Men being “nice”: Another look at partnership minyanim

“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons,
the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.”
-The Men’s Section

The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim!

Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim.

Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.

Before reading this book, I, like many people, thought that giving women aliyot was an end goal in itself, and that partnership minyanim were an insufficient but ultimately good avenue for the eventual expansion of women’s roles. Sztokman’s research suggests that they could instead be actually self-defeating to feminism. In building these partnership minyanim, we are focusing on the male model of what shuls and tefillah should be, and the men who are joining these minyanim are implicitly rejecting this model even as they insist on retaining it.”The Orthodox synagogue,” Sztokman writes, “remains a men’s space based on the way men are socialized.”

Partnership minyanim seem to have become, at least in Israel (although half the men interviewed were originally from the US), an extension of this “men’s space.” Grace aux male participants, they are still pervaded by:

  • Emotional disconnect (58): There wasn’t an emphasis on enjoying tefillah or singing and the like; rather the emphasis remained on punctiliousness and keeping services short.
  • Absolutist language (80): “When forces of power preempt discussions, there is a control of ideas before they are even publicly aired.” In an attempt to continue being seen as halachic (“in the club,” as Sztokman puts it), there was a tendency to retain social boundaries using the “inflexible language of authority,” or halacha (regardless of whether the subject being discussed was strictly halachic or not). Couching an existing hierarchy in this type of language is effective because, one interviewee said, “people are afraid of what God is thinking.”
  • Clericalism (90): On a similar note, the minyanim were (and are) being judged as “not halachic” because only “small-name” rabbis approved of them. That is, there weren’t exactly any renown rabbis who would publicly underwrite these minyanim. Having no real widely recognzied support, this caused an internal rift as members argued whether to call themselves “Orthodox” (instead of merely “halachic”) in order to appease critics. As someone wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “halakha does insist that each generation has certain leaders whose authority derives from their widespread acceptance. Particularly when attempting to break with established practice, the approval of recognized authorities is essential[...]An environment in which everyone ultimately makes his own decisions[...]may be democratic and tolerant[...]But it is not halakhic.” Of course, some of the men interviewed did wish to see a change in the monolithic nature of halacha. Still, participants sought outside approval from authoritarian structures even as they hoped to break those structures down, as evidenced by their petition to call their minyan “Orthodox” rather than “halachic.”
  • Authoritarian control over discourse (161): When the vaad heard about this petition, they were not pleased. They had wanted the discussion to go through them first. They announced that “only emails that have been approved by the va’ad could be sent to the entire congregation.” This was the beginning manifestations of centralizing an authority that had once been more dynamic, going back to a centralized “Orthodox culture generally,” and forming a “culture of authoritarian control over communal discourse in Orthodoxy, beyond halakha.” It seems that this too is because of the fear that the group will be ostracized by other, mainstream Orthodox groups.
  • Male model of performance (202): Although it seems on the surface that gender identity is being challenged, there is no discussion of punctuality, perfectionism, power structures, and how they shape masculinity. Instead, the minyan becomes a space in which women can practice their (always deficient) roles themselves, modeled on the already present male structure.

“The process of reaching gender equality is often interpreted as offering women as opportunity to internalize the practices of Orthodox masculinity in bits and pieces. Layn here, learn there, be a meticulous, emotionless, perfect performer[...]Orthodox men have not challenged the supremacy of this model at all. The partnership synagogue is a place where men are reacting to gender hierarchies by inviting women to share their space as objects of a male gaze, perhaps to relieve some of their own pressures. They are bringing women into their box, perhaps as a comforting presence.”

  • A dependence on another’s servitude (221): In a way, partnership minyanim will always be an “incomplete revolution,” because the structure is so completely different from that which shul culture has historically been based on; namely, the assurance of having someone at home to take care of the business that must be attended to while the man is at shul (or yeshiva or elsewhere). If women want access to this type of freedom, there is of course the problem of having no one left at home to “pick up the slack.” Even further social strain was exemplified in Sztokman’s observation that women who came in with children weren’t welcomed, and in the particular minyan she attended, women were also criticized for breastfeeding. Women are expected to fulfill their “homemaker’s role” while still attending to the pervasive sense that they must also fulfill the role of a punctual minyan member. In other words, women are still criticized for coming late and leaving to attend to children even while they are simultaneously expected to cook/clean/take care of said children.
  • Idealization of masculinity (224):

“The problem with Orthodoxy, I came to realize, is not just that women are forbidden from doing what men do. The problem is in the entire set of assumptions around men, the idealization of masculinity that, really, is not what I want in life. Orthodoxy is not really a place for women.

