It was an ordinary Saturday night in Jerusalem. As three stars twinkled in the inky sky and the west winds wound their way up the hills of Arnona, the prospects of assembling ten men for the evening prayers seemed dim. We stood on the sidewalk, under a streetlamp, waiting for the outdoor minyan to form. Under normal circumstances, the lack of a quorum would not concern me. In fact, under normal circumstances, I would not have been at the evening service at all. But I am saying kaddish for my father this year, and according to Orthodox Jewish law, the Aramaic mourner’s prayer cannot be said unless there is a minyan of at least ten men.
Six… seven… It was substantially past the designated start time, and the ranks were still lacking. As an eighth man arrived, I realized that if one more man were to come, I would be face-to-face with the reality that I, as a woman, do not count toward the formation of a prayer quorum. It’s not a situation that I encounter in my regular synagogue; there are always enough men there when I arrive for services. But it is a situation that I would prefer to avoid.
The moment took me back five years, to August of 2014, when Rabbi Benny Lau, then the rabbi of the Orthodox Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, wrote a Hebrew post on Facebook describing a similar situation of waiting for a quorum, but from the other side of the mechitza:
It’s an ordinary weekday morning. Six a.m. at the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem. Nine worshippers are waiting for a tenth man for a minyan. It’s a common crisis in mid-August. After a minute, the tenth man arrives, and the prayer leader begins the service. It’s just another insignificant event, which shouldn’t make the slightest impression on anyone.
Except that in the women’s section, there was a young woman who had come to pray. During that moment, while we were waiting for the tenth man, I looked at her from my place in the synagogue and cringed. How does it feel to see but not be seen? What is it like to watch people being counted but not be counted?
I went over to the woman and shared my feelings. She smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m used to it.” She had not come to be provocative, and no one paid particular attention to her. I am the only one who has been carrying the incident around with me all day.
I don’t want to change the rules of the club by doing something drastic, and I have no intention of doing so. I believe in deep, internal processes that are underway in society in general and in the religious community in particular. Our synagogue and its congregants have chosen to be part of a religious community that does not uproot accepted Jewish law, as many others do. But I think that at a minimum, we have the responsibility to express the frustration created by this reality.
Participating in a minyan is an enormous privilege for anyone who wants to fulfill the mitzvah of “and I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.” This summer [when Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach were kidnapped and murdered], we have been privileged to see tens of mothers who sanctified the name of God in an inspiring way. I hope that we will learn to create living spaces in which women will be leading partners in religious life.
The most important rulings of Jewish law are not issued by local rabbis (myself included). Our job is to raise and to report the questions that come up in the field and to create dynamic movement that connects the Torah and its leaders with life in the world.
In my circles, Rav Benny’s post was met with gratitude. Many women in my community can relate to the feeling of being committed yet cringing, of continuing to play by the rules of Orthodox Jewish law, while at the same time being frustrated by the inequality that characterizes some of its practices. We are Jewishly educated enough to know why we are not counted in a minyan. We are familiar with the biblical derivations that deem a prayer community to be made up of men, we know that women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments and are therefore not obligated to participate in public prayer, and we understand that differing levels of obligation preclude women and men from being counted together.
We also know that there are differences between men and women (although it is not always clear to us which are due to nature and which are due to nurture), and we understand that our role as mothers sometimes precludes our participation in communal prayer (although we may wonder why women aren’t obligated or encouraged to participate in public prayer at times in their lives when they do not have competing demands of child-rearing). Similarly, we know that we are said to have intrinsic spirituality that makes it unnecessary for us to perform certain mitzvot (although many of us don’t actually feel that spiritual connection). And there is no need to remind us — as often happens when the question of counting women in a minyan is raised — that there is not complete equality in Judaism, even among men, and that a man who is not a priest cannot recite the priestly blessing, no matter how much he may want to. We know. We accept.
