07/20/2010 08:42 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

10 Men, 10 Women: The Challenge from Feminist Orthodox Jews

The next mini-earthquake in the Orthodox community of Pico-Robertson will happen when someone decides to open a feminist Orthodox-style synagogue modeled after Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem. Pico-Robertson prides itself on having a robust Modern Orthodox community which attempts to marry Orthodox tradition with modernity and it does, with at least three major congregations and hundreds of families following the Modern Orthodox way.

One aspect of modernity that has posed a delicate challenge, however, has been the role of women in the synagogue. One reason it's become a controversial topic is that a few Orthodox thinkers have weighed in, challenging some traditional dogmas.

As a result, Orthodox synagogues like Shira Hadasha, which have a mechitzah but give virtually equal roles to men and women in the prayer service, have arisen. I attended one of their services in Jerusalem last year, and, I must say, it felt weird. Because the mechitzah starts from the middle of the bimah, you can't see the female cantor from the men's side and vice versa. (Like my teenage daughter might say: "Awkward.")

I did some research on this subject from an Orthodox perspective, and, after a few hours, I needed several Advils. The more I read, the more complicated it got. One practice that seems to have some halachic support is women-only prayer groups. Here is how outspoken Modern Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss threads the halachic needle in his book, Women at Prayer:

Women are obligated or strongly encouraged to pray privately. They, therefore, may recite the entire tefillah at the women's service. But women are exempt from communal prayer, an exemption which excludes them from being counted into a minyan constituted for prayer. As a consequence, participants in women's tefillah groups omit any davar she-bi-kedushah, i.e., any part of the service which requires a minyan. While women's prayer groups may be public and communal from the perspective of the contemporary norm, they are private from a halachic point of view.

Although the Shir Hadasha model pushes the halachic envelope even further, it also has some halachic support, namely from two Orthodox thinkers, Rabbi Mendel Shapiro and Rabbi Daniel Sperber. However, according to a prominent local Orthodox rabbi, their views were officially "dismantled" by two highly respected Orthodox scholars, Rabbi Aryeh Frimer and his brother Rabbi Dov Frimer.

Now you understand my headache.

Regardless of differing opinions, the movement to equalize the role of men and women in Orthodox synagogues remains a fringe movement that has hardly threatened normative practice. The "equalizing" process is happening more in areas like Torah study.

I imagine that non-Orthodox Jews must look at all of this and feel slightly amused. After all, in society at large, the notion of equality for men and women has become so accepted, so self-evident, that doing anything else seems, if not offensive, at least quaint and outdated. How can anyone tell a woman that she cannot lead services or do what men are allowed to do?

The only appropriate answer, really, is that not every woman wants the same thing. The women who pray in the women-only section of Orthodox synagogues are happy where they are. They don't see it as a sacrifice but as a personal choice to follow tradition.

Still, it's clear that even in the Orthodox world, there are exceptions. Not every Orthodox woman wants the same thing.

Not even in Pico-Robertson.

I found that out last Friday night when I decided to visit the "10-10 Minyan," which was started five years ago by a group of progressive Orthodox Jews of the neighborhood. The group meets once a month in different homes for a Shira Hadasha-style minyan followed by a potluck vegetarian meal. The idea grew out of a bat mitzvah, and it was popular enough that they decided to continue.

So there I was Friday night, in the backyard of my neighbors Abigail Yasgur and Joey Lipner, and in the presence of at least "10 men and 10 women," while a woman led the Kabbalat Shabbat service -- from her side of the mechitzah.

Look, I won't lie to you -- I prefer a male chazzan when I pray. It's what I'm used to. For some reason, prayer and synagogue bring out a yearning for male bonding and male camaraderie in me. But who am I to begrudge a woman who wants to lead services? The woman who led the Kabbalat Shabbat service was so soulful, so into it, that I just decided to sit back and take it in, even if it was out of my comfort zone.

What I find fascinating is how feminist Orthodox women still want to remain Orthodox. It would be so much easier for them to simply walk over to a Conservative congregation, like Beth Am, and have it all: an aliyah, reading from the Torah, leading services, etc.

Of course, when I asked a prominent Orthodox rabbi how he would react if a Shira Hadasha-type synagogue opened in Pico-Robertson, he said: "I would have no problem with it at all. Just don't call it Orthodox."