Rabbi Gil Student has a post at his Torah Musings blog about the recent release of an issue of Tradition (a scholarly journal from the Rabbinical Council of American, the major Modern Orthodox rabbinical association) dedicated to analysis of the permissibility under halakhah of “partnership minyanim,” that is, minyanim that follow the requirements of halakhah as to gender roles but that allow women’s leadership in certain parts of the service.
Simply put, the opinion of the writers in Tradition and in other related documents is that partnership minyanim are not permissible.
Liberal Jews have objections to partnership minyanim that differ from those advanced by the Modern Orthodox. Simply put, we think the entire thing is foolishness, because halakhic distinctions between the participation of men and women in services are unacceptable where the rationale shifts so much: two centuries ago, women were less spiritual than men; this century they are more spiritual. Women are distracting; no, no, men are just too easily distracted. Partnership minyanim continue to perpetuate these divisions by allowing women to do some–but not all–of a service, and often not the “important” parts.
The bottom line, for liberal Jews, is that these are invidious distinctions, and pointing to mesorah doesn’t answer the fundamental charge. And so, we criticize the partnership minyanim for simply accepting invidious distinctions in halakhah, however meritorious it might seem to try to carve out some space for women’s participation. (Where different varieties of liberal Jews come out on halakhah generally is a different story. I won’t worry about that here.)
So, what should we make of the new line in Tradition, which would hold that even the modest effort at change represented by the partnership minyanim is halakhically out of bounds? I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide where you stand. I think it’s clear where I stand.
What I’m really interested in here is what it means to say that one respects women, and then to turn around and cite as authoritative such texts as b. Megilla 23a (which precludes women from reading for the sake of communal honor) and t. Megilla 3:11 (stating that women don’t read from the Torah for the community). Because, clearly, respect for women just shines through when one says that the community’s honor is diminished when women read from the Torah. (Or not.)
Simply put, I cannot take seriously claims to respect women when your notion of divine justice includes outright exclusion of half the population from being worthy of participating in the most public, recognizable, fundamental aspect of a community’s public religious life because doing so diminishes the honor of that act.
Taking a public position on respecting others should have normative consequences. When there are no such consequences–when the only change is in the explanation for the continued favoring of one group of people over another when the rubber hits the road–it is natural that one might disbelieve claims that the speaker genuinely holds the publicly-stated position.
Do the authors of the Tradition article hold genuine respect for women in their hearts? I don’t know. But the halakhic rulings at least somewhat belie the claim.
With friends like these…