Partnership Minyans and Women’s Aliyot: A Maturing Conversation

Proponents and opponents of Partnership Minyans have jointly fostered a single narrative. In that narrative, the only relevant technical halakhic (Jewish legal) question is a pure binary: Can women’s aliyot (being called to the Torah) be justified technically, or can’t they? If the answer is negative, no further conversation is possible; if the answer is positive, the conversation devolves into questions of policy, and no further technical conversation is necessary.

Pure binaries often reflect immaturity, and so it was with this one. Just about anything can be justified technically by a sufficiently clever and bold halakhist (scholar of Jewish law); where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way. The question that matters is when there ought to be a rabbinic will, and the mature answer is that it often depends on just how clever and bold one has to be to generate the halakhic way. And yes, on which and how many halakhists of what stature are willing to be that clever and bold.

The superb recent JOFA blogcast opened up space for genuinely mature halakhic conversation. But that was only one of its many positive contributions. The contributors also deepened and nuanced many issues of religious experience and communal affiliation, and we are all in their debt for their honesty and seriousness.

I’m sure that I will be reviewing and processing their words for months if not years. But to honor their accomplishment, and hopefully extend its impact, here are some of my thoughts in its immediate aftermath.

All the participants expressed interest in separating the question of women’s aliyot from that of the subject of Partnership Minyans. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’s synagogue, for example, apparently gives women aliyot only on Simchat Torah. The problem, they acknowledged, is that a significant part of these minyans’ attraction is precisely the way they “bundle” issues, especially those around gender and sexuality.  

Praying 22 Services Each Week

And yet – none of these minyans, for all their popularity, has yet turned into a full 22-service-a-week prayer community. The reason for this is not, certainly not entirely, that their clientele is simply less committed than that of their local Modern Orthodox synagogue. Partly it is because, when it comes to Modern Orthodox communities, the frummest (most restrictive) common denominator often wins on purely pragmatic grounds: You need a minyan that all 10 men are willing to pray in, so the 10th man has a veto. Protest minyans succeed briefly at conferences and the like, but generally not over the long haul.

But this discussion suggests that many of (at least) the learned elite who attend Partnership Minyans very much want to stay in social and intellectual communion with the Orthodoxy that rejects women’s aliyot. More sharply – it may be precisely the men and women who pray twenty two services a week who don’t want the Partnership Minyan to meet that often, so that they can attend elsewhere, or so that their children can play and learn Torah with children who attend elsewhere.

I suggest another reason as well. Partnership Minyans, to their credit, draw people because the prayer experience is better. There is less talking, more communal participation, very little hurrying through (davening off) stuff. These are wonderful things, but they are also qualities that exist at very few Modern Orthodox weekday mincha/maariv (afternoon/evening) services; no one goes to synagogue on a regular Tuesday night for the inspirational singing. Such minyans are sustained, for better or worse, by people with chiyuvim (obligations to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer), and people who pray because it’s a chiyuv, (a halakhic obligation), and many of them want to pray as fast as humanly possible, or faster. So part of the attraction of Partnership Minyans for many people simply can’t be recreated twenty two times a week.

All this means that the halakhic community which excludes Partnership Minyans has a lot of serious thinking to do about how to relate to Partnership Minyan attendees, and about whether and how to acknowledge and satisfy the genuine religious needs and desires that Partnership Minyans seem to be meeting more successfully.  

The Halakhic Prohibition Against Creating Factions

In that regard, I want to offer a few reflections on lo titgodedu, the halakhic prohibition against factionalizing, as it may apply here.

As Rabbi David Brofsky noted briefly in the blogcast, Rambam and Rashi have almost diametrically opposed understandings of this prohibition. Rambam sees it as banning controversy and dispute; Rashi sees it as banning the acceptance of multiple practices without controversy and dispute, which creates the impression that we are accountable to completely separate sources of authority – two Torahs.

It should be clear, however, that Rashi also agrees that fomenting controversy is forbidden, even if he doesn’t derive that prohibition from lo titgodedu. (I am not sure whether Rambam has a prohibition against factionalization along the lines of Rashi.)

Now the problem with this prohibition is that it is in practice unenforceable. Each side will claim that the other one is in violation, and why should they be the ones to surrender their values? Thus the Talmud suggests that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were in simultaneous violation of lo titgodedu.  

