The Orthodox woman’s dilemma

Sztokman writes about the role of women in the Orthodox synagogue leading to a new model of ritual life and spiritual experience.

Cartoon  521 (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Cartoon 521
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
As one of the founders of the first “partnership minyan”, Shira Hadashah in Jerusalem, I found reading Elana Maryles Sztokman’s new book The Men’s Section both an illuminating and cathartic experience.
A partnership minyan is a s elf-defined Orthodox synagogue with a mehitza (partition between the men and women) where women are allowed to read Torah and lead specific portions of the prayer service that do not require a quorum of 10 men (minyan) in order to recite them.
The principle, which has barred women from reading from the Torah scroll for generations, is that (as recorded in the Talmud) it would be an affront to the congregation for women to represent the congregation in this holy act. One of the innovations of these partnership synagogues is that they have decided that, in these communities, women reading from the Torah would not be disrespectful (or barring women would itself be disrespectful!).
Sztokman’s book is an accessible sociological study of 54 men who belong to partnership synagogues in Jerusalem (Shira Hadashah), Modi’in (Darchei Noam), New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few other such synagogues on the US East Coast and in Australia.
She asks how these men are reshaping their Orthodox masculinity in an age of feminism and human rights. She chose this study group specifically because of the tension in their lives between their competing desires to both retain tradition by worshiping in an Orthodox synagogue, and be a part of a progressive movement that is pushing the boundaries of women’s involvement within the Orthodox world.
Sztokman herself lives in Modi’in and was a founder of Darchei Noam, the main focus of this book. She has since become less active in the synagogue because of the sexism existing there, despite the efforts of the community to create a somewhat egalitarian prayer space within the confines of what they believe will be tolerated in the Orthodox world.
Like Sztokman, I also became disillusioned with the partnership minyan I t ook a leadership role in starting. It began after I was told not to ask back a woman who closed her eyes in a moment of spiritual fervor when removing the Torah from the Holy Ark. She was “too spiritual” for our community, I was told. Soon after, friends who came to check out the service complained to me that they were told to leave because their children were making noise.
And soon after that , I was asked to “take a break” from being gabayit ( the person in charge o f organizing the service and divvying up roles in leading the prayers) after giving birth to my fifth child. Of course, it was understood that this would be a permanent break since I was having differences with the male gabbai on the other side of the mehitza. For instance, he disapproved of my more spontaneous organizational approach. He wanted me to hand in a list at the beginning of the year of which women would be leading services, while I preferred asking people only a week or two in advance so that people could lead in order to mark an unexpected occasion or celebration.
At some point after I was asked to step down from my position, I decided to leave the congregation altogether and began praying in a nearby egalitarian synagogue where there are no distinctions between what men and women can lead. This was a big step for me as a woman with Orthodox rabbinic ordination because this meant leaving the Orthodox world entirely. But, like Sztokman, I had become disillusioned with that world. Reading her book helped me understand and even feel justified in my decision to leave.
While the men Sztokman interviews are admirable in their bold decision to join these fringe synagogues, as she points out, a patriarchal structure is still in place. For instance, Sztokman relays the story of a woman who, when leading the service in Darchei Noam, changed the Hebrew word baal (husband with connotations of ownership) to ish ( literally “ man,” a nd used today by feminists also because it is the masculine counterpart of the word for wife, isha) in one of the prayers. After the service, one particularly opinionated and domineering man in the community stood up, without consulting with others, apologized to those present and reprimanded her for her behavior.
Sztokman also points to a similar phenomenon at Darchei Noam of people bending over backwards to make sure they do not overstep any boundaries of what would be Orthodox. So while these men seem to be progressive or independent minded, in her interviews Sztokman reveals that the vast majority are still very much attached to their Orthodox label, to their socially constructed “masculine” ways, and to being “inside” their social comfort zone. Most are also not so willing to hand over their power.
For example , the notion of a woman wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, was repulsive to some of the men she interviewed. Others expressed impatience with many women’s imperfect way of reading Torah and leading services (lacking compassion or understanding for the fact that most of these women were not taught as children and had to learn on their own as adults), while still others berated women for their tardiness or lack of seriousness and commitment – for example, when one woman left the sanctuary after reading Torah in order to care for her child outside, or when another woman referred to reading Torah as “fun”.
In other words, many of the men interviewed were willing to let women into their men’s club as long as the women played by their rules. Their objective was to invite women in as honorary men, not to invite women in with their alternative voices and approaches, having come from a world of being socialized into being “women” and experiencing the oppression and powerlessness of living as that gender.
