In a Battle of Jewish Beliefs, Who Deserves to Win?

Tension mounts when Orthodox and Conservative Jews want to pray together – but can't agree on how.

Alex Levac

On the eve of the Sukkot, at the suggestion of a dear friend and colleague, I packed a couple of suitcases, the kids’ scooters and a whole lot of gear and headed up with my family to a retreat about an hour from where we live for an all-inclusive celebration of the first days and Shabbat of the holiday. The event promised both egalitarian and non-egalitarian davening (prayer experiences) and I even volunteered to lead some of the tefillot (prayers) and read from the Torah.

Preparing for the weekend was proving to be a schlep, but it sounded fun and worth it. I was looking forward to joining a multi-denominational group of Jews to eat in the Sukkah, pray with our lulav and etrog, relax on a farm, meet new friends and enjoy some time away from the city with our toddlers.

However, when we arrived at the services on the first night, it became clear that there were not going to be enough participants to make up an egalitarian minyan (we had 8 people, not 10) or a non-egalitarian minyan (they had 8 men). What was the staff to do? In the end, the decision was made to join together for services with two seating options – separate and mixed genders – but the services themselves would be non-egalitarian.

All of this left me feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. It was assumed that those of us who wanted egalitarian services were willing to give up on our values because the Orthodox among us would not. We were thought to hold the value of communal prayer as higher than gender equality. Why, I wondered, weren’t those non-egalitarian folks asked to consider praying in an egalitarian space for part of the time so that they too might have a chance to show their willingness to allow the community’s values to override their personal values? And then I thought, in pluralistic settings, when is it worth sacrificing one’s own values for a community experience?

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz once wrote: “to work for Jewish unity in the spirit of Ahavat Yisrael, love for every Jew, in the interest of Klal Yisrael, the reality of the totality of the Jewish people, is an urgent demand of Torah-realization." If you understand Berkovitz to be suggesting that Jewish unity – not the ability to agree with one another but the ability to come together – has force, value and power, then we have to sometimes sacrifice our own individual needs for the greater good of coming together. Even the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) famously teaches “Kol Yisrael Aravim Ze B’Zeh,” all of Israel is responsible for one another.

In theory, this sounds fair, but practicing these values presents challenges: What should we do when our focus on the community impinges on our deepest personal beliefs and practices? Imagine a community holding a Holocaust Memorial event where the only synagogue with enough space for the everyone does not have a mechitza, or where a female cantor is to participate. Should the Orthodox community be expected to relinquish their beliefs about listening to women singing or praying so as to be able to participate in this important communal event? Or should the event organizers hang up a sheet to separate the women from the men, and replace the female cantor with a male? Who should be the one to give up their values for the needs of the community?

Standing on that farm on the eve of Sukkot, I asked myself, “What if the men of the egalitarian group had refused to make a non-egalitarian minyan on principle?” I wondered whether I should simply skip the tefillot altogether and pray on my own, since egalitarianism is a fundamental value and principle by which I live and practice Jewish life – one that I very much want to pass on to our children.

In the end, I chose to pray in the non-egalitarian setting. I decided that being able to hear the Torah get read, give mourners an opportunity to recite the Kaddish and to hear the entirety of the beautiful Sukkot tefillot was the higher ideal.

Yet, the experience left me, a passionate Conservative Jew and rabbi who believes in the value of pluralistic settings, feeling dissatisfied. As the Jewish year progresses, I hope our communities can find ways to pray, eat and learn together while upholding those values that are most fundamental to our Jewish principles, faith and practice.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com