More than that, Orthodoxy is by definition a male construct. Orthdoxy is men. The way to be a complete Jew in Orthodoxy–from the bris to the bar mitzvah to giving a woman a ring and maybe giving her a get–is to be a man[...]I am not merely saying that Judaism is a patriarchal culture. What I’m saying is that Orthodoxy as a construct is male[...]a culture that rests on idealized images of human existence that can only really be fulfilled by men. As a woman, I can never really be truly Orthodox[...]I am never quite inside the culture. Because to be Orthodox in its full meaning ultimately means being a man.

[...]We have a nearly two-thousand-year-old Talmudic tradition that prides itself on such punctuality, precision, and perfectionism that the precise words of the Shema must be recited at a certain time. But, really, is that what makes us godly? Or is it just am expression of men seeking control in a world of chaos who measure, cut, and calculate every movement so as to avoid having to actually feel emotions such as fear, uncertainty, and pain?”

Partnership minyanim by definition need men to function–men who are not necessarily ready to give up their previous privileges of power and control. Naturally, these men in turn use what they know from their own male socialization to create more male spaces. Now, I hardly wish to say that this is true of all partnership minyanim, especially since the study was done in Israel, where the culture is very different. But the study shows at least that there is easily precedent for a tendency for these to slide into being copies of the men’s Orthodox culture that has always existed.

Because these spaces are created by men who are “allowing” women greater roles, men who are likely not motivated by concern for women (see quote), I would hardly call them feminist, and I don’t believe they will be until the culture of “men being ‘nice’” enough to give women a “corner” (222) or a bit of practice in masculine performance is replaced by women creating self-functioning spaces themselves (which, of course, is already starting to be done). There is still a long way to go.

Feminism is not only about giving women expanded symbolic roles, it’s not just about giving women aliyot, but in changing the entire atmosphere and breaking down the ultimately harmful paradigm of the masculine ideal of what tefillah ought to look like.

Filed under Feminism

4 Responses to “Men being “nice”: Another look at partnership minyanim”

  1. Although I agree that these spaces aren’t feminist, I rather resent the claims that the first four of your points are necessarily anti-feminist. The fourth one simply assumes that all authorities are by nature anti-feminist, rather than expanding what the idea of authority is. THis sort of claim runs under a lot of essentialist claims – and indeed, IMO actually underlies the failure of a good bit of feminism. When we start claiming that “x is the way men do things, and women do them y,” you’ve already lost he battle, whether x is halakha as opposed to y being feeling good, or x is science and logic and y is my personal reality (and yes, I have heard “feminists’ make that latter claim thank you).
    Halakha is not, of itself, anti-femimist, and claiming that without giving it up, one can’t have feminist spaces is… nonsense. In fact, it is coincidental with the claim that halakha is Orthodox. It is not. What we need is not throwing out authority (if you throw out ALL authority, there is no Judaism,because the tradition is a build-upon- the-shoulders tradition – ultimately leading back to God and Torah as authority. Instead, we need to see authority being broadened to a wider variety of people who have immersed themselves in studies and know how the halachic system works, which also means being open to a somewhat more traditional view of halacha and opening the doors to a more traditional variety of decision making – but in the end, that can’t be completely democratic – at least in terms of halakhicly based decisions, because it takes some real knowledge to make decisions about halakha, and not everyone has that – any more than we open decisions about medicine to all people in the surgery. I don’t really want someone who wandered in off the street making decisions about my anaesthesia, thanks. OTOH, if everyone wanted to take the time to actually go through rabbinical school and learn how to do it – well, then, would that all my people were prophets, y’know?


    KRG · February 17th, 2013 at 8:01 pm
  2. Although there were some men who did not consider feminisim as the main reason for joining an egalitarian minyan, there were some men who DID consider gender equality as being a main reason for them joining the minyan. IMO many men would agree with feminist ideology regarding prayer but may not be able to admit it openly so they say that it is not the main reason why they attend partnership minyanim.


    Jacob · February 18th, 2013 at 12:38 am
  3. KRG: I think that’s what the book was getting at. Decisions were being not by a meritocratic authority but by a small (elite) group of rabbis, who may or may not have necessarily had any stake in the group they were paskening for. I think we are seeing the concept of what authority can be become more specialized (i.e. “Must be widely recognized, must be well-known” etc.), when that is not necessarily what makes a GOOD authority.

    And as for x versus y, the boundary did get a little murky in the book, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be halacha v. “feeling good.” For example, berating someone for not having learned a perfect trope shouldn’t really be as big a concern as it is. Same for the existence of davening speed over understanding content (the whole ‘singing’ thing notwithstanding). Same for the existence of hierarchical power structures in the shul (I’ve peeked over the mechitza enough times to suspect this really is a thing.)


    lmcooper · February 18th, 2013 at 6:26 pm
  4. At the PM I attend on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, most of the toddlers, children, and teenagers sit with their mothers and grandmothers, and not with fathers and grandfathers. Is this the situation in other PMs?


    Rachel · February 24th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

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