Why Hasn't the Orthodox Egalitarian 'Synagogue Revolution' Taken Hold in America?

Modern Orthodox synagogues are pushing the boundaries of custom and religious law to create a more egalitarian prayer experience. But most of these pioneering communities are found in Israel, rather than in the U.S.

It has been several weeks since the Talmud scholar Prof. Vered Noam published her article “Beyond the internal mehitza” in the Saturday magazine of the right-leaning daily Makor Rishon, and it continues to resonate on the internet and on Facebook walls.

The power of the article, which says nothing much that would be new to people concerned over the status of women in Orthodox Judaism, is in its cautious and non-threatening style. Its power also derives from Noam’s status, both as a highly regarded Talmud scholar and the scion of one of the most prominent Israeli religious Zionist families (she is the daughter of Bible scholar Prof. Yehuda Elizur and the author Rivka Elizur.)

In other words, Noam is no leftist, which makes it more difficult to dismiss or ignore her.

Her main argument, for anyone who missed the article, is that women’s status, as expressed in traditional synagogues, requires the Orthodox to live life in extreme dissonance. On weekdays women are an inseparable part of human activity as well as civic and communal action and leadership, but on Shabbat they withdraw to a passive and paralyzed female niche.

Although many women and men have grown used to this dissonance, Noam argues that it exacts a heavy price, which very soon all of Orthodoxy will have to pay. In her own words: “The social absurdity that the synagogue creates with regard to everything that we know about our place as men, as women and as a society, empties this place from our personal and societal authenticity. The removal of women from public religious activity (yes, circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, the wedding ceremony, funeral and the study of the daily page of Talmud) removes this activity itself from life to the museum.”

While Israeli blogs and their readers were beginning to quarrel over the article, it crossed the ocean and began to make the rounds in my new neighborhood in New York. Here it raised additional questions, best formulated by Rabbi Dr. Adam Mintz, a pillar of Modern Upper West Side Orthodoxy and head of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim. In a letter to Prof. Noam he wrote:

My question–and I have been bothered by this issue for some time–is why the women in the large Orthodox communities of America, the Teanecks and the Woodmeres and so many places in between, seem to be satisfied with the status quo. Are they not really satisfied but unable or unwilling to raise their voices? Are they traditionalists, as you describe, to the point that they are willing to sacrifice their own religious self-fulfillment in order to “daven like their mothers and grandmothers”?

Mintz’s question is significant especially in light of the changes that have come out of American Modern Orthodoxy. After all, as every young religious woman knows (and every adult secular person), Israeli feminism - both religious and non-religious - arrived with a heavy American accent. At any event or demonstration of a feminist nature in Israel there’s no escaping the impassioned speeches in charmingly Anglo-Saxon intoned Hebrew , by whoever is then the presiding representative of the generation of the founders (such as Prof. Naomi Hazan, Prof. Alice Shalvi, Prof. Frances Raday, and others).

But here is the great mystery: The semi-egalitarian synagogues, the Orthodox trend that began in the Jerusalem congregation Shira Hadasha in 2001 and in recent years has caught on in dozens of other places in Israel, from Be’er Sheva to Modi’in and Mazkeret Batya, has been unable to breach the wall of establishment Modern Orthodoxy in the United States.

Except for congregation Darkhei Noam in Manhattan and here and there at campus minyans (prayer quorums), the Orthodox bon ton has turned its back on the distinguishing features of what are known as partnership minyans - prayer groups seeking a more gender-egalitarian form and content.

What are these features? The answer is not unanimous, because not all partnership minyans have the same customs. But in all of them, the synagogue features a mehitza (divider between men and women) in the middle, so that the Holy Ark and the bima are in both sides. Women take part not only in preaching, but also other rituals, such as leading certain prayers, reading the Torah and the Haftara, and reciting the blessings before the Torah reading. The general spirit of these minyans is the effort to find, within halakha (Jewish law) increasing flexibility that will allow women to take part in religious activity and not only to stare at it from behind a curtain, by relating more freely than is usually the case to rabbinic rulings.

