Men in a woman’s world

In ‘The Men’s Section,’ Elana Maryles Sztokman discusses life on the male side of the divider in ‘partnership’ or ‘Ortho-egal’ synagogues.

Succot at Shira Hadasha 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Succot at Shira Hadasha 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Members of Kehillat Shira Hadasha have been celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Jerusalem congregation.
On a recent Shabbat, one of the members, a lifelong observant Jew and Jewish scholar, spoke of the renewal of his ability to pray with conviction because of his participation in the congregation. The speaker did not specify the particular features that drew him to pray there – not the spiritual singing, for instance, nor the greater participation of women, nor the welcoming of strangers. He spoke of the experience as a totality that was transformative for him.
In her book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, Elana Maryles Sztokman attempts to understand what attracts the many men who have made Shira Hadasha and other so-called “partnership minyanim” or “Ortho-egal minyanim” their regular place of prayer.
These are congregations that follow the Orthodox prayer service in synagogues that are divided into men’s and women’s sections, but without the arguable near-invisibility of women that is pervasive in most Orthodox congregations. In the vast majority of modern Orthodox synagogues, women do not lead any part of the service or even announce the location of the Independence Day picnic, although they are permitted to contribute to the cooking.
According to Sztokman, partnership minyanim began almost simultaneously in North America and Israel with Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem opening within months of Kehillat Darkhei Noam in New York. Since then several dozen similar congregations have developed in this model, including Kehillat Darchei Noam in Modi’in, which the author belongs to along with nearly half of her more than 50 interviewees.
While women have been vociferous in describing their experience in partnership minyanim, the men’s side of the mehitza has remained a mystery. Writes Sztokman: “What particularly intrigued me about places like Darchei Noam and Shira Hadasha were the men. It seemed to me that the motivations for coming to a synagogue like this were different for men and women. As a woman, I could point to my own sense of disenfranchisement, the emotional and spiritual void that the synagogue was filling, and my quest for meaningful religious life. But I wondered: Why are the men here?”
These men – who have chosen to abdicate male privilege and absolute power in synagogue life – are the subject of Sztokman’s study, which was supported by a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, Massachusetts. Sztokman, married and a mother, earned her PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in education and sociology and lives in Modi’in. She is the daughter and granddaughter of cantors in an Orthodox congregation, but today belongs to a partnership minyan, Darchei Noam, which informs much of the study.
Having read so much recently about women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism, it was refreshing to read a scholarly woman’s analysis of Orthodox men. The author describes the little-discussed subject of life on the men’s side of the divider. The men’s section, according to Sztokman, is a place of ranking and hierarchy. An Orthodox man, she says, is judged by the others on the seriousness of his scholarship, punctuality and ability to perform from the podium as Torah chanter or cantor. Men are expected to be married and good breadwinners.
Those who deviate are pejoratively typecast as unmanly, unserious and un-Orthodox.
A number of her interview subjects were seeking a less regimented, more convivial group of men to pray with. Others found “an outlet for their anti-clerical, independent- minded halachic grappling.”
Says one of her interviewees of his decision to leave his previous synagogue for a partnership minyan: “The dichotomy between those who follow halacha and those who don’t was too absolute – either you keep halacha or you don’t. The gray wasn’t there.” Others liked the singing, or said they were there because their wives were happier.
But the men who join partnership minyanim because their Jewish values include equality for women are the book’s real heroes. “Feminist men... are in some ways more inspiring than feminist women, because they are not only willing to stand up for equal rights, but also willing to abdicate their own positions of power and simultaneously able to withstand pressure to adhere to social expectations.
Given the intensity of pressures to conform, these are no small feats,” Sztokman writes.
She invites us backstage in her own congregation to reveal the ideological and personal battles waged there. Could the synagogue suspend equality for a Shabbat to make it easier for more rigid relatives of a bar mitzva family feel comfortable? Could a man wave away a woman Torah reader to allow a visitor to feel more comfortable? How should a congregation respond when its rules are breached? Denominations notwithstanding, synagogue life seems to elicit contentiousness in members. Jokes about “the synagogue I do not attend” have not developed in a vacuum. Members of young congregations might well be disappointed when the first arguments end the honeymoon period. As a veteran member of 10-year-old Shira Hadasha, I can attest that even the idealistic, formative years are not immune to ideological, practical and personality conflicts. In upstart congregations like ours, certain members are reluctant to go beyond their comfort level of change while others object to the very notion of comfort level. Because women are newer at synagogue leadership, there is a built-in asymmetry in proficiency that can also become a source of friction. Personally, I see these issues as problems that can be worked out over time. For Sztokman, conflicts are described in terms of feminist theory. She sounds annoyed and disappointed that in her view much of the conflict seems to stem from an old sense of entitlement on the part of men that clashes with feminist values.
My own issue with her study is the inaccurate description of Shira Hadasha. For example, Sztokman quotes a member who claims that the congregation’s halachic committee is busy holding back radical ideas. In fact, major changes are accepted or rejected by democratic process, not by an autocratic committee. She likewise makes the odd claim that babies are unwelcome in Shira Hadasha. In truth, strollers are unwelcome in the usually crowded rows. Babies are welcome and ubiquitous.
These many babies, little girls and boys both, will grow up in the second decade of partnership minyanim, never knowing that once upon a time their mothers sat silently in the back of a room. We can look with happy anticipation towards the evolution of synagogue culture, as they join the conversation about what life should be on both sides of the mehitza.