Only a few of the interviewees expressed any interest in welcoming women into this traditionally male space in order to work towards some kind of redemptive vision of general transformation and positive change.
As Sztokman writes in the epilogue of the book when addressing the question of why Orthodox women are not joining partnership synagogues in droves (despite the perhaps still unexpected growth of this fringe movement): “There is a profound reason why women are not adopting the male model: women find the male model absent of meaning. Female cultures of spirituality are emotion filled, personal, engaging, musical, spontaneous, surrounded by people, connections, children, and friendships. Jews have been praying in more or less the same way from the same book with the same pages upon pages of words for recitation for a few thousand years, give or take.
“So when push comes to shove and women gain access to those practices, the celebration is short-lived. For this we struggled so hard? This is what we were looking for all this time? No wonder so many women say OK, but no thanks. Women seeking access to this space from which they are systematically excluded are disappointed with their own culture. Because it is not really their culture; it is men’s culture. The Orthodox synagogue, even when women are involved, remains a men’s space based on the way men are socialized… “If we look at Orthodox masculinity and compare it to Orthodox femininity (leaving aside for the moment the issue of hierarchy and the exercise of power), on the simple level of gender as a collection of characteristics, one that we will call “male” and the other that we will call “female”, it becomes clear why women are not rushing into the male world. Women are socialized as caregivers, a role that entails servitude, physical restrictions, and enormous amounts of unpaid labor, but also involves love, warmth, friendship, relationship, care, flexibility, and home.
“Men, by contrast, are socialized as mechanistic performers, with all the accompanying status, power, and strength, but also with emotionless, connectionless, cold and demanding behavioral expectations that leave little room for individual expression or even ambivalence. In fact, to be a man may provide personal power, and it certainly has physical, social, and monetary rewards, but it does not necessarily involve freedom.”
Sztokman is not glorifying the traditional female role in Orthodox Judaism, but she is pointing out that inviting women in on equal grounds means incorporating the positive from the Orthodox woman’s world into the mainstream that has always been male-dominated. The goal, therefore, is not merely equal access, but equal expression with an ultimate goal of building a new model of ritual life and spiritual experience.
To be fair, there is some of this going on at Shira Hadashah. (I have not been to any of the other partnership synagogues in Sztokman’s study.) There one will find men too outside the sanctuary with their children while their wives are inside praying, and Shira Hadashah is known for its beautiful singing and harmony.
In fact, one of the interviewees says that for him this was the most important aspect of the congregation. As a prayer leader who considers himself feminine in his singing style, he was looking for a place where he could feel comfortable leading services.
Nevertheless, one who is sensitive to the nuances of prayer styles will note that the singing does not go on there for more than a “reasonable” measure of time, and an amateur Torah reader would not only think twice before volunteering to read but would probably not even be allowed until after being tested for perfect performance.
As Sztokman also points out, at Shira Hadashah decisions are still made by a small inner circle with careful attention to the political nuances of how the congregation is perceived by others. One of the greatest fears of many interviewees was being labeled a “hafifnik” (non-serious, hippy-like, religiously ambivalent Jew).
This helps explain why another minyan I was active in while living in Jerusalem did not receive the kind of public attention that Shira Hadashah did. Though there was a mehitza, women had been reading Torah there and leading parts of the services years before Shira Hadashah was established.
That minyan, Amika Debira, has a hippyish bent, with people dressing informally, dancing on a whim, services going on for much longer than in any mainstream Orthodox synagogue, children running in and out of the sanctuary, and a general laid back atmosphere that rubs most mainstream Orthodox people the wrong way.
But even that community is not devoid of patriarchal structures. The mehitza, despite being justified by some as empowering to women, is there at best in order to prove the congregation’s Orthodox affiliations and at worst to prevent men from being turned on by women while they pray. Moreover, decisions there are also made by a small inner circle and women are only “allowed” partial participation.
A couple of years after leaving Shira Hadashah, I moved with my family to the newly revived Kibbutz Hannaton in Lower Galilee, where I run the only pluralist mikve in Israel a nd am a ctive i n the completely egalitarian and informal synagogue on the kibbutz. Here too politics and power struggles abound, but at least in the synagogue the starting point is not only complete gender equality, but also an attempt to be sensitive to those who identify along a range affiliations, from secular through Orthodox, without detracting from the egalitarian nature of the community.
This is a place where I feel there is more hope for some kind of transformative vision. If it’s a choice between throwing my lot in with the hafifniks or the misogynists, I will choose the former, at least for now.