On partnership minyanim and women in search of focus

In the Yemenite synagogue where our family prays, my nine-year-old son gets to do what few Jewish youngsters get to do – read from the Torah. Every week, another boy gets his shot at reading several verses from the sixth aliyah. And as each child returns to his seat, an adult rereads those very same words, because an underage boy cannot fulfill the congregation’s requirement of reading from the Torah.

I am reminded of this scene every time I read about the trend of Partnership Minyanim, which some hail as the solution to Jewish tradition’s “injustice” against women. In what smacks of make-believe egalitarianism, Partnership Minyanim enable women to chant halachically insignificant parts of the service, while men are called up for the real McCoy. If anything, the pretense of giving women an equal footing in the synagogue space only underscores the ideological inconsistency between egalitarianism and Jewish Tradition. Ironically, instead of empowering women the practice insults their intelligence.

And this is not the only reason why I find Partnership Minyanim offensive. The idea showcases the subtle yet pervasive influence of Christian culture on the mindset of the Jewish community. For unlike Christianity, where the main bulk of worship happens in church, in Judaism the home is the focal point of religious life.

The overwhelming majority of mitzvot, from the cardinal commandments of brit mila and Korban Pesach (the original precursor of our Seder) to the ubiquitous mezuzah to the fundamental Torah study, happen  within the context of family and home. Jewish law dictates that the construction of a mikva (the cornerstone of family life) takes precedence over building a synagogue. And even the most sacred Jewish object, a Sefer Torah, may be sold for one purpose only – to finance the establishment of a new Jewish family.

Our Sages underscored women’s ability to influence the spiritual life of everyone in their circle of influence (Breishit Raba, 17, 7). For this reason the Torah emphasizes that the commandments were given to women before they were given to men.

I know these ideas are dismissed by feminist rhetoric as “apologetics.” Like a child in the famous parable, some feminists prefer to shoot the arrow of gender struggle and draw the target around it later.

Let’s be honest. Standing in front of a pulpit and leading a congregation certainly supplies a good measure of public recognition. It is also easy – anyone can do it. Styling this kind of feel-good, no-brainer experience as the end game of Jewish women’s spirituality is demeaning.

Judaism is about finding spirituality in the mundane. It is about acknowledging God in our struggles. Growing from our experiences. Becoming better, kinder and more aware by coping with the curve balls of destiny. It is about surrendering all of our abilities to doing His work in the world. And that’s tough!

So if we want to empower ourselves in our Judaism, let’s not take the easy way out. Let’s go back to our sources and reclaim the real power in our hands – to inspire ourselves and the people around us to live more spiritual lives, tuned into God and what He wants from us (not what we want from Him).

This is where Partnership Minyanim poignantly identify the issue. In the coaching world, we maintain that a problem named is a problem solved. And the name of the problem is a lack of clear religious mandate experienced by many Modern Orthodox women, leading in turn to a shaky religious identity.

At its core, Jewish identity is predicated on a sense of a mission. To feel meaning we need to answer the “Why” questions. Why should I bother? Why is my Judaism important? Why does my life matter? To answer these questions is go to the core of one’s self-perception. As a reflection of Godliness in this world, every Jew is commanded to play a singular role.

For women in the Haredi community, the mission is clear. It involves passing Judaism into the next generation, while facilitating the husbands’ Torah learning. In Chabad, women view themselves as emissaries of Torah ideas to the world. The liberal movements have upheld the banners of social justice, self-actualization, and egalitarianism, thus doing away with gender roles.

In the Modern Orthodox community, many women struggle to find their focus, as the community itself embraces a message that is not only immensely complex, but at times inapplicable. The century-old motto of Torah Umada, emblazoned on Yeshiva University’s symbol, calls for amalgamation of Judaism and modernity. In many cases, Judaism and modern society are incommensurate. They promulgate opposing agendas: a life of liberty and pursuit of happiness as opposed to a life of responsibility and pursuit of meaning. Yet even if we take the approach of the Talmud’s Rabbi Meir, who “ate the fruit and threw away the husk,” distilling the desirable benefits, while disposing of foreign ideas, the nexus of Judaism and modernity can only be a means, not an end in itself.

Modern Orthodox men who seek deeper Jewish involvement can always turn to traditional rabbinic and communal roles. Few such options, however, exist for Modern Orthodox women. While the community has created many wonderful women’s learning institutions, a real sense of self comes from doing. And though intellectual women can find their calling by teaching Torah, those who are less analytically inclined face a severe shortage of meaningful involvement options. Leadership opportunities are hard to come by.

For women to feel comfortable in the community, they need to know that they count. To embrace their religion unequivocally, they must find a way to play out a singular divine mission. When this approach is firmly grounded in Judaism, women can find meaning in their Jewish identity. When women will feel that this world is deficient without their contribution, they will not find it compelling to play a second fiddle in an imaginary egalitarian setting.

Many Modern Orthodox women are thirsty to make a real impact. If anyone has any doubts, consider the case of Yeshivat Maharat. Personally, I don’t agree with challenging the tradition of rabbinic ordination. Nevertheless, the institution’s graduates exemplify a drive to bring their talents to the greater Jewish community, for which there is no agenda-free outlet at present.

Why should we need to resort to feminist jargon to bring our God-given talents to the fore for the benefit of the greater community? Women have always been agents of change in Jewish history. And our generation does not lack challenges that could be solved if a critical mass of women applied their abilities to meeting them.

Just a couple of months ago, the Pew Report woke us up to something we have been collectively pretending not to know. Swaths of American Jewry are severing the link with their tradition. In their book Doublelife, Harold and Gayle Berman describe an arduous ten-year quest for a Reform or Conservative synagogue that would feel authentic and welcoming. After a decade of search, they had to overcome preconceived notions in order to finally satisfy their yearnings at an Orthodox synagogue.

It takes exceptional people like the Bermans to persevere. But there are hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Harolds and Gayles, who are looking for a genuine Jewish connection. The Modern Orthodox community and especially its women, with their extensive Jewish education and first-hand understanding of the popular culture, hold the solution in their hands.

The women of Modern Orthodoxy are a wellspring of ideals, knowledge and values. What they lack is a focus for their efforts. Creating such focus should be the next challenge of our community.

About the Author
Leah Aharoni is the Founder/CEO of SHEvuk, a business consulting firm, which helps companies grow by effectively marketing and selling great services to women. Drawing on her training in Organizational Psychology and extensive background in entrepreneurship, education, and international communications, she also channels her passion for women's empowerment into coaching women to succeed in business and personal goals. When not working or spending time with her feisty sabra kids, Leah enjoys learning and teaching self-development Torah, as brought down in chassidic sources. Find out more at www.SHEvuk.com.
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