Torah commentary, two flavors.
This week's portion: the metaphor of weaving

What makes a minyan?

After erev Shabbat services last Friday I got into a conversation with my friend David about the minyan rule. (A minyan is the quorum of ten required for communal prayer. Though Jews can and do pray alone, we're encouraged also to pray in community, and as a way of strengthening that practice it was decided long ago that many parts of the service -- chief among them, reading from the Torah scroll -- can only be done with a quorum.)

At my shul we are egalitarian, and count women as well as men toward a minyan. (This is true in most non-Orthodox contexts. As normative as it seems to me, it was a radical shift once upon a time; this Reb on the Web article does a great job of explaining how different denominations arrived at gender egalitarianism.) But what if we don't have ten? If we have nine adult Jews and one young Jew who hasn't yet reached b'nai mitzvah, the presence of the Torah taken from the ark is considered to "elevate" the child to adult status temporarily, and in this way we achieve the necessary ten. (I'm told this practice has its roots in the Shulkhan Arukh, though I don't have a citation handy.)

This isn't just academic. We're a smalltown shul with a small membership, and we often have to invoke this rule. Other times we have to eschew taking the scroll out of the ark altogether. We still read and study Torah together, of course; we just do it from our books, instead. Though I try not to let low numbers impact the Torah discussion -- I owe it to whoever's there to offer them as thoughtful and energetic a study session as I can -- I do feel something's missing when we're not able to savor the pageantry of taking our Torah out of the ark.

David likes to ask me hard questions. So he asked, with a twinkle in his eye, why we're still attached to the number ten. We're happy to break with Orthodoxy in order to count women as well as men, so why aren't we willing to break with custom on the question of how many people are required? (After all, it is related in the Babylonian Talmud -- in Soferim 10:7 -- that in Palestine, as few as six men were once counted as sufficient to say communal prayers.) If there's precedent for fewer, why not make use of that precedent? And if there's precedent for changing on the gender front, why not change on the number front?

Wherever ten Jews gather for prayer or for the reading of Torah, the tradition tells us, the Shekhinah dwells among them. (That comes from Psalms, 82:1.) Reading from the Torah scroll is one of the most beautiful and powerful liturgical acts in our repertoire, so it makes sense that we don't do it lightly. But surely the indwelling presence of God is among us even if fewer than ten are gathered; and surely one could argue that there is merit in a lenient policy which would allow small communities like ours to reaffirm our connections with (and derive blessing from) the presence of God manifest in the Torah service even on days when our numbers are few. So why be sticklers about needing ten?

Questions like this one highlight an internal tension for me. One part of me remembers the Israelites' response to the revelation of Torah: "na'aseh v'nishmah / We will do and we will hear." From this, the rabbis tell us, we learn the importance of putting action before understanding. When it comes to mitzvot we don't intuitively understand, meaning may arise for us as we do them -- and even if it doesn't, there is meaning to be found in allowing our lives to be shaped by tradition. According to this way of thinking, the tradition of requiring ten for a minyan is valuable because it is what has always been done, and we needn't understand it in order to find merit in it.

The other part of me balks, finding "we've always done it that way" to be a deeply unsatisfying answer. Up until relatively recently, that argument kept women from leading public prayer, or being counted toward a minyan, or being ordained as rabbis; I can't express how deeply glad I am to live in an era when somebody had the strength and wisdom to challenge that. As Reb Zalman says, we can't drive forward if we're only looking in the rearview mirror. Our shul is affiliated Reform, making us part of a long tradition of wrestling with the angel of tradition; perhaps this is a tradition we should be questioning.

Not surprisingly, the Reform movement has bumped up against these questions before, and its array of responses reflect the movement's ongoing dance with change and tradition. This responsum from 1936 argues that the good of having regular and full services trumps the good of meeting the traditional requirement for ten adult Jews; this one, from 1989, retorts that even so, it is better to make the extra effort to gather ten. This responsum, dated 1993, is the most lengthy and detailed, and in a way it bridges the dialectical tension between the previous two:

As a general rule we are and have been lenient in most ritual matters, and the opinions of Rabbis Mann, Freehof and Jacob reflect this trend. They are in tune with the sentiment of Pirkei Avot: "When two sit together and discuss words of Torah the Shekhinah is present with them" which may be taken to mean that it does not matter how few Jews gather together for services, their sacred intent entitles them to full liturgical expression. Why should they be denied the hearing of Torah and Kedusha  because others may not feel prompted to come to the synagogue? Why should Jews be dependent on others when they need to say Kaddish, whether at home, at a shiv'ah, or when observing yahrzeit?

Having stated these questions we must, however, also ask: If the needs of the individual can be satisfied without others, what then is the difference between public and private worship?

Despite my general tendency toward liberal (re)interpretations and my strong belief that Judaism is a flexible system which can withstand change, some part of me balks at the notion of redefining the number of a minyan. Even so, I can see how one would argue on behalf of either opinion. On the one hand, if we start lowering the required number, we could be starting down the slippery slope toward something which is no longer recognizably part of mainstream Jewish tradition. On the other hand, we could be facilitating a deeper and richer connection with Torah which could spiritually enrich the life of our smallest communities. On the one hand, if we preserve the traditional number we could be ensuring commonality of practice across both time and space. On the other hand, we could be unfairly penalizing rural Jews in a way that does no one any good. (And so on.)

This is an instance of a larger question that fascinates me: what is the process whereby mainstream Judaism decided which mitzvot to strengthen and which to weaken, and in what way(s) does that process continue today? For instance, in this week's Torah portion we read that one famous line about boiling a kid in its mother's milk, which the rabbis expanded into a vast system of dietary restrictions; we also read several injunctions about who should be stoned to death, which the rabbis backpedaled away from (making capital punishment almost impossible to carry out). What does it mean that we create elaborate enhancements for one of these, and elaborate workarounds for another? And which should be our approach to the question of the minyan?

Would changing the requisite number for a minyan be a different kind of change than the inclusion of women? (I think that it would. In egalitarian contexts which count women toward a minyan, we're still holding with the tradition which mandates ten adult Jews for communal prayer; we're just defining "adult Jews" in a broader way than we used to.) Could this kind of change be effected halakhically, or would it have to be an extra-halakhic change accepted only by those for whom halakha is no longer relevant or binding? To my Orthodox readers, these questions may seem fruitless at best. But for me as a liberal Jew, these are important matters: not just the question of how we should define a minyan, but the larger question of how we relate to received tradition, and how and whether we engage in the process of the tradition's unfolding.

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