Gender regulation as a source of religious schism

Phil Zuckerman

This paper explores a case of religious schism in which a struggle over gender regulation was central in the splitting apart of a Jewish congregation in the Pacific Northwest. While there were several factors and various latent sources of conflict that precipitated this case of religious schism, the struggle over gender regulation was the most prominent and ultimately decisive. Members of this small Jewish community disagreed about how men and women should worship together publicly and what roles are appropriate for males and females in a Jewish religious context. Unable to compromise, they parted ways.

Although the social process of religious schism(1) is the sociological context of this discussion, and is an important topic in its own right (Ammerman 1990; Doherty 1967; Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Stark 1980; Liebman, et al. 1988; Schwartz 1970; Vrga and Fahey 1970; Wilson 1971; Harrison and Maniha 1978; Steed 1986; Shin and Park 1988), this paper is less concerned with the sociology of schism and more concerned with exploring the cultural significance of gender within a contemporary religious/Jewish context. Thus, rather than deeply probing the theoretical motifs of religious schism, this paper focuses on the potential for conflict and change that issues of gender regulation exert within contemporary religious/Jewish life. Approaching religion as a cultural system (Williams 1996), this paper highlights the importance of symbols within contemporary religious conflict (Kniss 1996; Sered 1997) and illustrates the way in which religious symbols that involve gender can be powerful elements within such conflict. Finally, this case study lends support to the paradigms recently put forth by Hunter (1991) and Wuthnow (1988) suggesting that a newly-formed religious/cultural division exists within the United States.

Based upon more than a year’s worth of participant observation among Northweston’s Jewish community, as well as in-depth interviews with 29 involved informants, this paper will explore the struggle in Northweston’s Jewish community over gender regulation, and how and why this struggle resulted in schism.


Gender regulation is the process by which a community (in this case, religious) attempts to define, institute, and justify “masculine” and “feminine” behavior and roles for its members. Gender regulation is distinct from “sexual regulation” (Foster 1981; Muncy 1973; Richardson, et al. 1979; Wagner 1982; Isaacson 1995) in that the former is concerned with public roles and practices, while the latter is concerned with private encounters between individuals, usually involving sexual/physical intimacy.

Recent research has examined the way in which gender regulation is understood and negotiated within contemporary western religious life (Neitz and Goldman et al. 1995; Hargrove 1985; Haddad and Findly 1985; Ferguson 1995; Swatos et al. 1994). Neitz and Goldman (1995: 6) persuasively argue that religious identity “is inextricably tied to understandings of gender and sexuality.” Furthermore, the regulation of gender is at the heart of religion, that is, gender is “central to the meaningful interpretation of contemporary American religious organizations and markets” (p. 271). According to Caroline Walker Bynum (1986:1):

It is no longer possible to study religious practice or religious symbols

without taking gender — that is, the cultural experience of being male or

female — into account. And we are just beginning to understand how complex

the relationship between religion and gender is.

It is in the spirit of furthering such understanding that this study illustrating issues of gender as a source of religious schism has been undertaken.

Recent scholarship has explored the circumstances and effects of patriarchal gender regulation within western religious systems (Daly 1973, 1975; Reuther 1983, 1994; Christ and Plaskow 1979), and studies have shown that challenges to existing gender regulation within historically patriarchal religious traditions can be highly contentious, often resulting in religious conflict and change. Some examples include controversy over women’s roles within Catholicism (Ranke-Heineman 1988; Iadarola 1985; Wallace 1993), Episcopalianism (Perlinger et al. 1992), American fundamentalism (Balmer 1994; Brown 1994), Eastern Orthodoxy (Manolache 1990), New Religious Movements (Aidala 1985; Jacobs 1989, 1991), Spiritualist groups (Haywood 1983), and the Protestant ministry (Lehman 1985) among others.

Susan Sered’s (1997) recent study of feminist challenges to patriarchal authority within Israeli society offers an important paradigm for understanding gender regulation and religious conflict. According to Sered, there are two ontologically different sets of issues at play within patriarchal religious systems: “women,” which designates “female people who have varying degrees of agency within specific social situations,” and then “Woman,” which designates “a symbolic construct comprised of allegory, metaphor, fantasy and (at least in male dominated religions) men’s psychological projections” (p. 1-2). According to Sered, when someone or something challenges a religious system’s assumptions of “Woman” the result is often religious conflict, because “Woman’ as a symbol is often associated with some of the deepest and most compelling theological and mythological structures in the religious tradition” (p. 2). The case of Northweston’s Jewish community lends support to Sered’s insight, for the battle over gender regulation was more than just a community disagreeing over random policies or principles, but was a situation in which members within a religious system disagreed over central structures and meanings within that system: structures and meanings of gender.

