by the Reconstructionist “Judaism” movement.

    NOTE: Reconstructionist “Judaism” claims that the Torah is NOT from G_d!

    Debra Nussbaum Cohen of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published an obituary article about Judith Kaplan Eisenstein [the first woman in history to undergo the Bat Mitzvah ceremony] on February 23, 1996, stating that at the time of her death at age 86, she had ONE grandchild.

    NOTE: Most 86-year-old Orthodox Jewish women have several dozen grandchildren.

    SOURCE: http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/3036/edition_id/53/format/html/displaystory.html

    • Dan says:

      As Hacham Ovadiah ztz”l noted in his teshuvah on the subject of Bat Mitzvah celebrations, the practice dates already to the 19th c. or earlier in sephardi and mizrachi communities.

      No need to “bolster” your point with arguments ad hominem (NB: it is a logical fallacy) against the Reconstructionist movement and Judith Eisenstein.

    • Steven says:

      Although Mordecai Kaplan’s writings are part what formed the Reconstructionist Movement, he was an Orthodox rabbi (and a founder of Young Israel) who spent his entire academic career at JTS. Although his view of Judaism and modernity were already starting to evolve by the time of his daughter’s bat mitzvah, he did not publish Judaism as a Civilization until 12 years later. There was no Reconstructionist Movement in 1922 to ‘invent’ a bat mitzvah.

      And, how many grandchildren did MM Schneerson have?

  2. David Heller says:

    Without regard to the halakhic issues of partnership minyanim, the idea that Orthodoxy must become more like non-Orthodoxy to “…safeguard… people’s Halachik commitment” is a non-sequitor. In every generation, some percentage of Jews has always moved away from halakha and assimilated. Sad, but 100% retention has never been possible. So why is there a renewed fuss about it in Orthodoxy? It is certainly disappointing if some small number of people leave Orthodox shuls to pursue egalitarianism, but they can still be Jews and still keep “other” halakhot such as kashrut, shabbat, taharat hamishpacha, even send their kids to Modern Orthodox day schools like some non-Orthodox rabbis do, while being members of Conservative or Reform synagogues. The Pew Study seems to indicate that doesn’t stick for more than a generation or two. If people need to label themselves as “Orthodox” without wanting to worship as part of a (lower case “o”) orthodox Jewish community, then perhaps the real issue is not egalitarianism, but rather cognitive dissonance. No wonder so many of us Jews needs therapy. :)

  3. Roberta Kwall says:

    Yasher koach to Rabbi Kanefsky for a thoughtful, well crafted reply and for his willingness to write this post!!

  4. Lisa says:

    So-called “Partnership Minyanim” have always been outside of Orthodox Judaism. Unfortunately, a lot of Orthodox Jews thought they were an oddity that would go away over time, so they didn’t bother coming out strongly against them. Now it’s clear that they’re a problem. Part and parcel of the Morethodoxy/Edah/YCT/JOFA/Open “Orthodox”/IRF assault on Orthodox Judaism.

    In many “Partnership Minyanim”, they won’t start davening until there are 10 adult men and 10 adult women present. Because egalitarianism is more important to them than actually davening.

    Saying that it’s a “lifeline” for people who can’t get past their misguided adherence to egalitarianism is no argument at all. You might as well say that intermarriage is a “lifeline” for people who can’t get past their feelings of universalism.

  5. Sammy says:

    Rabbi Kanefsky, could you please explain why you think that this approach is different from how the Conservative Movement was initially conceived?

    Also, Rav Moshe’s psak was argued upon by other contemporary Torah giants, such as Rav Ovadia. Could the same be said for Partnership Minyanim?

    • Elli Sacks says:

      Rav Ovadia ztz”l did not address Partnership Minyanim per se, but he did examine women’s aliyot, both in writing and in public lectures.

      In all of these, he consistently found that a woman today can discharge the community’s obligation when she goes up for an aliyah. In writing, he hedges whether this practice should be permitted, lest we lend credence to the non-Orthodox movements.

      However, in his public shiurim he was much more permissive, stating that if a woman is called to the Torah by name, she must go up and no one can object.

      Here is a recording of the lecture:

      [audio src="http://www.ise.bgu.ac.il/faculty/kalech/judaism/ovadia_yosef.mp3" /]

      The relevant portion is between 16:15 – 24:30.

      (If you want a transcript and a translation of this, I can send it to you privately.)

  6. Lisa – not sure where you get your information. But not all partnership minyanim require 10 men and 10 women. The one I attend does not – we wait for 10 men and then start, like any Orthodox minyan would. Your lack of knowledge on this point makes me suspicious of your other assertions, to say the least.

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s the rub. If partnership Minyans need to define themselves so as to be included as acceptably orthodox then orthodoxy can define them as out of bounds. I’m not taking sides but there are two sides of every line drawn. Be careful how you draw those lines.

