Recent opposition within British Orthodoxy to partnership minyanim – Orthodox services with greater female participation – poses a test case for a bigger question: are people in today’s world still prepared to submit to a group of rabbis whom they feel to be out of touch with their reality?
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In his recent attack on partnership minyanim, Rabbi Harvey Belovski asserts that there is no justification for this form of egalitarian prayer in Jewish law. The criticism, officially sanctioned by the British United Synagogue Rabbinic Council, rests, for all of its scholarly and technical language, on one simple argument: We, the consensus Orthodox Rabbinate, have total authority and it is illegitimate to follow anyone who disagrees with us.
It is a straightforward and unashamed attempt to stake out authority, brought on by the fear that authority seems to be slipping away.
Belovski hints at this fear by suggesting that accepting partnership minyanim might push some worshippers into different denominations, beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. This is a cheap and disingenuous move, avoiding genuine engagement and playing to the presumption that everyone in Orthodoxy is convinced of the non-legitimacy of every other denomination of Judaism. This is also implied by his insistence that no other halakhic authorities back Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s position in support of partnership minyanim. He means Orthodox halakhic authorities - other denominations are simply not even worth mentioning.
Regime of fear
Trying to articulate a positive statement of values has always been problematic for Orthodoxy. It prefers to preserve authority through a more fear-based regime, wherein anyone who takes an ‘excessively’ progressive stance is suddenly branded an outcast, treif. Blacklisted projects include anything interdenominational such as Limmud and JcoSS (a pluralist school), with the list growing as the anxiety of the rabbinate increases. Partnership minyanim are just the latest example.
Those involved in partnership minyanim might well be feeling frustrated. They’ve tried so hard to respect Orthodox practice, to follow a reputable and learned rabbinic expert, to ground every decision in traditional halakhic process.
But it would never be enough; in a world where fundamentalism is on the rise, where the treatment of women in conservative religion is getting worse rather than better, any pathways to progress were always going to arouse fierce resistance.
Authority bellows loudly when it feels the ground is giving. The Frimer responsa against partnership minyanim, at 172 highly detailed pages, bears witness to this desperation.
The folly of such an encyclopedic response is clear. Halakha – literally, the way – is about balancing the values of tradition with the changing circumstances of human existence. The meaning of any practice, let alone text, changes over time. Insisting that women stay at home or have little role in public worship was not a particularly significant statement in a time when women generally stayed at home and had little role in public life. The rabbis of ancient tradition were not especially or uniquely misogynist; they were simply following the ways of their world, as they had been for thousands of years.
But in a world where women exist outside the home, and play a major role in every aspect of public life, the decision to insist that they be segregated behind a curtain and offered no role in public worship has a very different meaning. It is a singular statement of sexual discrimination and oppression. It perhaps expresses a longing for a simpler, less confusing time, when women knew "their place" and the men could dominate unchallenged.
An evolving tradition
It is worth clarifying that the Jewish tradition has often evolved in ways that disregarded previous textual sources, and which left legislators struggling to keep up. Significant sections of the Talmud are dedicated to squaring practice with text, and this continues even into the works of the medieval Tosafists. It is a very modern conception that we inhabit a chain of unbroken practice, that any question can be answered by reference to textual examination. It marks, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argues, an age of religious insecurity, wherein a disconnect from any sense of God’s presence is bolstered by deeper commitment to His Texts.
Reflecting again on the changing meanings of practice, Rabbi Belovski’s statements of sympathy towards women at the end of the article also ring hollow. Perhaps he feels frustrated by the structural matrix he inhabits, but his article shows little willingness to challenge it.
His citing of English property law as a model for halakha also hits a sour note, given the ways that Jewish law has historically related to women as property, as something to be acquired. We should surely want to distance ourselves from comparisons which trigger such uncomfortable associations.
The nature of halakha and its role in Jewish life is beyond the scope of this article (I have written about it at length it elsewhere). But two poles of thinking can be put as follows. In one it is a heavenly code of law, on the basis of which God – or man – might decide punishments and excommunication, or which might seal one’s fate in the afterlife.
At the other pole it is "not in heaven" (Deut. 30:12), but it is a pathway of life, whose ways are those of pleasantness, catalyzing the revelation of God’s image in human life.
In line with this second option, many today have renewed faith that religion can be a powerful resource in the search for vitality, meaning and integrity. If partnership minyanim are part of such a renaissance then I believe they should be encouraged and accommodated. Striking such a committed and enthusiastic group from one’s camp can only be a very negative foreboding of things to come.