Men, Women, and the Language of Minyan
"How many more people do we need for a minyan?" An apparently innocent question, posed daily in Orthodox synagogues across the United States and Canada. Or, in another context, "Despite the fact that there is no explicit mitzvah to cover one's head, it has been the universal custom of observant Jews to wear yarmulkes or kipot." What could be objectionable?
Especially for those of us men who identify ourselves as Modern Orthodox Jews, we ought to make a sustained effort to become more sensitive, beginning with understanding why such seemingly routine statements are problematic. Even as men who advocate for expanding the roles available to women in the synagogue, we subtly betray long internalized and damaging biases.
Here is the fact: for all flavors of Orthodox Judaism, a minyan requires the presence of ten Jewish males who have reached the age of Bar Mitzvah. Not ten people. Not ten Jews. Ten males aged thirteen or older. So, we ought to be much more careful, whether in casual conversation or from the bimah in the sanctuary, not to refer to Jews or people when we mean men.
One might ask: What's the big deal? We all know what we mean, don't we? We all know that when we say we need one more Jew for the minyan, that we mean a male of the appropriate age.
I would suggest that this is a big deal, and one evident in two ways. First of all, when such statements are made or questions asked, there are often women or girls present. When, on a Friday late afternoon with time to recite the minchah prayer running short, and there are fewer than ten Jewish men present, along with one woman, or four women, or twenty women, and one of the men asks, "How many more people do we need for a minyan?", what message does this send, particularly to our daughters? Is it not suggesting that girls and women are not really people--because if the minyan requires people but only men are eligible to be counted, then it would be a quite logical inference to conclude that girls and women are not really people, or at least are not fully persons or humans, as men are.
Or, substitute "Jews" for "people," and we then imply that Jewish women are not truly Jewish or not fully Jewish--after all, the minyan requires ten Jews, and yet women do not fit this definition.
And what is the cumulative effect on girls and women of receiving such messages time and time again, day after day, week after week, year after year?
The second reason this is all a big deal concerns the impact it has on men, and especially young boys. They likewise receive, over and over again, the message that only males are truly people and truly Jews.
For boys and girls, such messages valuing male more highly than female, are surely underlined by our regular and unselfconscious reference to God using He and Him and His, despite the fact that we well know that God is not a person and has no gender (though maybe as a native speaker of a non-gendered language, I do not appreciate the challenge here). Such messages no doubt find emphasis when men recite aloud in the synagogue the She Lo Asani Ishah blessing, suggesting perhaps we ought to reconsider at least its public recitation.
So, whenever we are discussing minyan, tefillin, or other matters referring specifically to male obligations, whether in casual conversation or during a shiur or during announcements from the bimah or in a sermon, those of us who are men ought to be much, much more careful and considerate. And perhaps when we hear others speaking this way, whether one-on-one or at a shiur, we might point out this issue, in a quiet and respectful manner, not to embarrass anyone, but rather to initiate and motivate substantial long-term change in how we speak and how we think, how we conceptualize ourselves and others, as Jews and as human beings.
(Alan Krinsky is a writer and healthcare analyst; his essays have appeared in Conversations and The Jewish Press, among other places.)