Historians who look back at the last two generations of American Jews may write that one of the great advances during this time was the spread of religious pluralism—within, not just among, different settings. From the spread of multiculturalism in the 1980s and beyond into the 2000s, American Jews have cultivated settings in which different Jewish religious communities have been able to negotiate coexistence without erasing devotional standards and commitments.
However much pluralism has become a shared value among many American Jews, its implementation in practice is far from simple or easy. My interest here is to examine the thornier nature of ritualistic pluralism, especially as it is manifest in denominational spaces where the desire to be inclusive can often require acts of exclusion. In such spaces, efforts at inclusion are often predicated on a perceived asymmetry between one’s own practices, which are viewed as normative, and other practices viewed as forms of tolerated deviance. Is it possible to move beyond the notion of tolerating the other, while thinking they are mistaken, to a notion of accepting the other’s position as a legitimate expression of ritual practice, even as it contradicts one’s own? I proceed with two short anecdotes and then try to unpack the implications in relation to these questions.
First anecdote: When I was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1997-2004, there were two minyanim. The first was a standard egalitarian minyan, the upstairs minyan. The second was a nonegalitarian minyan, the downstairs minyan. Before the seminary’s decision to become egalitarian, the downstairs minyan had been the only minyan. By the late 1990s, this minyan continued mostly to accommodate the few older professors who were not egalitarian, along with a diminishing number of students who preferred that prayer format. After those professors retired, there was a discussion whether to end that minyan. Should an egalitarian institution support a prayer format that excluded women? In this case, the pluralist act of including such a minyan would justify the exclusion of women, even though women at JTS would have alternative prayer options. And yet the commitment to include women would result in excluding those who do prefer to pray with a mechitza.
Second anecdote: From 1989-1996, I worked at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Massachusetts, a summer camp affiliated with the Conservative movement, committed to egalitarian prayer and ritual. In the early 1990s, campers requested an early Shabbat minyan that would have a mechitza separating men and women. The camp director honored the request. But there was a scholar-in-residence that summer, a prominent rabbi and scholar of Judaica, who refused to participate, arguing that he would not pray with a mechitza and refused to be counted in a minyan that did not count women. At the time, I thought it was kind of a draconian position, simply replicating the attitude of many in the Orthodox world who would make the same argument, albeit in reverse. I now better understand his position.
This example, like the first, exposes the tensions surrounding religious pluralism in regard to ritual practices. The camp director exhibited a belief, common at the time, that while the camp was egalitarian, it would be an exercise in pluralism—i.e., inclusion—to allow a nonegalitarian minyan, that is, a prayer space that excludes women as full participants. Of course, in an Orthodox camp, even one dedicated to such pluralism, a request to organize an egalitarian minyan would likely be denied. The reasons would be both obvious and understandable. On an Orthodox reading of Halakha, the problem of such a prayer quorum is not that it is not customary; it is that it is prohibited. While an Orthodox Jew may be open and tolerant of non-Orthodox prayer practices (and even in some cases participate in them), Orthodoxy mandates that such practices are not in accord with standard interpretations of Jewish law.
In both decisions, however, a vision of normative practice defines the legitimacy of prayer space. In the Orthodox case, normative practice would prohibit an egalitarian minyan, while in the Conservative case, that same normative practice would permit a mechitza minyan in an otherwise egalitarian camp. The normative equation has been that egalitarian pluralists who are committed to non-mechitza prayer practice would allow nonegalitarian options as an expression of their pluralism. Orthodox pluralists committed to praying in a minyan that does not count women, and with a mechitza, may be tolerant of others who pray differently, but with the assumption that such prayer is deviant and, in their mind, mistaken. On this reading, Orthodox pluralism can only go as far as accepting, or tolerating, deviant practice, but it can never equate it with its own view of normative behavior.
