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.