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Stretching the Boundaries of Orthodoxy

July 12, 2012 By:
Michael Gordan
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On Friday, July 13, Lechu Neranena will celebrate its first anniversary of conducting monthly Friday night services. This Orthodox minyan in Bala Cynwyd is an example of a recent phenomenon, sometimes called the partnership minyan, where women are able to participate more fully than in traditional Orthodox synagogues. Though services are conducted with a mechitzah, or divider, between men and women, women may speak before the congregation, make Kiddush and lead Kabbalat Shabbat, the service of psalms and poetry welcoming the Shabbat. In those minyanim that meet on Shabbat morning, women may have aliyot, read from the Torah and lead some other parts of the service.

Partnership minyanim have arisen from an Orthodox milieu, though they may not be beloved by mainstream Orthodoxy, and are one of the more recent manifestations of Orthodoxy's sometimes fraught relationship with the modern world.

Modernity has brought great change to the roles that women play in society, and Orthodoxy's response has been to change -- but to do so slowly and incrementally.

Orthodox Jewish women today are probably more educated than ever before. The question the Orthodox leadership faces is whether that change in educational achievement should be reflected in any meaningful change in religious practice.

Though Orthodoxy is commonly mentioned in the same breath as Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionism, it is much less a movement than any of those groups, which typically have central institutions and authorities that determine practice for their followers. Orthodoxy instead is a label, which nowadays encompasses Chabad Chasidim, religious nationalist Jews and a host of other groups with greatly divergent ideologies and commitments.

What enables these groups to see each other as "Orthodox" is less a set of shared beliefs, which can vary wildly among Orthodox Jews, than a set of shared practices and attitudes. Chasidim may pray in a certain style, but like all Orthodox Jews, they pray three times a day in a synagogue in which men and women are separated and men conduct all the services.

By visibly altering this shared practice, partnership minyanim make a statement about the desire for change in women's roles within the Orthodox community.

Partnership minyanim have gained support from some rabbis and opposition from many more. The debate they have inspired reflects how central the public prayer service is to the identity of Orthodox Jews. Apologists for the current state of affairs in Orthodoxy will contend that the true seat of Judaism is the study hall, but the resistance to allowing any change in women's roles in the synagogue makes clear the importance this institution has in Jewish life as well.

It may seem strange that a group whose very name, Orthodox, refers to appropriate beliefs might put so much emphasis on practice rather than faith. But this debate demonstrates that it is really practice that today identifies who is and who is not an Orthodox Jew.

Lechu Neranena, named for the words from the psalm that begins Kabbalat Shabbat and mean "Let's go and rejoice," has begun to address the issues around the role of women by increasing the opportunities for women's participation in the service. The results have been encouraging: Though we started out moving from house to house, we have now found a regular home in the Levering Mill House in Bala Cynwyd.

For those who attend, about 80 individuals on a regular basis, the chief attraction seems to be that they have found a way to meet a need not currently addressed by existing institutions -- enthusiastic traditional prayer in an inclusive and welcoming setting.

Lechu Neranena's first year will be completed this Shabbat, when we read the parshah of Pinchas and when we announce the coming of the new month of Av.  It was on the ninth of Av that the Temples were destroyed, and the sacrifices described in Pinchas were no longer able to be brought. For almost 2,000 years, the prayers we say every day have had to substitute for those sacrifices. We hope that our minyan will offer a link in the chain that has preserved Judaism from ancient times until today.

Michael Gordan, a local attorney who resides in Bala Cynwyd, is president of Lechu Neranena. For more information about the minyan, please contact [email protected].

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