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Why Does It Matter Where I Pray?

Where shall I daven today? I’ve been asking myself this question each Shabbat for the better part of two decades. While I was raised in the liberal-hippie-fully egalitarian world of the havurah movement, I am also an alumna of a modern Orthodox day school in which women held few ritual roles and sat separated from the men during prayer. And so I continually find myself caught between competing values in finding a prayer space. How do I reconcile counting myself in a minyan (quorum of ten required for a prayer group) with Orthodox understandings of Jewish law? What service and community is most conducive to my personal kavvanah (prayerful intention)? How can I best use my talents as a ba’alat tefillah, a prayer leader, to honor God and support my community in prayer?

Over the years, I have been a regular attendee at Orthodox services, a coordinator of traditional women’s tefillah groups, a participant in liberal havurot, a Torah reader at a modern Orthodox “partnership minyan,” and most recently a gabbait (coordinator) of an egalitarian minyan in Jerusalem. I wrestle with matching my egalitarian values and my commitment to traditional practice and ideology; I seek to find spirited communities whose members share my many values. And wherever I choose to go, I second-guess myself: why is this where I want to daven?

It was illuminating to find two recent books that explore these issues from very different perspectives. The edited collection published by the groundbreaking activists at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance ( JOFA), Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives (Ktav, $24.95, ed. Trachtman; Sperber, Shapiro, Shochetman, Riskin, and Ross, contributors), provides several contemporary legal responsa on women’s roles and rights in traditional Orthodox minyanim. In his autobiography-cummanifesto, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities ( Jewish Lights, $18.99), Elie Kaunfer shows the ways that “independent minyanim” — groups unconnected to any particular denomination or synagogue — create meaningful communal prayer. Together, these books illuminate many of the key issues and values that are used to build ritual communities.

About 10 years ago, feminism and Orthodoxy came to a decisive clash. Liberal-minded women (and men) were no longer satisfied with traditional services that disenfranchise women, or with separatist women’s tefillah services. With legal backing from an anonymous source (later revealed to be Rabbi Mendel Shapiro), the “partnership minyan” was born: a community where women can read Torah, be called to bless the Torah, and lead certain (less essential) parts of the service. The essays in Women and Men in Communal Prayer give two lengthy responsa defending such services and two rejecting the methodology.

The articles pivot on an understanding of a key concept in halakhic (legal) reasoning: kevod ha-tsibbur, the dignity of the community. While rabbinic sources use the idea of not offending the dignity of the community to curtail women’s participation, Rabbis Sperber and Shapiro redefine this principle. In our modern world, where women are teachers of Torah, presidents of corporations, and Supreme Court justices, a woman’s participation in synagogue is not a disgrace to the community’s dignity. Rather, her enfranchisement is a necessary aspect of fulfilling the mitzvah of kevod ha-briyyot, respecting the dignity of all of God’s creations. In their responsa, Prof. Shochetman and Rabbi Riskin reject this line of reasoning, positing that kevod ha-tsibbur is a fixed concept that does not change with time and one that cannot be overridden.

This is a dense book of technical halakhic arguments; each rabbi brings the same sources to support his own side of the argument. While I admire the intellectual honesty of JOFA in choosing to include both positions, it left me with the feeling that either side could logically be argued — that the “right answer” depends on which values one already holds. Furthermore, while I appreciated the masterful introduction from Dr. Tamar Ross, I sat somewhat uneasily with the allmale lineup of scholars. I know that in the Orthodox world, women are rarely recognized as poskot, legal decisors. But I eagerly await the day when decisions about women in prayer can be made by women and men together, rather than legislated by the men on high.

The overarching concerns of Women and Men in Communal Prayer are about communal dignity and standards. In a very different way, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer discusses creating communal space in his fast-paced and readable manifesto, Empowered Judaism. The framing narrative of the work is the founding of Kehilat Hadar in New York City, a traditional egalitarian “independent minyan” that started around the same time as the first partnership minyanim were cropping up. Recounting the decisions made by the minyan’s founders, Kaunfer outlines the ways that a nascent community can unite participants to create vibrant davening space, and includes essays by leaders of other independent minyanim detailing concerns and solutions from their particular communities. While I found some of the narrative sections self-congratulatory [full disclosure: I know Kaunfer and several of the Hadar leaders personally], practical tips on improving a minyan’s quality were clear and useful; even the setup of chairs in a room can help the prayer experience.

Kaunfer explains how independent minyanim differ from both havurot and synagogues. The emphasis seems misplaced. In every generation — and in the “old country” as well — Jewish communities have sought to create open davening spaces, to increase kavvanah, to enfranchise participants. Independent minyanim — and partnership minyanim — are the current vogue, led by a well-educated laity, but they share the same core values of their predecessors.

Kehilat Hadar is a fully egalitarian community, as are a large number of the independent minyan counted in this demographic. Kaunfer mentions egalitarianism only in passing, perhaps in an effort to keep partnership minyanim and other modern Orthodox communities under his umbrella. In my experience, gender dynamics — who are the gabbaim, who speaks from the pulpit, who leads and reads Torah and sets up kiddush — are key unstated parts of every community, whether fully egalitarian or not. I think the assumption that egalitarian worship will necessarily lead to egalitarian communities is flawed: nearly all the leaders of the independent minyan movement are charismatic men.

I write this essay as I prepare to begin rabbinical school at a non-denominational seminary, something unthinkable to my 15-year-old yeshiva girl self. What inspires my leadership in the observant Jewish world are the communities described in these books: places where I can be enfranchised, where I can struggle with my role as a woman and as a Jew, where I share values with my fellow daveners. These books illuminate a time of deep engagement with the issues surrounding prayer communities, one that we only hope brings us closer to the Divine Source of Blessing.

Sara N. S. Meirowitz is a writer, editor, teacher, and gabbait. A Wexner Graduate Fellow, she is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton, MA.