A Partnership Minyan permits women to lead parts of the tefilla service, to read from the Torah, to carry it and to get an Aliyah. The women who attend are often uplifted by the experience. All this, and it’s still Orthodox!? Is this possibly one of the Great New Ideas of our generation?
Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin is the head of ‘Nishmat’ college for higher Jewish education of modern orthodox women, including a programme for training ‘yoatzot halacha’. As such he is probably one of the most connected to and sympathetic of modern women’s issues in Orthodoxy. He has written a scholarly paper entitled ‘Keriyat Hatorah for Women’, examining the arguments for authorising this idea. In his concluding paragraph he writes as follows:
“Where does all this leave us? Regardless of the arguments that can be proffered to permit women’s aliyyot today……… women’s aliyyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice. In my judgement, this is an accurate statement now and for the foreseeable future, and I see no point in arguing about it.”
After all the back-and-forth of deep Talmudic discourse, the arguments and opinions on the topic, considering all the sources and offering various interpretations, Rav Henkin closes by saying there is something about this issue which is neither halachic scholarship nor theory. It is an undeniable core fact, a consensus, about the Orthodox Jewish community in contemporary times, a deal-breaker about which ‘there is no point arguing’!!
What is it that is so obvious to him that doesn’t bear arguing about?
Here’s a modern parable by way of illustration: I wake up one bright morning after years of dedication to Orthodox Jewish education and communal development, and I have an epiphany, a truly wonderful idea. In one stroke we can simplify all our Jewish educational programmes and all our communal activities, save a lot of money, and make everything more relevant and accessible! Let’s get rid of the Hebrew language! Henceforth all our prayers, all brachot, tefillot, kaddish, benshing, and shema, …everything in Her Majesty’s English. Imagine the money and time we could save, and all those struggling with the siddur and chumash will stumble no longer! How eloquently I could argue for the effectiveness and efficiency of such a change, how many people it will make really happy!
Truly a Great New Idea!
But wait, surely the halacha requires us to say all these things in the original Hebrew? To violate the halacha would put us outside Orthodox Judaism? A brief survey of the relevant sources, – the brevity depending on how proficient one is with the Bar Ilan CD search machine -, and it’s crystal clear that the Orthodox halacha allows this change. The Mishna, the Gemara, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch and commentaries concur that all prayers (with the exception of the 15 words of the blessings of the Kohanim) can be said in any language.
It is true that for 2500 years we have all used the Hebrew siddur, but surely we now live in the modern world of innovations where relevance, budgeting and ease of use rule supreme. The time has come to finally get rid of ‘Yis’gadal veyis’kadash shemei rabbah..’ and replace it with ‘Let His great Name be Sanctified and Exalted..’; we can dispose of ‘Shema Yisrael..’ and instead teach our kids ‘Listen O Israel…’ What a brilliant idea! I wonder why no one ever thought of this before…?!
Wait. Maybe I’ve missed something? Maybe there is a crucial consideration here which I haven’t considered?
At this point I do what every Orthodox rabbi irrespective of age, experience or knowledge, is required to do. I go and consult a Posek. – (I can supply you with my list of 25 recommended poskim!) These are the halachic authorities in each generation who are entrusted with the application of the Orthodox halacha, the custodians of the soul of Am Yisrael. He has to sign off on my Great New Idea..
This requirement to consult a Posek is not merely a question of formal rabbinic protocol; it is recognition of the colossal breadth and depth of Torah knowledge and Mesorah, of which most people (like you, me and the founders of Partnership Minyanim) are only scratching the surface.
For instance, one of the truly successful Great New Ideas, Sarah Schnirer opening schools to teach Torah to girls a century ago, only became accepted after it was endorsed by the Chafetz Chaim and the Imrei Emess.
I tell him my idea. He is amused by my simple mindedness. Firstly, he says, while it’s true that the Laws of Tefilla permit prayer in all languages, -that is only the Letter of the Halachic Law. However the Spirit of Tefilla is grounded in the Hebrew language, its poetry and nuance, the shape of its letters, its depth and symbolism, its music and its resonance, its history and its authenticity. All this kedusha is lost in a translation which will dramatically impoverish the spirit of Judaism, and it is therefore forbidden to change.
Secondly, it will fragment the Jewish People worldwide. It would become impossible to visit a shul in any country whose language is not familiar to you. Communities will become disconnected from each other around the world. The Hebrew language in prayer is an essential part of the cement that unites the global Jewish People. Ezra saw this clearly 2500 years ago and standardised the siddur in order to unite the Jewish People throughout the Diaspora.
Finally, he says, to daven in the vernacular is a hallmark of Reform Judaism. One of the first innovations of the 19th century Reform in Hamburg and Berlin was to abandon all Hebrew for the German language. It was a broadside attack on the Mesorah, the deeply rooted continuity of the minhag of generations of God-fearing Orthodox communities. Similarly today to adopt this practice will signal acceptance of the Reform agenda which is designed to undermine the Orthodox foundations of the Torah itself.
