As a rule, my husband and I don’t pray in non-egalitarian settings (or, at the very least, in ones that don’t count women in a minyan). So while I have been following the progress of partnership minyanim with respect and interest for a number of years, I hadn’t participated in one on a Shabbat morning until recently, when I attended the bar mitzvah of a friends’ son.
Partnership minyanim — Sisterhood contributor Elana Sztokman wrote a book on the subject last year — try to maximize women’s participation in an Orthodox service by extending women’s roles and pushing at the boundaries of a traditional Jewish legal framework. Women lead introductory parts of the service, have aliyot and read Torah, and there is a mechitza (physical barrier) between the men’s and women’s sections. At this, but not all, partnership minyanim, the mechitza is also on the bimah, with the open Torah passed back and forth during the reading. I enjoyed the way that women joyously sang along and without hesitation or muted voices — unusual at even the most modern of Orthodox congregations — but I found the mechitza to be a big distraction.
The traditional, Talmudic rationale behind a barrier is that seeing women during a service will lead men to have sexual thoughts that distract them from prayer — and that specifically these thoughts defile the worship space. As I find mixed seating normal and everyday, I have almost never been distracted from my prayers by being among men. The men I’ve spoken to who have grown up in egalitarian settings agree.
But the mechitza itself, now that was very distracting.
It’s nice to see influential men increasingly protest the absence of women presenting at major Jewish events.
In the publication eJewishPhilanthropy.com, Shaul Kelner writes a powerful essay about his pledge to refrain from participating in any all-male panel discussions, and to make his involvement conditional on the inclusion of women.
Kelner, an assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, was asked to take that pledge a couple of years ago by Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the director of strategic initiatives at the organization Advancing Women Professionals.
I was in Jerusalem twice last month — both times to pray at the Western Wall. The first was for the monthly Rosh Hodesh service of Women of the Wall, and the second was for a family bar mitzvah. Unfortunately, neither prayer services went smoothly.
I have been active in Women of the Wall for more than 15 years. I am on the board and had been praying at 7 a.m. each month, rain or shine, at the Kotel with this group of women. That is, until I moved with my family of eight this past summer to Kibbutz Hannaton in the Lower Galilee. It’s a religious Kibbutz, but it is religious in the same unacceptable-to-the-Israeli-religious-powers-that-be way as Women of the Wall and all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.