Nancy Ammerman (1990) discusses a wide array of issues that precipitated the Southern Baptist Convention schism in the 1980s. Gender regulation was a noted factor. In the case of the Southern Baptists, it was the fight over women’s role in the church: women ministers “had become symbolic of the division facing the convention” and “[p]ositions on women became a litmus test on both sides” (p. 93-94). However, although mentioning its significance, Ammerman limits her discussion of gender regulation as a source of religious schism to only a few pages, placing it far from the center of the schismatic division. Indeed, no study has been undertaken specifically illustrating the way gender regulation can be the ultimately decisive factor within a case of religious schism in a given religious community. This paper seeks to fill that lacuna.

Judaism is a patriarchal religious tradition (Plaskow 1990; Wegner 1988), and many studies of American Jewry have highlighted gender regulation as a major component of Jewish religious identity (Cantor 1995; Adler 1973; Heschel 1983; Grossman and Haut et al. 1992; Fishman 1993; Cohen 1980; Shepherd 1993; Frankiel 1990; Kaufman 1991; Greenberg 1981; Davidman 1988,1991; Biale 1984; Sered 1992; Schneider 1984). As Rachel Biale (1995:ix) writes, “[w]omen’s communal roles, women’s spirituality, gender relations … and feminist theology are among the most vital issues for discussion in contemporary Jewish life.”

However, given the important body of scholarship on gender regulation within Judaism, no study has placed gender regulation explicitly in the context of Jewish religious schism, which is, again, the purpose of this paper.


For decades, there was only one synagogue in Northweston, Washington. Now there are two.

In the early 1990s, the single center of Jewish communal life in Northweston, the Northwest Temple, experienced in-fighting, factional division, and an eventual schism. What had once been the sole congregation in Northweston, uniting this small Jewish community “under one roof” since the 1950s, suddenly experienced a hostile break-up which resulted in the establishment of a separate alternative congregation, the Northwest Minyan.

The Northwest Temple is progressive and egalitarian with the stated goals of welcoming diversity and interpreting Judaism openly. The newly established, break-away synagogue, the Northwest Minyan, is traditional and orthodox, with the stated purpose of adhering to strict halakhik (lawful) Judaism.

When a Jewish congregation splits up in a city full of many different Jewish congregations, the communal ramifications and sociological implications may not be so profound. However, in the case of Northweston, this was the only synagogue in town. The schismatic rift thus represented more than just the diversification of a growing religious community. It represented the break-up of a small Jewish enclave that, for decades, had sought strength and comfort in its unity and solidarity.

Rather than a mutually-respectful parting in which both sides gracefully recognized the rights and needs of the other group, the split in Northweston’s Jewish community was quite painful, characterized by damaging gossip, severed friendships, divided couples, tense confrontations, and a’ myriad of personal attacks. In the words of one man in his late thirties:

It was ugly. It was as ugly as you can ever imagine it to be …. The

community really divided … socially, just the whole — it was ugly. It was

really, really ugly.


Data for this study was gathered employing traditional ethnographic research methods: participant observation and in-depth interviews. I spent over eighteen months attending religious services and holiday celebrations (approximately once or twice a week) at both the Northwest Temple and the smaller, orthodox Northwest Minyan. For my in-depth interviews, I employed a non-judgmental, purposive sampling method in which I solicited informants based upon my knowledge of their involvement in Northweston’s Jewish community. I additionally employed a snow-ball strategy, in which informants were recommended to me by other informants.

The 29 informants ranged between the ages of 26 and 81, with 19 of them in their 40s. There were 15 women and 14 men. The level of education ranged between completion of high school to several M.A.s, 2 Ph.D.s, 3 M.D.s, with a large majority of the informants holding bachelors degrees. All informants were active members of Northweston’s Jewish community throughout the period of division, with a majority attending services regularly and all serving on various congregational committees. All had been active members of the Jewish community for anywhere between two and twenty years prior to the schism.