Three bombshell reasons that are so obvious to him they don’t bear arguing about! And yet they are not in the halacha! These are meta-halachic Torah values. The Big Picture. My Great New Idea is clearly rubbish! Despite being halachically irrefutable. End of parable.
The innovators of the Partnership Minyanim, Daniel Sperber, Mendel Shapiro, Tamar Ross and others, claim to have allegedly discovered a route in the halacha which allows women to lead the service and have alliyot. They have gone to these great pains specifically in order to be able call the Partnership Minyan an Orthodox service. (Had they been happy to call it Conservative or Masorti or Reform, all this scholarship would have been unnecessary.)
But here’s the crucial point. Whether they have succeeded or not (I think not) is irrelevant! In order for it to be an authentic Great New Idea it has to be endorsed by the Poskim of this generation, – and it isn’t.
On the contrary: There is a consensus among the Poskim that the Partnership Minyan is in violation of the Spirit of the Law, the Ruach Hatorah. It is therefore outside of Orthodoxy and anyone attending such a service is consequently participating in a (thinly veiled) Masorti event.
Rabbi Hershel Schechter, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University in NY, citing his mentor Rav J.B.Soloveitchik, goes further in his argument. He says that every generation has to be alert to contemporary movements designed to undermine Orthodox Judaism. He cites the Saducees of the Mishna and the later Karaites as the Reform movements of ancient times. In each case there was a clear rabbinic initiative to forbid all activities which were hallmarks of these movements.
Applying that principle nowadays he has specified that women wearing tallis or tefillin as well as Partnership Minyanim fall squarely into this category in our generation. It is comparable to having organ music in a European synagogue of the 19th century.
This argument against the Partnership Minyan on the grounds that it is a hallmark of Reform Judaism designed to undermine the foundations of Orthodoxy, may sound somewhat reactionary, alarmist and exaggerated; but only until you have read the underlying feminist agenda in the miscoceptions of one of its allegedly Orthodox founders and leading proponents, Tamar Ross.
She writes that the entire Mishna and Talmudic literature needs urgently to be subjected to a feminist critique. (‘Expanding the Palace of Torah’ (2004) Ch.10 ‘The Word of God Contextualised’.) The entire halachic system, she claims, suffers from a deep male-bias which needs to be corrected and rewritten in the 21st century by the feminist ‘voice’ in order to achieve a truly balanced Torah. In fact the Tanach itself exhibits, she claims, a deep male prejudice as a consequence of having been written by men, and ‘expresses the history of men and their androcentric interests’. In light of the ‘feminist understandings that reflect more refined moral sensibilities’ she asks us to view the ‘emergence of feminism as a new revelation of the Divine Will’ which requires that the entire Torah needs to be adjusted accordingly!
This is apikorsut of the highest level. A total loss of Torah-min-Hashamayim.
Undoubtedly the majority of women who participate in the Partnership Minyan do so for all the correct reasons, to enhance the spiritual quality of their prayers and deepen their involvement in the community. They report feeling inspired by the experience. Sadly it is not a kosher experience. They are unwittingly stepping over a red line, moving outside of Orthodoxy into the realm of Reform Judaism. This has indeed has been recognised both by the OU and RCA in America as well as Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis who have forbidden the PM to take place on their premises. In some cases this Partnership Minyan is being used as a blunt weapon to strike at the Orthodox tradition in the revolutionary hope of enshrining Feminism as the new flavour of Judaism. Very chic but not authentic.
The Poskim of each generation define the summum bonum of Judaism, the ruach and kedusha of Torah, which is enshrined in millennia of halachic Talmudic practice. While the Rabbinic halachic system is indeed the core of Orthodoxy, it is a minimal code of do’s and don’ts and by itself is not definitive. (See Nachmanides on ‘Kedoshim Tiheyu’ Vayikra 19.2)
Halacha alone does not capture the totality of the Spirit of the Law, – otherwise we would all be davening in English.
The Poskim of today have overwhelmingly spoken with one voice, that Partnership Minyanim violate Orthodox Judaism at its core. It’s not a Great New Idea after all; just another predictable step toward Reform Judaism.
After all the scholarly debate, this is what Rabbi Henkin means when he says it’s not worth arguing about. To those like him who are profoundly rooted in the Spirit of the Torah, the Partnership Minyan is totally and obviously a step outside of Orthodox Torah. It is a toxic hallmark of those who intend to rewrite the Torah according to a feminist agenda.
To those who feel able to promote Great New Ideas on the basis of Googled Torah information, studies from the Artscroll Talmud, and searches on CDs, …if you are still holding on to the illusion that the Partnership Minyan can be disguised to look like an Orthodox enterprise… think again. It can’t.