Women, the Talmud, and Tiferet
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Women, the Talmud, and Tiferet

Talmudist Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein looks at the stories of three women at a meeting of the partnership minyan

It’s not news to say that nothing human is perfect, and also that there is something unstoppably human about yearning toward perfection anyway.

There are a lot of shuls in Englewood and Tenafly, and a lot of Jews to give them life. (Not as many of either as in Teaneck, true, but that is an extraordinarily high bar.)

There’s one Reform shul and one Conservative one, and quite a few Orthodox ones. All seem to be thriving. There seems to be no pressing need for one more. But in 2009, a group of Orthodox Jews — all of whom belonged to shuls, most of whom were satisfied with those shuls — realized that there were two things that they could not get from their shuls.

They wanted women to have the chance to lead parts of the service, within the bounds of halacha — Jewish law — as understood and defined by the Orthodox world, and they also wanted more intimacy than their large shuls could give them.

That led to the creation of Minyan Tiferet of Englewood and Tenafly.

Tiferet is a partnership minyan, based on the model of Shira Chadashah in Jerusalem and Darchei Noam in Manhattan, one of its co-chairs, Mark Schwartz of Englewood, said.

Just about everyone who goes there regularly belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah, the East Hill Synagogue, or Kehillat Kesher. All are in Englewood (although Kesher is on the border with Tenafly).

Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein
Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein

It is not a formal synagogue. There is no membership, Mr. Schwartz said; there is no rabbi, and no services beyond religious ones — no counseling, no programming, most of the time no classes. It offers religious services about ten times a year, mostly on Shabbat mornings but occasionally on Friday nights. This year, for the first time, the minyan met on Purim evening to read Megillat Esther, and will meet on Tisha B’Av to read Eicha (the book of Lamentations). Women, like men, have the opportunity to read from both of those scrolls at Tiferet.

There are no fees and no professionals. Everything is lay-led, and participants are invited to learn to lead, if they do not already know how to do it.

In partnership minyanim, a mechitzah divides the men and women’s sections, as it does in all Orthodox synagogues. The bimah, though, is neutral territory. Women are allowed to read Torah and haftarah, and to lead the parts of the service that do not require a minyan. They are not counted in the minyan, which still requires 10 men.

“We fill a real need for people,” Mr. Schwartz said. “The main issue is the participation of women.

“I am married to a feminist, and I am the father of a daughter. Those things changed me.

“I grew up in a mainstream Conservative synagogue,” he continued. That synagogue was the Fort Lee Jewish Center, which, when he was there, had mixed seating but did not allow women to lead any part of the service. (In a way, its model was the opposite of Tiferet’s.) “And then I went to Yeshiva University, and I met my wife, who grew up Orthodox.” The family joined Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood. They are happy and comfortable there. But the idea of having a place where women would have more of a voice appealed to them.

The other component of Tiferet’s appeal is its size. Participants come from across Englewood and Tenafly’s East Hill, from Leonia in the south to Cresskill in the north. The neighborhoods from which it draws are full of big, beautiful houses, with huge rooms that can be configured to hold 50 or so adults, and also have enough space left for children and a babysitter. But those neighborhoods do not include — and are not zoned to include — the sorts of businesses that have space to rent for occasional meetings.

So Tiferet can never be too big, and with its relatively small size comes the kind of intimacy, along with the chance for genuine leadership, that many people crave.

“People can have the kind of experiences that they don’t get in synagogue every week,” Sarah Adler of Tenafly, Tiferet’s other co-chair, said. “One of the things that makes it special is that you feel that you’re part of a group that really needs you.”

Three Tiferet meetings draw large crowds, which stretch its physical capacity. One of those days, a lunch and learn on the second day of Sukkot, “got a very large turnout,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Every woman who came brought her own lulav and etrog set.” He found that both powerful and moving. Another of those times is a potluck kabbalat Shabbat dinner, “which had an enough turnout,” [?]he said. “People love the conviviality.” The only downside is that “it’s very hard to find a space that can contain us.”

The third such meeting is Tiferet’s annual lunch and learn series. Last year, Rachel Rosenthal, a doctoral student in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary who is also a gifted teacher, drew crowds. This year, prompted by Ms. Rosenthal’s acknowledgment of another teacher, Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein, last year, Dr. Rubenstein will teach.