      • Anonymous says:

        Who says partnership minyanim need to define themselves as orthodox? I belong to a partnership minyan and I speak for myself, but most probably for many in my community,when I say we are beyond “orthodox.” We are beyond titles. No where on our website do we claim to be orthodox. We are “halachically observant.” We are post-denominational. What is orthodox anyway? Walk into any orthodox shul and ask congregants to raise their hands if they use their oven on Shabbat. How many will say yes and how many no? Bet it’s a clean split. How many women cover their hair? Think it’s split again? Yup! Whose more orthodox, the girl who davens 3 times a day, is a kind and generous soul, who keeps strict laws of kashrut but wears pants or the girl who wears only skirts and may or may not do the rest? Orthodox is just a silly word that means nothing. At our minyan, you are there because you want to be, not out of obligation to recite a bunch of words without any thought as is the case at many “orthodox” shuls. We observe Halacha. That’s it. Don’t need to be defined by anything other than what we are and what we do.

      • David Heller says:

        That you needed to define your particular partnership minyan as different from the one you inferred that correspondent Lisa assumed demonstrates the need. Semantic lines need to be drawn for a rational discussion of assertions that partnership Minyans are Orthodox. Without my taking sides, I would say that self-defined voluntary membership Orthodox organizations like OU and NCYI have a right and need to assert for their member shuls definitions of (lowercase “o”) orthodox practices in the face of innovation. And such assertions are the subject about which R. Kanefsky wrote. Your comparison to individual halakhic practice is moot; we are talking about a communal practice with specific spiritual consequences, not individual practice using the free will that Hashem gives us.

    • Lisa says:

      William, did you not notice that I wrote “Many Partnership Minyanim” do that? Are you arguing that this is not true?

      The issue with these groups is that they aren’t the result of someone learning the halakha and saying, “Hmm… this seems to call for a change in practical halakha.” They are the result of someone saying, “Egalitarianism is a very important value. Let’s see how far we can bend the halakha in the direction of egalitarianism without breaking it entirely.”

      For thousands of years, we have made siyyagim for the Torah. We don’t light candles 1 minute before shkiya, both because it’s risky, and because it would demonstrate a lack of respect for the halakha. What advocates of these groups want to do is get right up next to the line. No margin whatsoever. They want to be able to smell the sweet aroma of egalitarianism.

      But egalitarianism is not a Torah value. Not in any way, shape or form. We distinguish between light and dark, between Shabbat and Yom Tov and chol, between male and female, between adult and child, between Jew and non-Jew, between Kohen and Levi and Yisrael. Judaism is all about making distinctions. It’s never about blurring them.

      Lastly, I’d like to be able to give you the benefit of the doubt. But to suggest that I said all of these groups do the 10 men and 10 women shtick and use that to declare “suspicion” for my assertions, when what I wrote was right there in front of your face, makes it very difficult to do so.

      • Chaim Kram says:

        Lisa, you are uninformed. First of all, egalitarianism *is* a “Torah value”. Read R. Sperber’s essay on the subject which leans heavily on the value of “Kavod HaBriyot”. Partnership minyanim are based on the belief that all people, men and women, deserve honor inasmuch as the halakhah will allow. Is this not a form of egalitarianism, whereby we attempt to accord equal (maximal) honor to all of God’s creatures?

        Second, partnership minyanim do learn the halakhah before reaching decisions. Your simple, black-and-white world might be ok for you, but out here in the real world we have to balance conflicting values. And yes, these are conflicting “Torah values”, and reasonable people can disagree about the resolution of such conflicts. But to arrogantly dismiss them outright is certainly not the “ways of pleasantness” for the Torah of which you speak so highly.

  7. R. Kanefsky said: ” Partnership Minyanim are the one and only way that these Orthodox Jews can simultaneously affirm their commitment to Halacha”…

    Eh. There’s a difference between “can” and “will”. It’s not that they can’t. They won’t.

    I’ve got plenty of my own inconsistencies in observance of Orthodoxy, but I don’t necessarily want my inconsistencies /personal hypocrisies to change how an entire community lives.

    The minyan is a communal ritual. It appears there’s a lot of anger around including women into ritual To attempt change to Orthodox Judaism in order to appeal to people who are angry with halacha/the system is anathema to Orthodox Judaism.

    People are complex. We all have some value in our lives that conflicts with another. We can, as individuals, accept that conflict or resolve it. Many people have resolved their conflicts with Orthodoxy by going to Conservative synagogues. OK, that’s a choice.

    To institutionalize partnership minyanim, call it Orthodox, and ask mainstream Orthodoxy to accept that seems problematic to me. Nobody wants to see Jews stop being frum, but it seems many compromises to halacha are being made in an attempt to keep people observant. If a synagogue is going to do it, fine. Let them do it, but why institutionalize it, call it Orthodox, and go public about it, asking everyone else to accept it?

    • Lisa says:

      Dana has hit it right on the head. Just because someone wants to daven a certain way doesn’t mean they have to. It seems like Kanefsky is riffing on the GLBT issue and saying that egalitarianism is something you’re born with. I can assure you, it is not.

