Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Feminist look at Partnership Minyanim - Book Review and personal response

I just finished reading Elana Maryles Sztokman's book The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, which is a qualitative, interview based study of the men who participate in partnership minyanim.  For those unfamiliar, partnership minyanim were pioneered by a community in Jerusalem called Shira Hadasha.  The model is based on an article by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro in 2001 that suggested the halachic permissibility of women reading from, and getting aliyot to, the Torah in the context of a traditional Orthodox synagogue.  In the model of Shira Hadasha there are now 20+ such communities around the world, where women lead the parts of the service (Pesukei D'Zimra, Kabalat Shabbat, etc.) and participate equally in the Torah service.  These communities have mechitzot (the traditional partition between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue) but the service is led from a podium that either straddles the mechitza, or is in a central neutral area between the men's and women's sections.

I am a founding member and gabbai of such a minyan in Raanana, so I was curious to read Dr. Maryles Sztokman's insights into what motivates men to join them and how that plays out in the context of finding a balance between remaining Orthodox while pushing the boundaries in an egalitarian direction.  (The minyanim are not truly egalitarian, as I insisted when ours was named, they are just more egalitarian then the standard Orthodox model.) 

The first time I attended Shira Hadasha, I expected it to seem weird.  Although I loved the idea, I was sure that hearing women read Torah and lead services would take some getting used to at the instinctual level.  However, my reaction was just the opposite.  It felt like coming home, like everything was finally in the right place.  Like the harmony had been missing a part, and it was finally complete.  I started looking for opportunities to go back, and later brought my wife (a serial founder of women's tefilot), who also found it inspiring.  We held our daughters' bat mitzvah celebrations in the context of a partnership minyan (that we organized with our friends and family at a hotel).

The book begins by defining the "man box" of Orthodox masculinity.  Orthodox men are socialized to live up to an ideal of regular, punctual prayer with a minyan three times a day, with the ideal man being able to lead the service and Torah reading precisely and perfectly.   Emotion and devotion in prayer are essentially ignored in this construct, and men are judged by our peers in our ability to meet this standard.

Although I never thought if it in the oppressive terms that the author describes, the Orthodox "man-box" is truly as she describes.  She correctly points out that realization of this standard is dependent on others, usually women, in a supporting role - taking care of children especially.    I was very aware of this in my own life.  Although in college I was pretty good about making minyan regularly, once we had kids, I consciously decided that I did not see any great merit in being a Tzadik at someone else's expense, and only went to minyan when it did not interfere with my being home with the kids in the mornings.  However, I never really questioned the ideal of the "minyan man", I just decided that in the conflict between that ideal, and my ideal image of a father, I would temporarily give up one for the other.  Even after reading the book, and understanding her critique, I still see the "man box" she describes as a positive value.

The second part of Dr. Maryles Sztokman's book is about how the partnership minyan does, and does not, break the "man box" of Orthodox masculinity.  While she appreciates the efforts men must make to empathize with women's disenfranchisement in order to step aside and allow women's leadership alongside men's, she is critical of the way men somehow still find ways to hold on to power.  More importantly, she concludes that the partnership minyan is essentially a masculine construct that women are being allowed to participate in, rather than creating a joint construct in which men and women can share - not only the roles, but in the creation of the construct itself.

The book's critique rang very true to me, but I am not sure how to respond.  In today's world, if I wanted to participate in a fully egalitarian religious experience, I have options outside of Orthodoxy.  The reason I remain Orthodox is that, despite my own difficulties with traditional structures, I am not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.    I want to reform from within, not break away.   Clearly, women are paying most of the price for the slowness of this reform.    Is the price worth it?  I guess individual women need to decide for themselves.

One thing I certainly took away from the book were specific ideas about what to avoid at our own minyan.  I certainly hope that some of the more egregious occurrences described in the book would not happen to us.  However, we do struggle with the need to balance the need to encourage new and unexperienced baalei tefilla and baalei keriah (both men and women) with the desire for a reasonable standard in quality.  I understand the author's concerns about how this standard impacts how people feel judged, but the reality is that it can be unpleasant to sit through a long service where the reading (the issue is mostly with Torah reading) is poor.  Reading the book has made me more conscious that we need to handle corrections gently and to be forgiving as new people take the very brave step of trying to lead the congregation.

Some of Dr. Maryles Sztokman's informants expressed their social need to remain Orthodox.  In my opinion, she was overly dismissive of this need.  Both men and women have a social need to belong.  By joining partnership minyanim, we risk our affiliation with the communities (beyond the direct prayer community) that we live in.  Especially in Israel, the schools our children go to, the social milieu we are part of, and the terminology we define ourselves by, are all Orthodox.    It is not surprising that many participants of the partnership minyanim want to make sure their membership in the minyan does not risk their acceptance in the larger community.  I personally think it is a lost fight, and I am not so hung up on the label, but I see where it comes from.  I am lucky enough to live in a community where, while the partnership minyan is controversial, my participation in it has not risked my ability to fully participate in other congregations in the area.   I also did not grow up in the Orthodox community, so I have less at stake.

However, on the larger issues, I question what we can do to make the service more reflective of the feminine while still remaining Orthodox.  The author has a lot of discussion of the way punctuality plays a negative role. I understand her point, and I certainly try hard not to make anyone individually feel bad about their late arrival.  However, I also know how uncomfortable it can be to wait for a minyan, especially when there are mourners who want to say Kaddish.  On the one hand, they want to say Kaddish.  On the other, I am concerned that they are made to feel uncomfortable for holding up the congregation because otherwise we would continue to a later part of the service, as Pesukei D'Zimra does not require a minyan.  What does a prayer service look like if no one worries about coming on time? We don't need everyone there, but without a minyan, there are issues I don't know how to solve.

What else can we change?  I would like to explore finding a way for men and women to lead services equally, and not just some parts as is currently practiced.  I am still examining the sources, but I see it as a project to undertake during my ordination studies.   However, that solves nothing from either the feminist or Orthodox perspectives.  From the feminist perspective, it is an extension of sharing roles in this masculine construct - it does not feminize the experience.  From the Orthodox perspective, it will make it harder for partnership members to see themselves as Orthodox sociologically, and certainly for others to see them that way.

The book left me at a bit at a loss.  Is it possible, even in the long-term, to have an egalitarian Orthodoxy?  Is halacha so irredeemably patriarchal that we need to choose between our commitment to egalitarianism and our desire to remain part of halachic discourse?  Both my friends on the right and on the left would agree that I do have to choose.  I am still trying to explore how to reconcile these values.  As long as there are women (and in particular my life partner) who are willing to explore with me, I will continue to do so.

1 comment:

Elana said...

Shawn -- Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful response to my book. The book is meant to be the starting point of a conversation, not the end. So the fact that it left you wondering about what you want to keep from the "box", about what to do with your newfound insights -- that's very exciting to me. And I'm happy to be told that I haven't told the whole story, that there are more ways to look at it. That's great! I'm happy to continue to take the conversation further.
And don't be dejected -- there IS a way to reconcile orthodoxy and feminism. It takes awareness, and consciousness. And it starts right here.