Bridging the Gender Gap in Prayer – Sort Of
By Lily Hoffman Simon
The patriarchal tradition of Orthodox Judaism is being challenged all over the world. The recent controversy surrounding the ordainment of Sara Hurwitz as the first female Orthodox rabba (see Moment’s cover story) indicates the extent of this gender revolution. One recent development in the struggle is the birth of what are known as partnership minyans, which bring together males and females for synagogue services. Yet despite its progressive nature, its gender-equitable approach reinforces the presence of gender equality in orthodox circles.
A minyan in Jewish tradition refers to the number of Jewish adults necessary to conduct Jewish ritual, such as prayer or service. Traditionally, this quorum is set at 10 Jewish males of Bar-Mitzvah age. While Reform congregations and many Conservative ones tend to include women in this count, Orthodox Judaism has continued to restrict women from being included. As a result, women have been considered secondary in religious services, and are also restricted from performing other ritual tasks, such as reading from the Torah, or leading prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, and still in numerous Conservative communities, women and men sit in segregation from each other, separated by a mechitza. Often the women are seated on a balcony on second floor of a synagogue. The bima, or stage, of the service is usually placed on the male side of the mechitza, or downstairs, and as a result, women lack a clear view of, or ability to participate in, the service.
The inaccessibility facing women in a traditional Orthodox service has prompted a response by Orthodox feminists, especially through the work of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. A solution proposed is what is called a ‘partnership minyan.’ This minyan necessitates 10 men and 10 women to be present in order to meet quorum, a development that acknowledges the importance of women while conforming with the halachic rule necessitating 10 men. Although services implementing this minyan are still gender segregated by a mechitza, the bima is usually centered before it, enabling clear sight of the service for both men and women. Women are allowed to read from the Torah, receive aliyot, and lead some parts of the prayer service.
By promoting gender equity in services, this development is a breakthrough for gender relations and representation in Orthodox Judaism. Congregations using this model are springing up all over the US, and even in the old city of Jerusalem (like the Shira Hadasha congregation–see Moment’s interview with its founder, Tova Hartman). Much of the motivation behind these communities comes from the idea that hiding or silencing the voices representing community demographics is equivalent to lying before G-d, which is an abomination–especially during prayer. By extending the accessibility of service participation to women, partnership minyans are acknowledging traditional guidelines, yet adapting them to fit modern feminist and egalitarian principles, which are slowly infiltrating established practice of Judaism.
Although partnership minyans support gender equity both in representation and participation, they are still based on an assumed distinction between men and women. The continued use of a mechitza during services perpetuates the idea that the interaction between men and women during services is impure, leading to distracting sexual thoughts. This conception not only reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, but also tends to objectify the members of the opposite gender as merely sexual images; a concept usually applied more to women. By reinforcing these ideas, men and women remain distinct from each other, and not necessarily equal. There is also no place for transgendered individuals (who identify as a different gender than their biological sex or do not identify with either side of the gender dichotomy) in this scheme (see Joy Ladin’s account about her transgendered experience at the Western Wall).
The remaining challenges beg the question of whether some streams of Orthodox Judaism are truly moving toward creating gender equality or simply reinforce traditional conceptions of gender. Partnership minyans represent one attempt to fundamentally shift the foundations of Orthodox patriarchy, by adapting Halacha to encourage gender equity. As our society’s conceptions of gender continues to change, patriarchal Orthodox institutions will face new and different challenges on its gender journey.