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    Jewish immigrants from countries like: Syria, Iran, Yemen and Bukhara show ZERO INTEREST in Egalitarian minyanim, because Egalitarianism is NOT a popular value in the countries they come from. But many American Jews like Egalitarian minyanim, because Egalitarianism is a very popular value in America.

    BOTTOM LINE:
    Egalitarian minyanim are inspired by American values,
    not Torah values.

    • Steven says:

      Another straw man.

      Jewish immigrants from countries like: Syria, Iran, and Yemen show ZERO INTEREST in the prohibition against kitnyot, because the prohibition against kitnyot is NOT a popular value in the countries they come from. But many Ashkenazic Jews like the prohibition against kitnyot, because the prohibition against kitnyot is a very popular value among Ashkenazim.

      BOTTOM LINE:
      Prohibitions against kitnyot are inspired by Ashkenazic values,
      not Torah values.

      • Your logic leaves much to be desired. Kitniyos is not a value or style. It’s a rule. Egalitarianism is not in the same category at all.

      • Yosef says:

        Steven,

        I don’t think that the example you chose conveys your thought sufficiently. The ban against kitniyot (to my knowledge) was a practical response to storage practices in different parts of the world (apart from Europe, there was the Ottoman empire, particularly Istanbul), not the result of any particular ideology.

        There are examples that might serve your purpose, but I wouldn’t want to argue with those who made the rulings. Maybe you would?

    • David Heller says:

      Yes, inspired by American values. Are orthodox shuls to be run by secular American values or by Torah values? Torah is the sine qua non of Judaism. For consequences of American values before Torah values, see the Pew Study.

    • Yosef says:

      It may be true that Jewish Egalitarian thought is inspired by American values, but that does not inherently mean that the idea itself is false. I am under the impression that most communities are affected by their surroundings, not just for cut and dry halachic issues, but also for certain gray areas.

      There is an example that I hesitate slightly to give, for I have not seen the source itself. The Ben Ish Chai apparently ruled that a man may make a blessing in the presence of a woman whose hair was uncovered because the men there were used to the sight of women with their hair uncovered (I can not remember at this time where “there” was).

      There does seem to be some room for leeway when it comes to the surrounding society. I am no halachic authority, but maybe there is halachic leeway for an egalitarian minyan, if the pervasive society accepts egalitarian ideals? You seem to have nailed this issue down fairly well, perhaps you could provide an explanation?

  9. If women are allowed to lead or get Aliyahs, then what is the purpose of the mechitza? These 2 concepts seem to conflict.

  10. Your logic is faulty. If participants in a “partnership minyan” are committed to Orthodoxy then why do they need to emphasize the egalitarianism?
    If a partnership minyan waits for both 10 men and 10 women (I did read the comment above that some don’t) and they reach laining and there’s only 9 women do they skip ahead to mussaf in the hopes of a female latecomer showing up?
    The bottom line is that these are folks who see the Conservative “grass” as being greener but don’t want to move to the other side so they maintain a modicum of Orthodoxy (the mechitza) in the hopes that no one notices they’re slowly abandoning everything else.

  11. Steven Katz says:

    There are scholarly, esteemed orthodox rabbis who support partnership minyanim. Kol Sasson Congregation has never had a problem finding one to advise us. I pay as much attention to the orthodox rabbis who say that it is forbidden to attend our services as I do to the rabbis who say that a secular Israel is forbidden. Had I been living in the 1920′s, I also would have ignored Rav Kook’s ruling that women cannot vote in Yishuv elections.

    There is tidal wave of increasing women’s integration into the secular world and Jewish scholarship. This will inevitably impact their participation in religious life in a way that those inflexible rabbis will be unable to prevent.

  12. David Sklar says:

    An analogy: A time existed not so long ago where respected rabbis argued about the halachic permisability of eruvs in America. Those who opposed to the application of creative solutions to current living situations that conformed with halachic precedents did so for two reasons: They either disagreed as to how various rishonim and acharonim would have decided given the population size or street orientation of modern cities or they disagreed primarily (and vociferously voiced their feelings with embarrassing candor) because they simply felt that eruvs would ultimately lead the orthodox community to desecrating Shabbat starting with a lenient attitude toward Carrying. At that time, as now, there was a need for eruvs in the orthodox community and the rabbinate not only saw to it that eruvs were halachically supported and erected, but that pressure was put on the opposing rabbis to grant their communal support, even if they personally did not hold by the specific legal arguments. City eruvs in America became commonplace. As a consequence, the participation of women and children (in strollers) on Shabbat in synogogue or shiurim or at meals at other’s homes has increased the enjoyment of shabbat for countless families; indeed eruvs has inadvertently increased observance of shabbat in America!

    Partnership Minyanim are no different. Whether or not one agrees with the legal arguments that support a community’s ( a tzibur’s) right to permit woman to leyn torah, lead pesukei dezimra or kabbalat shabbat, etc, is not important to the overall health of the halachic system: Partnership Minyanim do NOT threaten “orthodoxy”. Perhaps these communities will likewise inadvertently increase observance of mitzvot in America.

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