Cognitive Dissonance? The Other Side of the Mechitzah at My Son’s Bar Mitzvah

Just a few weeks ago, I had the wonderful pleasure of celebrating my son’s Bar Mitzvah. For the preparation, my husband and I divided the tasks at hand. My husband learned an entire section of the Talmud with my son so he could make a siyyum for his party. My husband taught our son the nusach for the davening. I taught him his laining, haftarah and learned with him his parasha for his D’var Torah.

We had the same division of labor when it came to my son’s older sisters for their Bat Mitzvah’s with our Women’s Tefillah group. However, with my daughters, I was able to stand next to them on the Bimah during the k’riyah ever at the ready to correct (which of course wasn’t necessary) and mostly for moral support. This time around, I was standing on the other side of the mechitzah as my husband stood next to my son in my stead. I sat as close to the bimah as I could and stood during the entire k’riyah with my Tikkun open, doing my best to send my psychic energy across the divide.

Apparently, according to some observers, I was mouthing the torah reading along with my son, raising my fist in an emphatic ‘Yes!’ when he got through a passage he found particularly difficult during our study. It did occur to me while we were studying, to possibly ask our Rabbi for permission to stand on the Bimah next to him during the laining. After all, although it is part of the service, it is not Tefillah. I would promise not to sing any corrections or do anything that would be remotely controversial.

But upon further reflection, I realized that any request would be considered selfish at best and subversive at worst. It would be a truly narcissistic act to make a statement on the back of my son’s big day. My decision reflected the reality of my spiritual compromise. While a Modern Orthodox Jewish feminist, I divide my spiritual loyalties between my centrist, right leaning, Orthodox synagogue and my Women’s Tefillah Group.

While at a recent Shabbat lunch, I was privileged to meet a leading Modern Orthodox feminist leader and writer. In our conversations, she described my compromise or divided loyalty as cognitive dissonance. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines cognitive dissonance as ,’a psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.’

That is to mean my involvement in both a Centrists/Right leaning Orthodox synagogue and a Women’s Tefillah Group were seemingly contradictory. Why didn’t I, for example, belong to the local partnership Minyan congregation in my neighborhood or a Conservative egalitarian congregation where my allegiances and beliefs would be more in line.

The short answer is those two communities, partnership Minyanim and Conservative Egalitarian congregations, for me, are not legitimate places for my Tefillah and spirituality. For partnership minyanim, while the communities and families involved are devoted to leading halakhic lives (basically they keep kosher and observe Shabbat carefully), there is an element of female tokenism embedded in the role women are allowed to have in these minyanim. Yes, they let women participate, but only up to a point.

The Jewish Orthodox feminist leader described her experience reading the Torah at Shira Chadasha synagogue in Israel, the mothership, so to speak, for partnership minyanim. While reading the Torah, a man (not the regular Gabbai) insisted on standing next to her to sing the k’riyah along with her. She didn’t need that help, thank you very much, and if you have ever lained, having someone sing along with you, is a complete and utter distraction.

This man’s actions were essentially demonstrating that although you can lain dear, you are still a little woman and you might need help. This anecdote only helped to solidify my own opinion about partnership minyan in that it doesn’t work for me as a feminist as it does not afford women true equality and smacks of tokenism. I, as a feminist, do not need men to legitimize my Tefillah any more than a man needs me to legitimize his. While, in my Women’s Tefillah Group, the element of tokenism is absent and participation is not limited.

Our Tefillah adheres to the rigors of Halakhah and meets my needs as a feminist and a Jew who is trying to follow the mitzvot. As for the local Egalitarian Conservative congregations, although their tefillah does afford women true, legitimate and complete participation, it does not meet my halakhic requirements for the Tefillah itself and also for the religious practices of their participants.

So, I end up at the Centrist Orthodox synagogue. Am I fooling myself when I walk in the door and take my place behind the mechitzah? As I truly present myself as a Modern Orthodox Jewish feminist who is doing her best to adhere to halakhah, I do not see my two spiritual homes as contradictory but as complementary. Whatever limits I encounter while a member of my synagogue are because of the way I choose to obligate myself under the halakhic system.

I am confident that my choices help to bring those two elements of my life, feminism and Judaism, together in a way that does not delegitimize or demean the other. For me, any other synagogue, simply would not work for me. In writing this, I am reminded of the phenomena among secular Israeli Jews, especially those of North African origins. These Jews do not lead day to day Halakhic lives per se, but when it comes to the time when they have a need for Jewish ritual or synagogue, they find themselves in an Orthodox setting, as this is the only spiritual home that is legitimate for them.

I was once at a Conservative Egalitarian wedding of a friend. After the meal, an abbreviated version of Birkat HaMazon was recited. While using the restroom, I overheard one of the secular Israeli guests exclaim, ‘b’chaiyai, lo shamati Birkat HaMazon kazeh!’ (‘In my life, I have never heard a Grace after meals like that!’). Although, I might be wrong, I don’t think this woman was saying Birkat HaMazon on a regular basis.

However, when she was going to recite it, she wanted basically to have ‘the real thing.’ The real thing for me is the Orthodox Synagogue. Do I hope for more legitimate participation for women within Orthodoxy? Of course, I do. But, I understand that while there is wide possibilities for growth in this area, it will ultimately be limited by the halakhic system which is paramount.

As my son finished his flawless and superior laining ( I am his biased mother and teacher afterall), I caught his eye and gave him a big thumbs up. Although I was not on the Bimah physically, I was there, as his laining was a product of our learning together. His very reading embodied feminism and halakhic Judaism at its best. There was no dissonance but rather a beautiful, uplifting harmony.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group.
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