Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Much Ado About Partnerships and Orthodoxy

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2014 at 2:10 pm

I’ve been reading with interest the discussion initiated by Rabbi Klapper regarding Partnership minyanim. He has done the community a service by modeling civility in discourse that hopefully will be the rule and not the exception when discussing issues that arouse passions on both sides of the divide.

I do believe that Rabbi Klapper offered an honest encounter with the arguments going so far as to say that there may be halachic justification for a partnership minyan. That may have not been a necessary concession because had he wished, he could have found reasons to reject this concept on halachic grounds. I don’t think that level of generosity, or humility was reciprocated, and maybe that itself indicates the fragility of change agents in general who feel they cannot concede any ground because their very legitimacy is at stake.

The role of women in Orthodoxy has been evolving for decades. The first door was opened by the Chafetz Chaim with the institution of the “Beit Yaakov” schools for girls where girls were taught commentaries on the Tanakh, and laws that were under the rubric of Torah Sheb’al Peh of which the Rambam and others had disapproved.

Nowadays high school, and post high school girls schools in the U.S. and Israel have opened and welcomed girls to explore, and encounter not only Tanakh, but the Talmud as well. This has been accompanied by, however begrudging, more engagement of women in the halachic process. Whether it be through “Yoatzot Halacha”, or more female Talmud teachers. Also, women’s Tefila groups that were disparaged by Rabbi Schechter, but championed by Rabbi Henkin also have been accepted (or ignored) and were instituted not even with a bang, and barely a whimper.

Now the envelope has been pushed for changing an existing norm in favor of a more inclusive model of shlichai tzibbur and Torah readers that is founded on a fresh look at some Talmudic passages and commentaries. The fact that Rav Henkin championed women’s tefila groups, but balked at partnership minyanim, should make one at least ask the question: Why one, and not the other?” The answer is fairly simple, but I don’t know if it has been articulated. Partnership minyanim are by definition sectarian. Whereas a woman’s tefila group doesn’t replace other minyanim, but accommodates an underserved part of the community in Divine service, the partnership minyan is an alternative i.e. a replacement for an existing norm. For many, for whatever reason, it is an unacceptable alternative. What does that mean, unacceptable? It means if many had to say Kaddish and that was the minyan available, they may very well choose to stay home, as they would for a normal, egalitarian minyan.

This would not be the case for a regular Orthodox minyan with the accommodations that Rabbi Henkin endorsed. This attempt at a new norm is not merely sociological, but is exclusive of a significant percentage of “the faithful”. One can endorse this diversion from the norm for many reasons:
*It makes Orthodoxy more attractive to those who have a modern sensibility.
*It is only fair to publicly acknowledge that the role of women has certainly changed, and it is backward for it not ti be manifested in the way we pray.
*If their is halachic justification, why wouldn’t someone make this change?

I do believe had there been a halachically committed egalitarian community complete with halachically committed leadership, that many in the partnership minyan would have found a home there. In the end, it’s more important that we are around those whose children are likeminded in observance, than where we daven. It would be wonderful for them if their minyan was considered merely a matter of taste, and not a source of controversy.

It is the halachic commitment of the proponents of the partnership minyan that is most impressive, and most difficult. I don’t accept the argument that they reject halachic authority. Au contraire, their halachic commitments leave them with no other community. Thats why the discussion is so fraught and why they wish to increase the conceptual dimensions of the Orthodox tent.

Nevertheless, dramatic change of a norm that divides as much if not more than it unites is more dramatic and serious than acknowledged by the arguments offered so far. What we’re used to and how that informs expectations is not a trivial matter. It actually informs much of our day to day practice; hence the statement “Minhag din hu”


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