“Partnership” used to actually mean two entities equally invested in or doing work for a job, or a relationship. Today the term “partnership” has become a trendy term of art for some serious wishful thinking. To wit: when my eighth-grade son’s school says something is a parent-teacher “partnership,” it always means that parents can expect that they will be required to do something or provide something. It never means that the parents and teachers will take equal responsibility for something, or work together toward a mutually-defined common goal.
I was very dubious when I first heard the term “partnership minyan.” According to Jewish religious law, a minyan is a quorum of 10 or more men aged 13 and up. For Orthodox Jews, especially Orthodox women, a minyan is not a “partnership.” Women don’t count for anything. There is no halachic difference whether we show up or not. Calling something a “partnership” minyan might make the term “minyan” more hip and trendy, but it can’t change the halachic definition of what constitutes a minyan.
As an Orthodox Jew, I adhere to the halachic requirement of needing 10 men for a minyan, as well as the halachic requirements surrounding public Jewish prayer. Simply attaching the name “partnership” to a prayer experience in which the actual physical attendance of half the population is totally irrelevant seemed like sophistry at best. I was concerned a “partnership” minyan would have to include either halachically indefensible practices, or painfully uncomfortable innovations designed to create fake equality.
So how did I end up as a strong supporter of Maayan, West Orange, New Jersey’s partnership minyan?
Partnership minyans were slowly sprouting up at a time in which my husband and I were already involved in efforts to create a more inclusive prayer experience for Orthodox Jews. We were concerned with the challenges facing religious women, for whom physical and spiritual distance from ritual is always an issue in the “minyan” context. But we were also concerned with inclusivity for other groups and classes of people who frequently feel marginalized by the format of a halachic minyan: fellow Jews who are LGTBQ, physically challenged, and have invisible disabilities, to name only a few. When we worked with a group to create a space in which every effort was made to connect and enfranchise those not normally afforded that respect, we were told we were creating a “partnership minyan.” Women leyn and get aliyot? Oh, that’s a Partnership minyan. Women give divrei torah? Partnership minyan. Gay people come to your minyan? Must be a partnership minyan!
In the end, our new minyan became a “partnership minyan” because it was the term that came closest to identifying the type of prayer space and community we were trying to create. But I was still not sold on the title.
Until the “aha” moment.
There came a particular Shabbat after we had met several times already. People were getting used to the format, and to each other. People were relaxing and feeling joy in the davening, in each other’s company, in some of the insights and learning that went on formally and informally amongst all the members of our group. We were getting feedback that our minyan was a place where many participants felt comfortable, welcome, and included. Some minyan members even shared that our minyan was the only service at which they had ever felt comfortable. But there was still one challenging issue for a significant part of our group — specifically, a majority of the women.
Most women in our group have never had the chance to layn or have an aliyah before coming to our minyan. They have never spoken in front of the shul. Many have not decided if they will do those things. Women who decide to take on those roles need to learn how, and the learning curve can be tough even for the most knowledgeable. Performing public rituals for the first time can be very intimidating. Men have had many years — since from even before their bar mitzvahs — to get comfortable learning how to lead parts of the service, how to pace themselves, and how to sing or speak loudly enough to be heard but not loudly enough to strain your voice. These are all new skills for most women in our minyan.
Getting up in front of people knowing you will get things wrong and make mistakes is a bracing and humbling experience. Until this Shabbat, I had only been thinking about how the difficulty of learning new skills in the public view affected women’s participation. But now, I started thinking about it from the men’s perspective.
Many of the men sitting in the room that morning could lead davening, read tefillot, or layn, without too much prep time or effort. Their voices didn’t tremble during Pesukei d’Zimrah. Their hands didn’t shake when pointing a yad at a word. Getting the kibud (honor) of an aliyah required no particular agonizing — they were fine with getting an aliyah, fine with not getting one. They could lead a service, or not — but when they did, most of the words would be right. Most men did not have to struggle to remember the right nusach in the middle of Pesukei d’Zimrah, or the correct trop in the middle of a verse.
But there the men were, letting women with less skill, fewer years of experience — sometimes no experience — stumble awkwardly and hesitantly through tefillot that many men know easily by heart. Sitting, smiling, wishing “yasher koach,” and giving no-touch high-fives. And then it hit me. This was the partnership. The men who choose to daven in a partnership minyan aren’t praying and making decisions for women anymore. They are praying and making the decisions with women. I realized we had created a ritual space in which religious men of courage and conviction could acknowledge that public ritual and prayer do not belong to men only.
I realized that a partnership minyan is a place in which brave and determined women, along with those who have also felt distanced and marginalized as the “other,” can take steps toward a closer relationship with ritual. A partnership minyan is made of people working together to create something which honors the tzelem Elokim in each of us, while still adhering to the holy traditions — and religious requirements — of an ancient tradition precious to all participants. Watching that process happen between men and women made me hopeful that religious Judaism may be able to draw back in those whom it has intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally, shut out.
Being able to engage G-d via public ritual and public prayer, beautiful singing and fervent whispering, tefillah shebalev and tefillah sheb’al peh (the prayers we mean and the prayers we say) — this is the birthright of all Jewish people. What an incredible Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God’s name) to see men and women trusting each other, working together as partners, to bring our precious halachot and minhagim safely into the 21stt century.
May it be G-d’s will that through our partnership, we will intensify the light of Torah, and bring us closer to the time in which G-d’s name will be one in the world.