My generation of women grew up in a world in which many of the assumptions about the roles of men and women found in traditional Jewish texts have changed. We work to support our families, and our husbands share childcare, cooking, and household chores with us. We studied for advanced degrees, were encouraged to engage in any profession we desired, and watched as glass ceilings were shattered and fell away. But throughout, our religious lives have been characterized by an impenetrable mechitza that keeps us separate but not necessarily equal. In most Orthodox synagogues, while men serve as rabbis and cantors, lead the prayer service, open the ark, carry the Torah, chant the Torah portion and haftarah reading, bless the congregation with the priestly blessing, and deliver the sermon, our involvement in the proceedings is limited to reciting our own prayers and singing — not too loudly — along with the service. Often the only active, participatory role that women play in the communal aspect of synagogue ritual is lobbing candies over a separation barrier at boys or men celebrating life events, or setting up food for the kiddush that follows the services. The disparity between the nature of our participation in secular society and in religious society is jarring.
So we may cringe when we find ourselves not counted for a minyan. We feel a pang when we find ourselves celebrating a new marriage at sheva brachot, in a room full of devout women with advanced degrees and strong backgrounds in Jewish texts, and a search party must be sent out to recruit a tenth for a minyan, returning with a 13-year-old boy who may or may not keep the mitzvot but qualifies as an adult male. And we squirm just a bit when someone carelessly says, “I need a tenth person” to enable the performance of a ritual, when in fact he means “a tenth man.” It’s easy to feel that you don’t count when you are not counted.
Is not being counted in a minyan the most troubling aspect of life as an Orthodox Jewish woman? Most definitely not; the plight of chained women has that dubious distinction. But Rav Benny’s post was welcomed because it’s affirming when an Orthodox rabbi, often seen as representative of the patriarchy, identifies with the challenges we face. It’s consoling when he sees our needs in the synagogue — a place where we are largely unseen, where we often have to lobby to see and hear, and where we may feel disenfranchised and disempowered. Even though Rav Benny was not prepared to take a revolutionary step and call for counting women in a quorum, his discomfort was comforting. Sometimes, it’s the thought that counts.
Standing on the pavement on Saturday night waiting for a ninth and tenth man to arrive, I remembered the one time when I was indeed counted as tenth for a prayer service. It was on a Shabbat morning at a partnership minyan in Zichron Yaakov, where I was visiting friends. In their congregation, while women are not counted as part of a quorum with men, the parts of the service that require a minyan are not said unless there are at least ten women parallel to the quorum of ten men. My hostess had set out in time for the beginning of services, but my day was off to a slower start. As I rounded the corner to the synagogue some 15 minutes later, a woman I recognized from the Friday night service was walking toward me. “Are you coming to us?” she asked. When I responded affirmatively, she replied: “Good, because we need a tenth woman so we can start.” We walked to the synagogue together, and as we entered the women’s section, as numbers nine and ten, the prayer leader recited Barchu. My being there made a difference.
Was I moved? Not particularly. Did I find it silly? Admittedly, a bit. But as I spend more and more time in synagogue during my kaddish year, virtually alone in the women’s section on weekdays and in a rather empty women’s section during most of the Shabbat services, I have begun to appreciate this partnership gesture. Perhaps if Orthodox shuls and schools were to require a quorum of women parallel to a quorum of men, there would be less of a disconnect between women and the synagogue. Perhaps if we were raised in such settings, women would come to synagogue in greater numbers, or come earlier, because we would feel that we count, even if it’s not technically for a minyan. Perhaps if we were counted, even in a symbolic way, it wouldn’t take kaddish to bring us into the synagogue on weekdays, because we would feel that we belong there and that our presence matters.
As I stood and wondered, waiting for our streetlamp minyan to form, my reverie was cut short by the addition of two more men. They arrived simultaneously, bringing us up to the required ten. By the time Barchu was recited, launching the service, we were 12 plus one.
I stood at a distance, behind the men, and recited the evening prayers. When I joined the other mourners in chanting kaddish, no one batted an eyelid. For, in contrast to the norms of the past, it is now common in Orthodox synagogues in South Jerusalem to see women saying kaddish during prayer services. Standing on the pavement, saying the last kaddish of the day, I was aware that I am part of the deep processes of evolutionary change that Rav Benny alluded to in his post, as are many women like me. We may not be counted as tenth for a minyan, but we surely count.