But things are changing. Increasingly, there are instances where egalitarian synagogues have a policy that prohibits the use of a mechitza in their prayer space, even if the space is being borrowed by a group of Orthodox worshipers. One could rightfully ask: Why should a synagogue prohibit the use of a mechitza if their own constituents are not even present? For the sake of inclusion and unity, why not accommodate these Orthodox worshippers for the sake of inclusion? An Orthodox synagogue would likely not allow an egalitarian minyan on its premises for reasons mentioned above, even as it may tolerate it in some secular-style space (e.g., Limmud). If the egalitarian synagogue made the same argument to their Orthodox friends, it would likely fall on deaf ears. How can you prohibit a mechitza, part of normative Jewish practice, even if you choose not to use it yourself? Why would it be offensive to erect a barrier if you are not even present?
Herein lies the crux of the matter. When such notions of normative practice underlie pluralism in a religious space, it creates an asymmetry between what is treated as normatively Jewish and what is therefore treated as merely deviant in comparison: Deviant practice (egalitarianism) may tolerate normative practice (a mechitza minyan), but normative practice (a mechitza minyan) cannot fully accept deviant practice (egalitarian minyan).
But can one make a cogent case for an egalitarian prayer community to prohibit a mechitza in their prayer space even if they are not using it? Is there an argument to be made that such a decision is not merely a choice to deviate from a norm? And, accordingly, are there ways to reconceive pluralism to take seriously the coexistence of different norms, standards, and perspectives?
To explore such questions, it might be helpful to reflect on a third anecdote—this one from a letter written by Baruch Litvin to Martin Buber on May 5, 1951. Litvin was a disciple of Buber from Germany who traveled to Israel in 1951 and wrote to Buber, then already in Israel, recounting all the negative things he heard people in Israel were saying about Buber on his travels. Litvin writes:
Then I had a conversation with you; you were very friendly, and everything would have been wonderful but … When I faced you across the desk, the picture behind you with a cross or tzailim, as the Ukrainian Jews say, cut into every fiber of my body and soul, and since then I had no peace … I sincerely hope you will answer my questions as to why there is a cross in your room when we all know what the goyim have done to us in the name of the cross.
On May 3, the following day, Buber penned a reply:
There are four pictures hanging on the wall of my study, one of ancient Jerusalem and three of seventeenth-century Christian Rome. Their inter-relation and the reason they matter to me are because of their particular symbolic significance … The picture you have in mind represents the quarter of the Roman ghetto in which there are three old Roman temples that have been converted into churches. The cross on the churches [this one by eighteenth-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi] is part of the historical and symbolic reality. But I harbor no resentment toward the goyim … You quoted correctly: “Do set your friend right,” and I try to do precisely that, only I do not hate them, despite everything that, as you say, they inflicted upon us. (Buber, Letters, 560, 561).
This is quite a suggestive exchange. Litvin is not contesting the picture of the cross because of any theological dispute with Christianity. And it may not even be a reaction to a personal experience of Christian anti-Semitism. Rather, he offers a rather commonplace critique of the appearance of a cross in a Jewish home: “We all know what the goyim have done to us in the name of the cross.” The cross is understandably a symbol for many Jews of persecution and oppression; thus its very appearance evokes transgenerational memories of anguish and even trauma. But Buber’s response is equally honest and suggestive. He does not deny what has been done to the Jews in the name of the cross (“The cross on the churches is part of the historical and symbolic reality [of Christianity]”). And yet, Buber continues, “I do not hate them, despite everything that, as you say, they inflicted upon us.”
Buber and Litvin do not disagree on historical grounds, nor on the symbol of the cross. Rather, they disagree about how one relates to a symbol—about its power and its impact on one’s life. Litvin’s position is unambiguous and arguably more common than Buber’s. I can interact with Christians, I can even befriend them, Litvin might say, but I cannot tolerate that symbol of their oppression in my home. Buber’s response is much more ambiguous, even tortured, suggesting that such a symbol of oppression does not deter him from exhibiting it in his home because, “I do not hate them, despite everything that, as you say, they inflicted upon us.” The symbol itself, for Buber, is not negatively evocative. He does not tell Litvin why, although we know from Buber’s famous proclamation “Jesus is my brother,” and his book Two Types of Faith (written in the 1940s), that his view on Christianity is far more complex than that of most Jews of his time.