It is also the case that lo titgodedu (like lashon hora, gossip) is muttar l’toelet – it is permissible when the ends justify the means.

I concede, for example, that I would not allow lo titgodedu to stop me from teaching women Talmud, or from paying sales tax, or from supporting the State of Israel, even if I found myself in communities which saw all of these as deviant.

There is a reasonable argument grounded in halakhic contract law, however, that kol hameshaneh yado al hatachtonah – the one who changes has the lower hand. So the standard to justify violations may be higher if one acknowledges that one’s action is unprecedented.

On a deeper level, lo titgodedu may be a statement about the need for accountability. Everyone should cling obstinately to their truths; and also have the humility to want to check their truths against others’ truths.  

We discourage factionalizing because “they” need “us” and our truths, because if we leave (or encourage them to leave us), our ideas will influence fewer people. Suppose the price of being identified with a Partnership Minyan is that one loses the capacity to lobby effectively for halakhic prenups within a local Modern Orthodox synagogue. How many aliyot are worth how many agunah-vulnerable marriages, if that’s the tradeoff?  

But also because “we” need “them,” and their truths, to keep us from turning Torah-study into nothing but self-reflection at its most subjective. If Torah never tells us things we don’t want to hear; if Torah by definition cannot stand against the culture in which we are embedded; is that the Torah we want?

My hope is that mature halakhic and policy discussions conducted with deep moral seriousness on both sides will enable us to muddle through with both our integrity and our community intact.  

Responding to Rabbi Katz’s Vision

As a contribution toward that effort, I want to engage critically with the vision of aliyot that Rabbi Katz set out in the blogcast.

Rabbi Katz writes:

This in turn makes an aliyah a moment of empowered religiosity, in contrast to most of our religious encounters where we are predominantly in a religiously dependent state. Most of our encounters with God come from a place of need and inferiority; we need His help, support or approval. Limmud ha’Torah [the study of Torah] stands out as an exception. That is when we encounter God from a place of strength and perhaps even superiority: He needs and wants us. An aliyah is limmud Torah maximized, it is climactic limmud ha’Torah.

I suggest:

  1. Aliyot are not limmud, study, of Torah for the oleh (individual reciting the blessings) at all. Keriat haTorah (the Torah reading service) is a recreation of Sinai, and the oleh represents God or Moses, teaching the Torah. It is the rest of the congregation that listens and learns, men and women alike.  
  2. The intent and nature of the ritual is that it involves as little subjective human input as possible – we recite the text, and we aspire to convey the Written Torah as objectively as possible. Unlike ordinary Torah study, it is an act of complete submission.
  3. Prayer is when we talk to God – when we get to impose ourselves, and even make demands – and “God desires the prayers of the righteous.” Study of Torah is when we listen, as attentively as we possibly can, so that we can understand what God demands of us. Study is empowering because God trusts us, not because God needs us.

Of course, access to rituals of religious submission may be as crucial as access to rituals of religious empowerment. One consequence of my analysis, however, is that aliyot became much less symbolically meaningful when the roles of oleh (reciting the aliyah blessing) and korei (reading from the Torah) were split (especially when one recognizes that the middle olim don’t fundamentally need to recite the blessings).  

Aliyot for women may also matter for completely different reasons, among them

  1. Physical access to the scroll
  2. Conveying that God is not male, and that Moses’ gender was not essential to his role as the Receiver and Transmitter of Torah
  3. Public religious honor, especially for learned women (That we no longer have literacy standards for men to receive aliyot cuts both ways on this issue.)

It may be that aliyot are the best, or even the only way, of making these points and giving women these religious experiences. An argument in those terms must be met fairly, and if it turns out that we have no way of meeting it, serious cheshbon hanefesh (soul searching and reflection) is in order. Regardless, I am of course writing out of my own male experience; perhaps none of these reasons resonate with women’s experiences, and perhaps there are others that I have missed entirely.

At the same time, the realization that aliyot can stand for such different things to two male rabbinic people such as Rabbi Katz and myself should also generate cheshbon hanefesh in anyone who risks deep communal strife or schism on the assumption that their meaning is clear and inarguable.

Click here to read the full conversation on the topic of women’s aliyot. 

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