Brother suffragettes

Elana Sztokman’s work on a new feminist approach within modern Orthodoxy is making waves around the Jewish — and non-Jewish — world

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Dr. Elana Sztokman, author of 'The Men's Section.' (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Elana Sztokman, author of 'The Men's Section.' (Photo credit: Courtesy)

It’s a story about tension, identity and dialogue. About living on the borders of a culture, yet still navigating within them. About negotiating, pushing back, and yes, acceptance. Its tale is particular, yet so universal that scholars and laymen all over the world are picking up Elana Sztokman’s new work, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.”

Published in November, the study is the fruition of five years’ intensive work and over fifty in-depth interviews between the sociologist and Modern Orthodox men who are involved in partnership minyanim around the world.

The movement towards partnership minyanim, places of worship where men and women are as ritually equivalent as possible without breaking Jewish law, has picked up speed in the past decade. Though it is the women who “benefit” most, it is the men in these minyanim who are the keys to keeping them “kosher” and Orthodox, in part because they, and not the women, are counted in making up the quorum. Therefore, for these congregations, without the men there is no minyan.

Sztokman, speaking passionately from her Modi’in home, shares the impetus of the study. “It all started because I was talking with a male friend with four daughters and lots of feminist material on his shelves. And he said to me, ‘I could never daven at a place like Shira Hadasha, because what would be left for a man to do?’

‘It was as if he was saying that reading from the Torah is so important, that it makes him feel emasculated if women take on that role’

“It was as if he was saying that reading from the Torah is so important, that it makes him feel emasculated if women take on that role. So I got to thinking: If this is how men are being educated, how is it that some men are able to go to Shira Hadasha [a partnership minyan in Jerusalem] and still be ok with themselves?”

Sztokman is well known internationally as a feminist writer and thinker. She has written for several Jewish publications (including this one) and her book has been well received in the Jewish press.

But it has also been making waves among non-Jews, especially those interested in the fields of masculinity and gender issues. This comes as no surprise to Sztokman; just as feminism encompasses equality for all, not only women, “I feel my book has applications beyond Judaism.”

“Anybody who is interested in the question of how culture constructs masculinity will be interested in this. Students of gender issues are moving more in this direction of understanding men, because patriarchal structures hurt men, too. Society says to men, ‘be competitive, emotionless, the provider.’ This isn’t good for men too.”

So Sztokman suggests using feminism as a language for men to “unpack their baggage.” (Though of course not without a certain ambivalence, because, as she says, “patriarchy also gives men power.”)

“As a woman, I have enough history in feminism to have the language to say I was brought up to believe such and such, and I’ve chosen another way. I want men to be able to start talking about themselves in this kind of way.”

And in “The Men’s Section,” many of the 54 interviewed men are doing just that. Currently there are some 25 partnership minyanim around the world, up from 22 in 2009. They are in clusters, mostly in the Northeastern United States, with some in Chicago, and a few in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem and Modi’in.

“What’s interesting,” says Sztokman, “is there’s not an even spread: There isn’t one in England, but there are two in Australia. It’s a phenomenon that spreads one person at a time.” Essentially, a person becomes so committed that he takes the principles of the minyan with him wherever he goes. “Such an interesting model for the spread of culture.”

Once you’ve been to a prayer service like this, you can’t go back to a ‘normal’ Orthodox synagogue

Sztokman’s husband, who also prays at a partnership minyan, has a theory: Once you’ve been to a prayer service like this, you can’t go back to a “normal” Orthodox synagogue.

“What interests me are the dynamics between absorbing and resisting our culture. We’re all trying to find the ‘I’ in our cultures. We find different ways to adapt and to push back.”

A lot of this it has to do with fears and courage, says Sztokman, and the idea of letting go of your cultural assumptions. “This is about a person taking his cultural influences and staking a claim and making choices. The idea of the pioneer spirit is fascinating. The Jewish world is changing before our eyes.”

Asked whether this is more of an American import than a homegrown phenomenon, Sztokman refects and says, “Certainly there are a lot of Anglos leading these minyanim, but I would still say that we cannot generalize between Americans and Israelis. A lot of it comes down to your own spirit, courage, the willingness to confront your own fears.”

Outside of this community, however, feminism is still a dirty word — “the f-word, feminism”, says Sztokman — not just in the religious community, but also in the general public. It all begins with primary school education: “Educators have not thought through the implications of making all the girls girlie and all the boys boyish. It’s so engrained, and so damaging.”

Very recently, discrimination in the ultra-Orthodox world has been grabbing headlines throughout the Jewish world. “It’s interesting to me: the whole movement for hadarat nashim. Why suddenly is the whole secular public upset about discrimination in the haredi community, and yet does nothing about unequal wages, or discrimination in the army or in politics? I wish there’d be a movement to discuss it across the board and not just in the haredi community.”

Is there hope for a greater societal shift? She sighs.

“The only way is real grass-roots awareness. I wish I had a better answer. A better answer is the government would allocate a huge amount of money to the one-woman office on women. But we all have to be the soldiers in this. Anybody who has a consciousness of this just has to keep speaking.”

And Sztokman has definitely been marshaling her forces: With the publication of her book, more and more people are talking about gender equality in Modern Orthodoxy. “Such a thrill,” she says. “I’ve been in contact with lots of partnership synagogues and they all say we’re finally moving toward a broader, more productive conversation… even creating a whole new conversation.”


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