Can Jews have pluralist prayer services?

Before the enlightenment there was a certain level of achdut אַחְדוּת (unity) between Jewish groups. Whether more or less observant, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Mizrachi, Jews kept our  communities together. Our siddur had certain variations from century to century, and region to region, but in general there was an inherited tradition held together by halakhah and minhag. We also had definitions for who is, or isn’t Jewish, and for who would count in a minyan.

This kept our people together. Any of us could travel to any Jewish community and pray with other Jews. This unity is what God wants of us. The Mishnah clearly teaches

Do not separate yourself from the community – אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר
Al tifrosh min ha’tzibur. Pirkei Avot 2:4

But today, since the Enlightenment and the subsequent changes it brought, that unity has been compromised. Today differences in theology and social norms are so great between the right-wing of Orthodoxy and the left-wing of Reform that it almost seems like we have broken into different faiths. The situation is so dire that many Jews won’t even pray with all other Jews anymore.

Yet there are many of us who want to do more. There are a growing number of Jews from all denominations who want spaces for us to work together, study Torah together, and daven together. We have Hillel services on college campuses. We have local havurot which say that they want to reach out to all Jews. And we have retreats, conferences, or Limmud events with Jews from all denominations.

So we ask, what can we do to make it possible for Jews to daven together?

Before we offer solutions we should be aware of the challenges: Some examples of the dilemmas that exist when an Orthodox person goes to a Reform service, or vice-versa:

◉ In Orthodox and Conservative settings, tefila is led by a shaliach tzibur, yet it includes everyone davening together. The norm is for each person in the kehillah to fulfill their חִיּוּב obligation to say our tefilot (preferably with kavanah.)

◉ In Reform settings tefila is led by a shaliach tzibur yet also often a musician and/or choir. The norm is not for individual davening. In many Reform settings, many people listen to the music and choir, rather than daven as it is experienced and understood in more traditional settings.

◉ In Orthodox and Conservative settings, tefila has halakhic parameters which are obligatory. As such, one can count on O and C congregations to do all the major sections of the service, as well as standard Torah and Haftarah readings.

◉ In Reform settings halakhah for tefila is not considered normative. Most Reform services do not include all parts of the service. Many do not include parts of the Amidah. Almost all remove the Musaf service.

◉ In Reform settings people who are Zera Yisrael, relatives of Jews – not halakhically Jewish by Orthodox standards – may be counted as Jews in the minyan. So a Reform minyan could be largely composed of people who are not Jewish by traditional standard. If an Orthodox Jewish person was present in a Reform Jewish minyan of ten adults, and at least one was a patrilineal Jew, then the Reform community consider this to be a full minyan, and they could say the tefilot that are normally only said when a minyan is present. But for the Orthodox, Sephardic, or Conservative Jews, in this case they wouldn’t see a minyan as being constituted, and they wouldn’t be able to say those parts of the service.

◉ In Orthodox settings only men count in the minyan. In non-Orthodox settings, women do count in the minyan.

◉ Orthodox interpretations of halakhah, especially post 1950, insist that a mechitzah is mandatory during tefila. As such most Orthodox Jews are taught that they may not daven without one.

◉ Non-Orthodox prayer services don’t have a mechitzah. So an Orthodox Jew would likely feel that they may not daven in such a setting.

None of this is assigning blame. The above is just a description of the realities that we face. Clearly, without planning and compromise it would be impossible for Jewish people of all denominations to daven together.

Yet there is a path forward. Locally, people can always work out compromise practices that they can agree on.

When it comes to the mechitzah

◉ We could agree to have a trichitzah. Strict Orthodoxy could be unhappy with the existence of a mixed gender seating section, and Reform could be unhappy with the existence of gendered sections. Yet if this is agreed upon it would offer the necessary components for people of all denominations.

Read more about the trichitzah here – Hilchot Pluralism, Part III: Macroscopic prayer issues

◉ We could agree to have a Chabad-style-mechitzah. Don’t know what this is? Strict Orthodox synagogues sometimes have women sit in a different section altogether. Other Orthodox synagogues have women behind a high, opaque dividing wall, off to the side. Some Modern Orthodox synagogues have a high and partially transparent dividing wall right down the middle of the synagogue, set back from the bimah, so that women at least have the same seating equality as men, although separate.

Yet in many Chabad houses they understand that most people they serve would not be comfortable with this. So some Chabad rabbis have quietly developed a solution that differs from Orthodox norms, yet fulfills their minimal criteria. I have seen that Chabad houses in which the synagogue has no mechitzah: Women and men learn and socialize together in the same space. When tefila starts, they bring out a row of decorative houseplants, about four feet high, and place them in a row. Women sit on one side, men on the other. They can see each other, and for all practical purposes, men and women can sit together just a few feet apart. I’ve done this myself with my daughter just a couple of feet to my left, the planters forming a technical mechitzah between us.

◉ Or people locally could dispense with the mechitzah altogether. (See The Mehitzah in the Synagogue by David Golinkin and The Mehitzah in the synagogue by Monique Susskind Goldberg.)

When it comes to who counts in a minyan

For Orthodox Jews, a minyan must include ten adult male Jews.

For Conservative Jews, a minyan must include ten adult male or female Jews.

For Reform Jews, a minyan must include ten adults, male or female, and they may halakhically Jewish or they may Jewish by the patrilineal definition of liberal Judaism.

Looking in one direction, these are simply functionally incompatible definitions. But looking in the other direction we have two solutions:

◉ For the purpose of this discussion we are talking about large gatherings of Jewish people for a retreat, conference, Limmud session, or some other similar event. In such circumstances, especially if Orthodox Jews participate, we then know that we’ll have a minyan of at least ten men who are halakhically Jewish. So for large groups there is no barrier.

When it comes to the siddur

◉ The shaliach tzibur could lead services with an Orthodox siddur. Non-Orthodox Jews could use their own preferred siddur, or use the Orthodox siddur but make whatever changes they desire (e.g. Imahot, or other modifications) on their own.

◉ The shaliach tzibur could lead services with a traditional yet egalitarian siddur. Orthodox Jews could use their own preferred siddur, or use the non-Orthodox siddur but make whatever changes they desire (e.g. not reciting the Imahot, or other modifications) on their own.

Related articles

What Happened to Jewish Pluralism? Yehuda Kurtzer, Sources Journal

Is Judaism Really in Favor of Pluralism and Tolerance? Responsa, David Golinkin, Responsa in a Moment: Volume 9, Issue No. 6, June 2015

The Foundations of Pluralism in Judaism. Introducing Tarbut HaMachloket


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