Mintz’s surprise with regard to the small number of partnership minyans in the United States is magnified by the contribution of American Orthodoxy to starting the revolution in Torah and Talmud study among women that has come so much into American as well as Israeli batei midrash (study houses).

Mintz writes: “When it comes to Torah and Talmud study, women in America have achieved equal access in high schools, Stern College, Drisha and numerous shiurim in shuls and private homes. The women have demanded it and they have passed this desire to their daughters and granddaughters. Why is this not the case when it comes to shul ritual?”

This is a fascinating sociological question. Why does one community push the revolution in study ahead, while another puts no less strong an emphasis on the revolution in synagogues? What is the difference between two such communities that could explain the unique trends in each?

First it must be admitted that the imaginary wall I have put up between the Israeli and the American community is somewhat artificial. After all, it is clear that dialogue cross-fertilizes them and people flow back and forth. Prof. Tova Hartman, a founder of Shira Hadasha, is a typical product of North American Orthodoxy, and anyone who has been to Shira Hadasha will not be able to miss the clear majority of English speakers there. And yet Hartman and her fellow founders at Shira Hadasha did this in Jerusalem not in Brooklyn and certainly not in the Five Towns. In my opinion, this is no coincidence.

One answer to the Israeli place in the synagogue revolution is fairly simple: Partnership minyans were born and bred in Israel simply because there was no alternative in Israel. While in the United States an Orthodox young woman who begins to nurture a feminist awareness can with relative ease find an outlet for her feelings in a Conservative synagogue near home. But in Israel it is far less convenient. Lacking available Conservative synagogues, until about a decade ago an Orthodox young woman who has trouble with the marginal position Orthodoxy has recorded her in religious life, could pack her bags and become secular or, preferably, get married and bury her sorrows in the raising of children.

The birth of Shira Hadasha and its offshoots, even though they are still somewhat marginal phenomena in relation to the majority of Orthodox communities in Israel, allowed these frustrated women to stay within the realm of halakha - stretching it to the maximum so that they, too, could find a place in its framework.

Another explanation, somewhat more speculative, involves the unique character of each community. While the revolution in Torah and Talmud study came out of the Diaspora, the more ritual aspect of the change took place in Israel, the cradle of activist Zionism. In fact, each community generated the change with the tools it had at its disposal, where it felt most comfortable.

In the United States it started by opening books, because study has always been a focus of Jewish life in the Diaspora and therefore it is logical that the change would begin in this realm. In Israel, the revolution had to have a more tangible manifestation - more connected to daily life. Perhaps even - more impertinent. In a kind of daring halakhic Tower and Stockade settlement - the way early twentieth-century Zionists built settlements despite British Mandate prohibitions - a number of congregations shook off the old rules of the game and developed operational initiatives of their own (with a halakhic support based on the articles of a number of rabbis). As the Zionism credo has it, talk is not enough. Real changes has to be seen on the ground, has to percolate into routine, as a matter, as the Jewish prayer has it, of tikkun olam - “repair of the world.”

There is some irony, considering that the same culture of determining facts on the ground and finding retroactive excuses that can be considered typical of pre-state Zionism, is the one that gives Orthodoxy its first push outside the mindset in which it had become stuck.

The further irony is that we now have a situation in which this same 'can do, will do' psychological mechanism has been adopted simultaneously - but in very different contexts - as an identifying symbol by both settlers in the occupied territories, who establish outposts and illegal settlements, and by the liberal wing of the religious Zionist movement.

This time, it is the moderates who have had enough of passively waiting for redemption, and have decided to precipitate matters, to save Orthodoxy from itself. It is that same defiant mood that, in its political-settler incarnation, threatens Israel with destruction and, in its moderate form, can save it. Now it remains to be seen which of these manifestations leaves a more lasting mark upon the generations to come.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York.

Michal Fattal