Monday, February 27, 2012

The Role of Men in Orthodoxy


Near my home in Jerusalem is a rather famous congregation called Shira Chadasha. It is famous because it is one of only a handful of synagogues in the entire world which is "Orthodox egalitarian," that is, they take the most liberal existing opinion by Orthodox halachists on the matter of how women may participate in prayer services, and allow women to engage as much as possible. In these congregations, sometimes called "partnership minyans," women are not counted as part of the necessary quorum, nor are they allowed to lead every part of the service, but they do lead some parts of the service and read publicly from the Torah.

As much as I understand, and often share, the motivation for women to join such a congregation, I've often wondered: What is in it for the men?

Enter The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, by a casual acquaintance of mine, Elana Maryles Sztokman (disclosure: She gave me a copy so that people in Jerusalem who can't afford to buy a copy will be able to borrow it from me – and indeed, it is now available for loan!). Sztokman interviewed 54 men from around the world, of a variety of ages and backgrounds, who go regularly to partnership minyans. She held focus groups, and long individual conversations – and observed closely at her own partnership synagogue, Darchei Noam in Modiin.

When she started, she thought she would find a cohort of feminist men. Instead, what she found was a complex kaleidoscope of pressures, ideals, longings, and fears that both drive men away from mainstream Orthodox congregations and also limit the amount of change they are willing to implement in a partnership one.

The answer to my question – what is in it for the men? – is complicated, and of course "men," even men in a subculture of a subculture of a subculture, are never monolithic as a group – or consistent as individuals. Some want to correct the anti-feminist injustices of mainstream minyanim. Some are correcting the stultification of the halachic process. Some – perhaps the most feminist – are there because their wives and children like it better. And some perceive their partnership minyan as more open and welcoming than shules that enforce what Sztokman calls the "Be an Orthodox Man Box"—the box in which a man must be perfectly on time, layn perfectly, be perfectly pious and deeply learned, wear the right kippah, put on tefillin every day, be heterosexual and married and have children, and be a good provider, and be "serious" and "committed" and "not a hafifnik." In a place where it is more OK to be a woman, certainly it is OK to be a different type of man.

It all reminded me of the time that I brought two non-Jewish, American instructors to
Israel to teach a weekend self-empowerment course I'd enjoyed in the States. Neither had ever been to Israel, and one had never before taught a course in which most of the students were Orthodox. Toward the end of the two days, I asked him what he thought of our community. I thought he might express confusion about some of our laws, or about how covered-up the women were, or how much we tended to argue with the instructors – far more than people from other cultures.

But what he said was "I'm struck by how hard the men are working to get it right."

Being a "good" man in any culture – whatever it means from place to place – is harder than being a "bad" man, regardless of whether it is "harder" or "easier" than being a woman. But being a good Orthodox man –irrespective of the challenges associated with being an Orthodox woman – carries huge responsibilities in terms of commitments – to praying on time, to a wife and kids, to a stable job, to Jewish law, to learning.

In a world that allows different voices – women's voices – men sometimes feel that a partnership minyan is a place where they can "break the box" and be a different kind of man, one who is welcoming, and does not "bark" when the Torah reader makes a mistake, and who is, in subtle ways, more free.

Sztokman doesn't address it too much, but that last point feeds right into the reasons that many Orthodox people "won't set foot" in a place like Shira Chadasha (and I admit I am among those who have never prayed there, for reasons not always clear to myself and not for me to try to unthread in a blog post). The same forces that make it more "welcoming" and "outside the box" can also make it more "hafifnik" – not serious. If to be Orthodox is, by commonly accepted definition, to be a "serious" and "committed" person, then the man who does not go to a mainstream synagogue because he feels there are things more important than perfect renderings of complicated rituals, or because he did not live up to the social and halachic expectations in a mainstream Orthodox synagogue, is, by definition, not Orthodox – and the partnership minyan, as a place where such a person would feel comfortable, is not Orthodox either. If it is a place for men who are low on the Orthodox hierarchy, how Orthodox can it be?

Sztokman does address the tensions within partnership minyanim that stem from that very problem. Remember, some men are there despite the fact that they were high on the mainstream Orthodox hierarchy, for reasons having to do with their views on the halachic process; they are there neither to feel more comfortable nor to help women, but to demonstrate their beliefs of what halacha is. Since the members have different reasons for being there and different visions of what the congregation is all about, conflicts often arise, such as one notable case in which some members of Darchei Noam insisted that they not describe themselves in their mission statement as "halachik," because if they use the term "halachik" rather than "Orthodox," they will be seen by Orthodox people as – wait for it – non-halachik. (Sztokman does not appear to understand this, but every Orthodox person I told about it said "they are right.'") An important force in many partnership congregations is the fear of being labeled "Conservative" or "Reform," and Sztokman documents cases in which congregants, men and women alike, put the brakes on ritual changes that might put them outside the Orthodox "camp," whether they believed the changes had halachic relevancy or not.

There are men who take their "committed and serious" ideals from mainstream synagogues and bring them along to the partnership minyan; they look down on the men who are less meticulous – and even more so on the women, who are not "properly" trained to read from the Torah, do not have a nussach, often come late, do not come at all because they are taking care of the children . . . They are the guardians, on one hand, of the "Orthodox" part of "Orthodox egalitarian," but have not considered all the external factors – the non-halachic realities, if you will – of matters such as childcare, or the cultural reasons that Orthodox women have become conditioned to arrive late to services (such as the fact that even in partnership minyanim, they do not "count" and therefore their presence is optional). Being uninterested in the ways that women's participation makes the group more diverse and welcoming in general – for men, too – some of the men are more focused, and troubled by, the danger of being perceived as "not serious" or Conservative – which, in some communities, is the same thing.

Sztokman's book gave me a lot to think about vis-à-vis Orthodoxy, as well as vis-à-vis my own sense of gender identity. Reading her book raised fascinating questions for me about what it means to me to be a Jewish woman in the Orthodox community, and the sort of Orthodoxy I like and don't like, and the qualities that I find attractive or expected in men – and why. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in religious issues or gender issues; the forces at play in partnership synagogues extend far beyond these niche communities, tugging at the definitions of masculinity for men who live in a world populated by women, too.


  1. Recently, for the first time, I entered a conservative synagogue where there was no mechitza, and the men and women sat together. I was struck by how quiet the services were, how the children sat so nicely with their parents, and how much more the women could feel involved. There were no children crying, no running back and forth between the sections, no men or women standing by the edges of the mechitza trying to get their spouse's was nice.
    I've never been to an egalitarian service. How is it different from an Orthodox service? Is there a mechitza?

    1. A mechitza down the middle, with access to the bima (in the middle) from both sections.

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