The exchange between Buber and Litvin may give us a way to understand what is so offensive about a mechitza for some, and also help us rethink the foundations of what we call ritual pluralism beyond the asymmetrical formula of normative practice and tolerated deviance. Like the cross, for many Jews—especially but not only women—the mechitza is more than a ritual object used to fulfill a Halakhic mandate; it is also a symbol. And just as the cross symbolizes oppression and the transgenerational memory of trauma, for many Jewish women today, even those who are not direct victims of such oppression and trauma, the mechitza is no less symbolic. Symbols are representations; they signify meaning that is often quite separate from the meaning attributed to them. One could certainly understand, even on nontheological grounds and even if they do not agree, why a Jew would not feel comfortable praying in a space with a cross, or allowing Christian visitors to borrow their synagogue and put up a cross for a Christian prayer service. Is it legitimate to say the same for a mechitza?
I suggest theorizing the mechitza the way Litvin theorized the cross. For Orthodox Jews, the mechitza is a legal precept. It may hold significant symbolic meaning, or it may not. And when it does, it often does so as an inner-Jewish marker that distinguishes “us” from “them.” It was recently related to me that an Orthodox rabbi from the Open Orthodoxy movement once told his students, “You can daven in any shul, as long as there is a mechitza.” That is, it can be a Reform synagogue (often forbidden to Orthodox Jews), maybe even a church, but if there is an erected barrier between men and women, it is permissible. If the mechitza does represent a symbol here, it is as the last vestige of halakhic normativity that would enable one to pray even in a non-halakhic space (e.g., a Reform synagogue). For most Orthodox Jews, though, the mechitza is just a physical barrier. And for most Christians, the cross is not a symbol of Christian triumphalism or oppression, it is just a sign, a marker, of their religious identity.
For Baruch Litvin, however, the cross was a symbol whose power was so strong that he could not bear to see it on the wall of a prominent Jew like Buber. And for many egalitarian Jews, the mechitza is not simply a halakhic precept they choose to ignore but a symbol of centuries of exclusion. One need not have experienced oppression for a symbol of oppression to be operative.
The comparison of the cross and the mechitza is imperfect, of course, as all comparisons are. My point is simply to argue that a true pluralistic vision would need to see the other person’s position on their terms. In this case, normative practice is countered by a symbol of oppression. And both have equal weight in the eyes of the communities who hold to them. For some egalitarian Jews, the mechitza is a symbol not unlike the cross for Litvin. Many Orthodox Jewish women have made peace with the mechitza in a variety of ways, and that is fine. But it cannot delegitimize the perspectives of those who have not. If we can begin to consider that the mechitza is a symbol of exclusion for many practicing egalitarian Jews, akin to Litvin’s sense of the cross, we can begin to understand why the choice to exclude it from one’s worship is potentially as deeply a devotional act—and perhaps even more so—than the choice to include it.
Pluralism cannot really function when the choices of one side are viewed as normative and the choices of the other are viewed as acts of tolerated deviance. This is how it has been viewed in many Jewish circles. Thus, Camp Ramah can have a mechitza minyan, but Orthodox camps cannot have egalitarian minyanim. The Orthodox are right in one sense and mistaken in another. They are right to require prayer practices on their premises to conform with their practice. So it is fully understandable to deny the right of an egalitarian minyan on their premises. As pluralists they are mistaken, in my view, if they view other prayer practices simply as forms of tolerated deviance that is a departure from the normative, and correct, practices they maintain. And egalitarian Jews are right in one sense and mistaken in another. They are right to tolerate, if they so choose, an Orthodox minyan on their premises. But they are mistaken, in my view, if they do so because they understand Orthodox practice as an accepted norm that they choose not to follow. That is, if they unconsciously view egalitarianism as deviant from a norm. In addition, egalitarian communities should reserve the right to deny nonegalitarian prayer on their premises because the mechitza is a symbol of exclusion and oppression that is not fitting in their prayer space under any circumstances. Inclusion that results in exclusion based on perceived normative grounds, even if in principle and not in practice, is not an exercise of pluralism but simply an extension of inequality under the guise of tolerance.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.