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.
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.
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?
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.