Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Partnership Minyan Gabbai Guide

It's well known to readers of this blog that my feelings about partnership minyanim (aka, 10+10's) are ambivalent. On the one hand, they are progressive from the Orthodox feminist perspective, in that they allow women some public role in the service. It appears to me that the partnership minyan has quickly been replacing the womens' tefillah group as the preferred way for women to participate in an Orthodox-style service. The partnership minyan may be contrasted with womens' tefillah groups, which have some characteristics that resemble communal prayer, but always seemed (to me, anyway, having never attended one for the obvious reason) as a kind of play-service, where it is made known (through liturgical changes and omissions) to everyone in attendance that none of the additional parts of the service that look like the activities reserved for a minyan really “count” the way they would have had a minyan of men been present. The partnership minyan, on the other hand, is a “real” service, and, in most cases (see below), where women are allowed to do something, what they do “counts” equally. On the other hand, from the perspective of a full-egalitarian, they are regressive, in that women are only allowed to lead parts of the service which are less important (see below for more about that characterization). Perhaps some of my ambivalence is in seeing these minyanim attract people who might otherwise daven in a fully egalitarian style, where womens' position really is (for the most part) considered equal to mens', whereas the partnership minyan still leaves women in an awkward communal position.

Our local partnership minyan linked to the Guide for the 'Halachic Minyan', effectively, a guide for the gabbaim of partnership minyanim to determine what parts of the service they decided women can definitely lead. The guide also gives a brief description of the rationale behind the movement and behind its halachic methodology. The basic assumptions of the partnership minyan, as expressed or implied by the guide, are that women are obligated in prayer (that is, they may pray any time they want), not obligated in specific prayers, nor are they obligated in the separate mitzvah of communal prayer, nor any other time-bound positive commandments. These are absolute constraints, and women cannot accept them upon themselves and become equally obligated. The goal of the enterprise is to maximize womens' participation under these traditional constraints, resulting in a wholly non-traditional form of congregational prayer.

The guide consciously expresses what women can lead in the positive, and is careful not to say “a woman does not lead” any part of the service. Instead, it expresses the same idea as “a man takes over at ...”, describing a practice instead of prescribing halacha. The guide leaves open the idea that increased permission may be discovered at some future time. The guide seeks to rely only on the direct and plain meaning of the halachic literature it uses as its sources, and only uses sources which explicitly permit women to perform the ritual function in question, without making any logical inferences or any original innovations (with respect to halachic issues, but not with respect to stylistic ones). Minority opinions in the literature may be relied upon, even if they contradict traditional practice. In that way, the guide functions as a sort of clearinghouse of permissive rulings in the literature on the issue of womens' participation. The rejection of innovation of new halacha is perhaps the abstract concept that separates the bases of partnership minyanim from fully egalitarian minyanim.

The abstract conception of the position of a woman in the community is also a primary difference. This can be demonstrated by the guide's answer to a question I brought up in a previous post. Namely, what should be done when 10 men are present and fewer than 10 women are present. In comments on that post, most defenders of the partnership minyan movement said that the group should wait or continue to daven as if no minyan were present (even though all agree that a halachic minyan is present in the room). A few indicated that they had seen such a practice followed. That position struck me as strange, given that the group is already making an assumption that communal prayer is a separate obligation from prayer itself. The guide instructs as follows:
Whenever a minyan is required, it is common practice, to wait for 10 men and 10 women to start pray[sic] (as long as the time of tefilla [Zman Tefilla] has not passed) besides when women are counted for a minyan such as in the case of megilah reading on Purim. (emph added)

As I argued in my previous post and its comments, the function of the 10 women is to hold up an already-present halachically-valid minyan of 10 men, not to contribute positively toward a minyan of 20. The 10+10 custom is acknowledged to be secondary to the halacha, a position that is fully consistent with the current assumptions of the movement. It does, however, support the conception that the function of women in a 10+10 is subtractive, not additive.

The idea that men are given primacy over women, even for things they are otherwise allowed to do is still present, at least in some congregations (eg, in the divisions of aliyot — “some congregations reserve a majority of aliyot for men” on the basis of Rema OH 282:3). A similar note indicates that some congregations reserve the first two aliyot for men when a kohen or levi is not present. (If the kohen/levi precedence for the first two aliyot is considered to be a purely historical artifact, then only men would take the first two aliyot, even in a fully egalitarian minyan.) The movement, although it has gone a long way [over traditional Orthodox practice] in allowing limited womens' participation, has not completely abandoned the idea that womens' participation in prayer services is a denigration of the honor of the congregation. By citing these halachic sources, the movement implies that women are, at best, ancillary members of the congregation (which is traditionally defined as the men only).

