The Men’s Section

Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Brandeis University Press, 2011, 269 pages


This is a superb, well-researched and thoughtful book that investigates how Orthodox Jewish men respond to the new phenomenon of egalitarian religious services. “Every man who makes a decision to join a partnership synagogue is by definition changing.” But changes create tensions and people react differently to stress.


Orthodox Judaism mandates that men and women separate during prayers with a separation wall between them, prohibits women from leading parts of the service, and requires a minimum of ten males to say certain prayers, with women not being counted among the ten. Some Orthodox Jews also insist that men refrain from hearing women sing. Many Orthodox Jewish women accept these restrictions, but a growing number have been seeking changes that allow them to participate more. They created Orthodox synagogues that ignore the restriction of female singing, and allow them to take part in sections of services that are not traditionally restricted to adult men, parts that even children can lead. Both men and women attend these egalitarian services. Sztokman surveyed men in the US, Australia, and Israel who attend these services to uncover what it means to be an Orthodox man, how men grapple with the innovation, and are women fully satisfied with the innovation.


She found that some men, such as Isaac felt that “Judaism without equality is just an empty shell.” And Elitzur said, “I’m here to right a wrong, to create a society that promotes equality as much as is possible.” Yet she also discovered that while men who attend partnership synagogues are changing themselves and communities “by refining gender in Orthodox culture, many have not yet begun the process of unraveling meanings of masculinity and femininity and are still trapped within the patriarchal structures that hurt both men and women.”


Some men told Sztokman that they participate in the partnership services because they are anticlerical; they feel that rabbis are clutching outdated rules that need to be changed; but others are only willing to modify services within the boundaries of these rabbinical rules. Other men seemed inconsistent; they advocated breaking gender roles in synagogues but retained traditional masculinities at home – in the kitchen, in parenting, in careers – and vice versa.


She heard many men who appeared to be affected psychologically; they were afraid of being dominated by women, losing power, being emasculated, being seen as wimps and feminine. Others, somewhat similarly, saw themselves being defined by emotional detachment, control, and physical strength, qualities that women lack, and concluded that women can never be fully equal. Others saw partnership synagogues standing on the edges of cliffs and, committed as they were to Orthodoxy, were afraid of falling into an abyss, scared that this change might go too far and lead its participants to becoming Reform Jews.


Some men told her that they were confused about how to integrate partnership synagogues with other elements of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox men, they said, wear a tallit and tefillin during services and a kippa (head covering) at all times; this, they felt, makes male synagogue participation radically different than female and sets a sharp boundary line against full equality. Still other men admitted that they are not interested in feminist issues, and said “I’m here for my wife.”


The most significant problem for feminine equality that Sztokman found is halakhah, Jewish law, which many women, and men too, considered male oriented, with women’s lives being incidental. Thus, they felt that no real change can occur until rabbis recognize that many laws that discriminate against women, rabbinical laws that can be changed, must be changed. “More than that… (women felt) the assumption that feminist resistance entails women adopting male socialized behavior is misguided…women find the male model absent of meaning.” As a result, many women were turned off and said: “As a woman, I can never really be truly Orthodox.” 


Sztokman’s book is a revelation. She gives fascinating details about all of these concerns and fears, how the partnership synagogues ideologically premised on liberating women from outdated patriarchal practices has become a place that challenges men and helps liberate them from this system. But, she also shows how partnership synagogues are at best a compromise in which women are still precluded from leading many parts of the service and are allowed to participate in parts of the service that are given to children, and that despite its progress, still masks entrenched masculinity.