Dr. Rubenstein, who lives in Englewood, is the Skirball Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at NYU. He, his wife, and their four children belong to Kehillat Kesher, which is Orthodox, and Kol Haneshamah, which is Conservative. He straddles the Conservative and Orthodox worlds; although he works in academia, he is a rabbi, ordained at JTS. Looking for a serious Shabbat community, he and his family frequently find themselves in Orthodox settings. “It’s hard to find a large, serious observant Conservative community, and for various reason we sent our kids to Moriah,” Dr. Rubenstein said. He and his wife have four children. “They developed friends in the Orthodox communities, so we spent more time at Kesher.

“This is a predicament faced by a lot of serious Conservative Jews,” he added. “As a family, we like going to Kol Haneshamah, but my kids don’t have so many friends there.”

But life always is complicated. “My two teenage daughters like reading Torah,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “They read Torah at women’s services for their bat mitzvahs, but they can’t do that at Kesher.

“And it’s important not just for my daughters but for my sons, too, to be involved in expanding the role of women as much as possible.”

Tiferet “provides an opportunity for women, and it also understands the tensions with the tradition as Orthodoxy itself tries to grapple with tradition and change in the modern context,” he said. “It is important to look for precedents or resources within the tradition. That is the motivation for the talk I will give.”

The talk, about feminist stories in the Talmud, “provides one angle on the history, tradition, and role of women, or the tensions between men and women, in a safe way,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “It can be addressed in other ways — more direct, polemical ways — but this is an opportunity to pursue the subject through traditional learning and the sources themselves.”

He will teach three talmudic stories with women protagonists. “They each have a conflict with a man — the husband or another rabbi — and in these stories the women are presented as strong figures, not simply taking what the rabbi says as authoritative, but resisting.

“In a sense, to me they are a kind of voice within the tradition, with a different image of a woman than what you usually see in a patriarchal story — and all of antiquity was patriarchal.

“The stories are complex, and it is not completely clear what the storytellers are saying,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “There are different ways of looking at the stories, but at least one avenue of interpretation sees the storytellers as trying to portray the women in a self-assertive and authoritative way.

“I wonder if in a sense they can present a kind of role model.”

The question of the status of women, along with other issues of personal status, including homosexuality, “is certainly one of the most important issues dividing the Orthodox world,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “It is the tension between modern Western values and traditional Jewish values. The Orthodox model has been Torah u’Madda” — the guiding value of Yeshiva University, the phrase means Torah and secular knowledge. “Madda there literally means science, but really it means critical thinking,” he continued. “I think that these issues take a while to work through the system. We have seen changes in America vis a vis marriage and the role of women. I think that Orthodoxy has been a little slow to really grapple with these issues, and for some reason it is becoming more urgent now.”

Part of the change, he added, is the internet. “The Orthodox, like people in general, have more access now to biblical criticism, to historical criticism, to awareness of the diversity of religion in general. Until now, these were questions [for which] you have to go to library and seek answers. And this is percolating and troubling a lot of people, in terms of revelation and Jewish authority, and it really can’t be ignored. The democratization of the access to knowledge raises a lot of questions about the cohesion of the authority of traditional narrative, and that raises questions about rabbinic authority.

“And then people are open to asking about the pronouncements about the role of women in prayer, or women functioning as leaders,” he said.

On the other hand, he added, “you have to balance that with an awareness that observant traditional Jewish life is a very rich way to live, and it provides a great amount of good.

“You might say that community, morality, tradition offer a way of bringing up children, and no one wants to undermine those things, or to compromise too much. So the dilemma — which is shared by Jofa,” the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance — “is to understand the riches of living traditionally, but trying to change it slowly, and whenever possible without completely leaving the tradition.

“It is a very tricky path,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how much traction this kind of partnership minyan gains as time goes on, and to see whether the liberal Orthodox will be integrated into modern Orthodoxy, be a substantial left-wing presence, or remain marginal.

“My sense is that there has been a slow and steady increase not only in the number of partnership minyanim but also in the more standard Orthodox shuls,” he said. “But these things take a long time to change. I remember having a conversation 30 years ago about whether there would be Orthodox women rabbis, and I said yes, there would be. And you almost have that now. In another 30 years, who knows?”

http://jewishstandard.timesofisrael.com/events/lunch-and-learn/ ‎

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