Partnership Minyanim: A Response to Rabbi Barry Freundel – by Chaim Trachtman

January 30, 2013

[Chaim Trachtman is the editor of Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives. Dr. Trachtman is a pediatric nephrologist, a graduate of Haverford College and University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He is currently the Director of the Division of Nephrology at NYU Langone Medical Center and is the principal investigator for NIH-funded clinical trials in glomerular disease.]

Rabbi Freundel has weighed in on the topic of partnership Minyanim, opening his review with a lament that halakha has been “the silent partner in the development of Partnership Minyanim”, and concluding that there is no halakhic justification for women to lead tefillah.  I suggest that Rabbi Freundel check out Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectivesa book published in 2010 by KTAV and JOFA, and welcome him as a new partner in the dialogue.

Rabbi Freundel chooses to focus his review on tefilla be-tsibbur and specifically on the halakhic permissibility of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat. He asserts that the groundbreaking article by Mendel Shapiro (Edah Journal 2001) only addresses women being called to the Torah to get an aliya or to read a portion. However, Rabbi Shapiro does distinguish between parts of the tefilla that involve dvarim she-bi-kedusha such as borchu, the amidah, and kedusha versus other parts of the tefilla. He posits that the former category can be led by women while the later portions mandate leadership by men with a quorum of at least ten men. This is the key point that must be considered in analyzing Rabbi Freundel’s position. If tefilla be-tsibbur is invoked anytime ten men constitute themselves into a group for prayer and covers everything from start to finish then Rabbi Freundel is correct and there is no space for women.  However, is there intellectual room for Rabbi Shapiro’s interpretation? I think the answer is yes. For one, the Rabbis clearly distinguished parts of the tefilla with regard to prohibitions about allowable conversation and interruption, indicating that the tefilla is not one homogeneous activity. In addition, as Rabbi Freundel acknowledges, it has been customary in many synagogues to allow underage boys to lead parts of the tefilla. Rabbi Freundel may disagree with this practice but it does support the notion that there is a gradient in intensity within the tefilla service. This variability in the sanctity of the tefilla provides a halakhic basis for decisors to justify the inclusion of women in select portions of the prayer service.

Rabbi Freundel appears to take a maximalist position of what constitutes tefilla be-tsibbur to include anything done that includes the word tefilla in it, such as tefillat ha-derech, tefilla ketzara. If ten people on a flight to Israel decided to say tefillat ha-derech together does that imply that that he would prohibit a woman from leading the recitation? Moreover, he goes even farther and asserts that the category of tefilla be-rabim, prayer said in a public setting, constitutes a diminished form of tefilla be-tsibbur, but a form of tefilla be-tsibbur nonetheless. As such, women would not be allowed to lead any such service. He uses this logic to further disqualify women leading Kabbalat Shabbat. But consider other forms of public prayer from which he is thereby excluding women. Communal services for Kristallnacht or Yom Hashoah usually include recitation of tehilim and conclude with Kaddish. Would Rabbi Freundel prohibit a woman from leading the recitation of the chapters of tehillim? The fact that women regularly participate in and lead services like this in many Modern Orthodox settings suggests that the community has a broader conception of tefilla be-tsibbur than Rabbi Freundel does.

Once Rabbi Freundel has decided what constitutes tefilla be-tsibbur, the key argument that he applies to prohibit women from leading the tefilla is their lower status as non-commanded versus men who are commanded in community prayer. The operative legal principle is that one who is not commanded cannot fulfill the obligation of one who is commanded to perform a mitzvah. However, Rabbinic classifications can and do change. The most compelling example is the movement towards inclusion of deaf individuals into full participation in Jewish life without exception. This Rabbinic adjustment flies in the face of the frequent Talmudic linkage and exclusion of minors, mentally incompetent, and deaf individuals as a class from the performance of mitzvoth and is evidence of the inherent dynamism of halakha. Moreover, it demonstrates the Rabbinic appreciation for the value of social inclusion, for the importance of ensuring that all members of Klal Yisrael feel like they are part of the collective. Indeed, there are Rabbis who feel that the same sensitivity should be applied to women, for whom the pain of social exclusion is no less poignant than that of the deaf. Some suggest that a new class of women should be created to acknowledge the profoundly different status of women in modern society – in secular and religious contexts. Partnership Minyanim reflect an acceptance of this position by a group of men and women in Israel and around the world.

Rabbi Freundel briefly addresses the issue of kevod ha-tsibbur and kevod ha-briyot in the justification for Partnership Minyanim. He speculates that there is no “evidence” of significant numbers of women to warrant the modifications to the traditional tefilla that are practiced in Partnership Minyanim. However, this rationale is problematic. For one, Chazal did not generally require hard statistical evidence to justify changes in practice. Second, the standard phrase used by the Rabbis is “go out a look” and if, in fact, we were to do just that we would find that most major American cities with significant Orthodox communities currently have at least one Partnership Minyan. According to research done by William Kaplowitz, there are some 25 or so Partnership Minyanim, and the number is growing all the time.

Another difficult claim is Rabbi Freundels’ presumption about what is in women’s minds. He argues that the modest changes that have been made in Partnership Minyanim are unlikely to satisfy women interested in participating in tefilla. Considering the sheer excitement with which women everywhere embrace their new-found practice of leading services and reading Torah, this is a very difficult claim to sustain. (See, for example, the beautiful description of the powerful effect that newly discovered Torah reading had on a group of women in Toco Hills, Atlanta, this past Simchat Torah.) Moreover, I can imagine many women taking offense at this analysis. Rather than using the advent of Partnership Minyanim with its limited changes as evidence that the women are trying to adhere to a halakhic framework while embracing expanded roles in tefilla, he patronizingly dismisses their spiritual yearnings and the meaningfulness of the practices that have been adopted.

Finally, an interesting aspect of Rabbi Freundel’s review is his assertion that that irrespective of the origins of Kabbalat Shabbat in Kabbalistic prayer services in the 15th and 16th centuries, it is now a staple of tefilla be-tsibbur. He justifies this by prioritizing a survey of current practices about Kabbalat Shabbat which show that Orthodox Jews around the world go to shul Friday night and say Kabbalat Shabbat and end it with Kaddish. Therefore, it is an integral part of the tefilla and can only be led by a man. But, if we give such credence to current practice, that undermines one of the key criticisms of Partnership Minyanim, namely that the fact that it was not done in the past is the strongest halakhic proof that is it impermissible.

It is important to note that most Partnership Minyanim are self-constituting. They always represent the product of a choice made by a community of like minded people and are never imposed from the outside. As Rabbi Sperber has correctly written, they will not seem necessary or be satisfying for many people. But for those groups of women and men who embrace this as a form of tefilla, it is important to acknowledge that there is substantive halakhic basis for them to draw upon and that the social need they are addressing is immediate and legitimate. Moreover, the decision to form a Partnership Minyan should not be viewed as an intellectually dishonest stitching together of random sources to create something from nothing. As David Berger points out in an thoughtful essay in the new book “Radical Responsibility” dedicated to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbis who adopted novel positions did not see themselves as capitulating to external circumstances but rather as formulating  responses that they thought were right, that were compatible with their conception of the overall objectives of halakha. So too for those like Rabbi Sperber and Shapiro who have written in support of Partnership Minyanim. I fully respect Rabbi Freundel’s detailed response. But I would hope that he see Modern Orthodoxy as broad enough to include those who adopt practices that differ from his own.

Chaim Trachtman, New Rochelle, NY