I often characterize the services at partnership minyanim as ones where “women do things that aren't important.” The guide divides the service into three categories. The first category is that of parts of the service that women can lead — those that may be left out of the service, or may be led even by a child. The other two types are parts in which womens' participation may be considered problematic or is apparently barred. The methodology used for approaching the second and third categories is a bit more instructive than the first. Where sources are found for womens' obligation (such as Hallel on the first night of Passover), they are allowed to participate equally. Another method used for finding room for womens' participation, where it is deemed possible, is to find halachic opinions that reduce the level of obligation associated with the particular prayer such that it no longer has communal importance. An alternative approach is used for Hallel on Festivals, in which it states that the leader need not fulfill the congregation's obligations.1 Parts of the service containing devarim sh'biqedusha are (as of now) non-negotiably led entirely by men. Some partnership minyanim have adopted the practice of assigning any part of the service (excluding the Torah reading) that can be led by women to a woman. This essentially divides the entire service leadership on the basis of gender. In a sense, it is inclusive, but counter-egalitarian.

The partnership minyan movement also calls itself “halachic egalitarian” (a term full egalitarians do and should consider objectionable). The guide goes through considerable trouble to defend the use of the term:
This guide does not refer to parts of the tefillah that are categorized as devarin shbiqdusha, in which the chazzan fulfills the congregation's obligation. It is not our intention to claim that communities in which women lead these parts of the prayer are not halachically justifiable. ...
In conclusion, a word about the name “halachic minyan.” The congregations for which this guide is intended have been described by many names. From among them this name has been chosen as it is meant to describe the essence of the process by which the practices of these congregations are determined and the nature of their connection to the tradition of halachic decision making. Halachah is the basis upon which we stand. With the chosen name we mean to convey that, despite our departure from traditional practice to include women, we may only innovate as far as the Halachah, as recorded in the writings of traditional decisors, permits. The name thus functions descriptively, not contrastively. We do not at all mean implicitly to denigrate other practices and movements as non-halachic.

It is difficult to parse out an entirely positive interpretation of the name, without it being a comparative term. Did not the movement which calls itself “traditional egalitarian” jump through hoops to justify their practice within halacha (albeit under a moderately different set of halachic assumptions)? The guide leaves open that it is not a final answer to the question of womens' participation, and that further progress innovation allowances may be made discovered in the future. Both movements essentially started with a goal and trawled the literature for their defenses. Both accept that minority opinions in the literature may be relied upon, and may even overturn traditional practice.

1 I once attended an Orthodox service on a Festival night following Shabbat at a college Hillel, where the custom in the Hillel's dining hall was for a woman to make kiddush at the meal, and for a man to lead birkat hamazon. (This was clearly a concession to the Orthodox minyan which did not want women leading birkat hamazon). The Orthodox minyan held that a woman could not fulfill the congregation's obligation (the partnership minyan gabbai guide says that they may). The gabbai of the minyan made an announcement after services, which essentially said that the kiddush and havdalah that would be made later by a woman would not fulfill everyone's obligation and that they should all say it for themselves. Had I been the woman making kiddush, I would have found that announcement mildly insulting, even though I could fully appreciate the halachic basis. I would hope that the partnership minyan could handle this issue more tactfully.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008


A few housekeeping items: You may notice that I've switched my online aggregator from Kinja to BlogLines. Recently, I'd found that Kinja was both missing posts from blogs I want to read and occasionally just dropped a blog from aggregation for no good reason. Overall, Kinja is badly broken and has been for some time. As a side benefit, BlogLines provides both an aggregator and a blogroll, so they don't have to be maintained separately. If you think I should be reading your blog, but I'm not (as you can see from the aggregation list), drop me a comment here. It doesn't guarantee that I'll link to you, but, here's your chance for some free publicity from a blog with a readership of about 2. I also might be pruning out dead blogs from the list soon.

Friday, February 01, 2008

How long...

until a terrorist group claims responsibility? (whether they did it or not)

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