Monday, January 23, 2012

New review of "The Men's Section" by Shawn Ruby

I just finished reading Elana Maryles Sztokman's book The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, which is a qualitative, interview based study of the men who participate in partnership minyanim.  For those unfamiliar, partnership minyanim were pioneered by a community in Jerusalem called Shira Hadasha.  The model is based on an article by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro in 2001 that suggested the halachic permissibility of women reading from, and getting aliyot to, the Torah in the context of a traditional Orthodox synagogue.  In the model of Shira Hadasha there are now 20+ such communities around the world, where women lead the parts of the service (Pesukei D'Zimra, Kabalat Shabbat, etc.) and participate equally in the Torah service.  These communities have mechitzot (the traditional partition between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue) but the service is led from a podium that either straddles the mechitza, or is in a central neutral area between the men's and women's sections.
I am a founding member and gabbai of such a minyan in Raanana, so I was curious to read Dr. Maryles Sztokman's insights into what motivates men to join them and how that plays out in the context of finding a balance between remaining Orthodox while pushing the boundaries in an egalitarian direction.  (The minyanim are not truly egalitarian, as I insisted when ours was named, they are just more egalitarian then the standard Orthodox model.)

The first time I attended Shira Hadasha, I expected it to seem weird.  Although I loved the idea, I was sure that hearing women read Torah and lead services would take some getting used to at the instinctual level.  However, my reaction was just the opposite.  It felt like coming home, like everything was finally in the right place.  Like the harmony had been missing a part, and it was finally complete.  I started looking for opportunities to go back, and later brought my wife (a serial founder of women's tefilot), who also found it inspiring.  We held our daughters' bat mitzvah celebrations in the context of a partnership minyan (that we organized with our friends and family at a hotel).

The book begins by defining the "man box" of Orthodox masculinity.  Orthodox men are socialized to live up to an ideal of regular, punctual prayer with a minyan three times a day, with the ideal man being able to lead the service and Torah reading precisely and perfectly.   Emotion and devotion in prayer are essentially ignored in this construct, and men are judged by our peers in our ability to meet this standard.

Although I never thought if it in the oppressive terms that the author describes, the Orthodox "man-box" is truly as she describes.  She correctly points out that realization of this standard is dependent on others, usually women, in a supporting role - taking care of children especially.    I was very aware of this in my own life.  Although in college I was pretty good about making minyan regularly, once we had kids, I consciously decided that I did not see any great merit in being a Tzadik at someone else's expense, and only went to minyan when it did not interfere with my being home with the kids in the mornings.  However, I never really questioned the ideal of the "minyan man", I just decided that in the conflict between that ideal, and my ideal image of a father, I would temporarily give up one for the other.  Even after reading the book, and understanding her critique, I still see the "man box" she describes as a positive value. 



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