Partnership Prayer

Ritual Roles in New Minyanim

Ten years ago, Elana Maryles Sztokman made history in the Orthodox Jewish world by leading the first service of congregation Shira Hadasha (New Song) in Jerusalem, the world’s first “partnership” minyan (prayer community). Since then, this “Ortho-egalitarian” model has spread to almost two dozen communities worldwide. In this type of prayer service, women participate within the expanded limits of an Orthodox interpretation of halacha (Jewish law). They can read Torah and Haftarah, lead certain parts of the service, give speeches and participate in decision-making, but they do not count in a minyan, the quorum of 10 required for communal prayer, nor can they lead any part of the service that requires a minyan.

Sztokman’s new book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Brandeis University Press, $29.95) was sparked by a comment from a friend, a liberal Orthodox father of four daughters, who admitted that he could never support a partnership minyan because, “If women are doing everything, what is left for men to do?” Sztokman decided to find out what does draw some men to this progressive prayer experience. Based on interviews with over 50 men in Australia, Israel, and the U.S. who belong to egalitarian yet traditional prayer communities or congregations, her book is a portrait of Orthodox masculinity in flux, revealing how some men have been altered by feminism and why others resist that change.

Sztokman contends that the synagogue is the place where Orthodox men are socialized to conform to what she calls the B.O.M.B. — the Be an Orthodox Man Box. As she describes it, Orthodox men have to conform to the standard male script — car and home repair expert, economic provider, sports-lover, white-collar professional, and also be the family man who shops, changes diapers and cooks. Yet they are also supposed to be serious and committed to prayer, punctual in synagogue attendance, able to lead services perfectly, faithfully wear the tangible symbols of this commitment (kippah, tallit, and tefillin), read Torah flawlessly and react unemotionally to being harshly criticized for mistakes.

Sztokman demonstrates that men who did not fit in this box — perhaps because unmarried, new to Orthodoxy and its practices, feeling inadequate about their lack of ritual skills, or as self-described nonaggressive “wimps” or “haffifnikim” (slackers) — were marginalized among other Orthodox men, but could feel comfortable in the more egalitarian prayer setting of a partnership minyan.

Interestingly, these men were also subject to criticism from women. One of the author’s students went to Shira Hadasha and noticed the women singing more loudly than the men. She claimed that her husband would never feel comfortable there. “You have to be a certain kind of man to let the women be louder than you like that… You know… a rag (smartut)…”

In partnership minyans, rather than use women’s participation to explore some of the issues in Orthodoxy that men also may find limiting and dispiriting, women are simply expected to behave like Orthodox men.

Sztokman’s research reveals that despite Orthodox men’s protestations about the limitations of the “Be an Orthodox Man Box,” it is still men who have power over women — power in partnership minyans to dictate and dismiss female participation, power to refrain from domestic duties that they “just aren’t as good at” as their wives, and power to legislate about women’s bodies (head coverings are necessary, but a woman wearing a tallit — beyond the pale!). In the end it appears that women’s roles in partnership minyans are dependent on the good graces of the men in their lives and communities.

Perhaps the most important message of this book for Lilith readers is that until men understand that patriarchy is just as limiting for them as it is for women, little will improve for women unless we get men’s support — from the personal (help at home) to the political (paid family leave) to the spiritual (more religious leadership roles for women).

Susan Sapiro reads and writes on gender issues in Judaism, work-life issues, and Jewish feminist scholarship.