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Friday, 7 March 2014

Partnership Minyanim

Sukkah 32

The latest phenomenon to shake up the Orthodox Jewish world is the growing popularity of “partnership” minyanim.  According to the Mishnah, a woman may be called to the Torah, but this certainly hasn’t been the traditional practice for thousands of years.  Proponents of these minyanim claim to be worshipping within the bounds of halacha and seek affirmation from the Orthodox establishment.   Are we seeing a new trend in the future of Orthodoxy?

The Torah instructs us to take the “branch of leafy trees” as one of the four species on Sukkot.  Tradition tells us that this expression refers to the myrtle (hadas).  The Gemara offers a number of alternative suggestions as to the nature of this item, including oleander, a thorny, prickly species.

‘Impossible for that to be the required species!’ says the Talmud, ‘Doing the mitzvah of taking the lulav and etrog would not be much fun if one would run the risk of poking oneself on the oleander!’ 

Torah and mitzvos are designed to be pleasurable, not painful.  As the source for this imperative, Abaye quotes the verse, “[The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness.”  Rava in turn quotes the verse, “Love truth and peace.”

The Almighty gave us Torah and mitzvos in order to enrich our lives, both in this world and the world to come.  A traditional way of life dedicated to Torah should be exciting, satisfying and fulfilling.

And yet that does not seem to be the case for everyone.  Some people struggle with traditional Judaism and seek alternative ways to fulfill their spiritual yearnings.  This struggle appears to be the motivation behind the contemporary partnership minyan movement.

The mainstream Orthodox world has been swift and generally unified in its response:  Such modes of worship break with tradition, and one does not fulfill one’s communal prayer obligations at such a service.

And yet, such pronouncements have not seemed to arrest the growth of the movement.  Its adherents feel that they are sincere in their worship of the Almighty and are not transgressing halacha in any way. So what do we do now?

Abaye reminds us that Torah’s ways are pleasant.  People don’t react well to intimidation or suppression.  If there is a segment of our community that is generally committed to halacha and yet feels that present modes of worship are an affront to their sensibilities, then we must ask ourselves ‘what are we doing to welcome them and make our services more fulfilling for all?’

The recent Pew study revealed that we are hemorrhaging as a people.  Sadly, many in the Orthodox community gloated at the results, pointing to the strength of our demographic.   But our demographic is the Jewish community, not some small portion of it.  If we are unable to sell the pleasantness of Torah to ninety percent of our people, then we are failing miserably. 

Perhaps we could rebrand “partnership” minyanim as “transition” minyanim.  Rather than utterly rejecting them, we could utilize them as a tool to reach out to disenfranchised members of the non-Orthodox community, who are not yet ready to worship in a traditional service.  Many Orthodox shuls already have non-traditional services, such as beginners’ and learners’ services, wherein the participants also don’t fulfill all their communal obligations (such as the Torah reading and kedusha) and yet we do not feel that they threaten the success of the main service. 

Unfortunately we have lost many a bat-mitzvah girl who wanted to read from the Torah to non-Orthodox services.  As the Pew study suggests, the ultimate result of that path is dismal indeed.  After 120, are we prepared to answer the Heavenly court when we are asked what we did for 75% of the Jewish people who disappeared during our lifetimes?  We are obligated to do whatever we can – maybe even if it means being a little creative – to save the Jewish people!

Rava, of course, cautions us that we must “Love truth [as well as] peace.”  Peace is our number one aspiration, both between man and our fellow man, and between man and G-d.  Nevertheless, it must not come at the expense of truth. 

If there is absolutely no room in halacha for such practices, then they lack a foundation of truth, in which case we should absolutely reject them.   But if, like Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg, we can at least find some room to rule that certain situations may fall under the rubric of ‘sheas hadchak’ (pressing circumstances), then we must consider all possibilities.

Such decisions, as Rabbi Herschel Schachter has pointed out, are above the pay-grade of most rabbis, let alone laypeople.  The Torah enjoins us to follow our poskim (halachic experts) as the “eyes of the community.”   These Torah luminaries see beyond the here and now and are able to determine halachic policy and its reverberations for generations to come.

But whatever the case, we may not stand idly by while our holy nation disappears into the annals of history.  We must find solutions to demonstrate the pleasantness and beauty of Torah to all our brothers and sisters.   What are you doing to make the Torah pleasant to all?

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