At the time of the split, 16 informants (9 men, 7 women) belonged to the break-away Northwest Minyan sect, with the 13 others (5 men, 8 women) being members of the Northwest Temple. Within the Northwest Temple group, one had been raised in an orthodox home as a child. Within the Minyan group, two had been raised in orthodox homes as children. All other informants from both groups had been raised in either Reform, Conservative, or non-Jewish homes, with one member of the Temple having been raised in a committed Reconstructionist home. Of those belonging to the Northwest Temple, all but one were registered Democrats. Of those belonging to the Northwest Minyan, all but-two were registered Democrats. Within the Temple group, all but one were white collar professionals or small business owners. Within the Minyan group, all but two were white-collar professionals or small business owners. Demographically, the two groups are essentially homogenous.(2)

However, two important differences between the membership composition of each group seem noteworthy. First, the abundance of men within the Minyan. During nearly every Saturday morning Shabbat service that I attended at the Minyan, men consistently out-numbered women by at least 4 to 1, but there was always an equal number of men and women — or sometimes more women then men — at the services that I attended at the Temple. Secondly, when it came to Israeli politics, members of the Minyan seemed more openly “right-wing” (i.e., suspicious of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process) than did members of the Temple, which is further discussed below.

The interviews were conducted at each informant’s home, tape recorded, and typed up for analysis. Because of concerns of confidentiality and anonymity, identifying characteristics of all informants have been excluded.


While my research indicates that the issue of gender regulation was the most prominent in dividing this Jewish community, there were certainly other issues involved. No schism is ever caused by one source alone. Some of the most important sources of conflict, aside from the struggle over gender regulation, included: personality clashes, different positions regarding Israeli politics, and various disagreements over random Jewish practices and policies.

Personality clashes involved several members of the congregation who simply didn’t like other members, for a variety of unconnected reasons. For example, Amy didn’t have a problem with the orthodox Minyan’s religious practices, but she feared/despised one of the involved members, Abe Shibel, as a result of a fight they had in the 1980s at their mutual place of employment.

I don’t think I sort of approached it in a real objective way. If Abe Shibel

was involved, I wanted them [the Minyan group] out. You know, it was kind of

like, I just don’t want this man around me.

Personality clashes also involved members of the congregation who didn’t like the Rabbi of the Northwest Temple, Rabbi Kohner. A most prominent example is that of Lynn, who became a leader in the move to split up the congregation and establish the break-away Northwest Minyan. Lynn was a long-time “enemy” of Rabbi Kohner, for a variety of personal reasons totally unrelated to any of the overt issues that faced the congregation prior to the split. Back in the late 1970s, Rabbi Kohner broke off his promise to conduct Lynn and her husband’s marriage only one month prior to the wedding date, which made Lynn “furious.” She had always considered him “ill-informed,” a man who “didn’t know his stuff,” and she hated his high holiday sermons which always left her “so angry” — just the “sheer intellectual stupidity” he displayed in her eyes. She admitted “constantly challenging” him “in very rude ways” over the years. She claims he often sought to keep her out of important synagogue committees. “It just wasn’t a fit,” she explained. She fought hard against Rabbi Kohner on almost any given issue, and when the small group that would eventually become the orthodox Northwest Minyan first began to coalesce, she joined their ranks (even though she wasn’t orthodox herself). She helped lead their struggle against Rabbi Kohner and the contingent of Northwest Temple members he led. However, once the schism had occurred, she dropped out of both congregations, and remains unaffiliated at the time of this writing. Nearly one third of my 29 informants mentioned Lynn’s personal antagonism towards Rabbi Kohner as a precipitating factor.

But Lynn’s personality clash wasn’t the only one. For instance, there were those who dearly loved Rabbi Kohner, but didn’t get along with his wife. As Deborah recalled, after a series of confrontations with Rabbi Kohner’s wife:

I went up to her and said, `Don’t you think we should talk this out?’ and

she took me, she took my arms like this, and whammed me against the brick

wall of the Temple. I thought — holy! What’s going on here? I said, `Let

go.’ She let go. And she went into the Temple. And after that, Phil, I never

spoke to her again.

However, unlike Lynn, Deborah remained faithful to the Northwest Temple when the congregation divided.

Another source of congregational conflict was Israeli politics. Throughout the 1980s, Rabbi Kohner was an outspoken advocate of a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, and he made his political feelings well-known by vigorously coming out in support of Palestinian rights in the press and in sermons. Some members of the Northwest Temple respected Rabbi Kohner’s position; others abhorred it. One member of the Northwest Temple, in her early fifties, explained:

I remember one time it was the Yom Hatzma’ute — Israeli Independence day

— celebration and where’s Rabbi Kohner? … over at a Palestinian thing

[laughs] … and someone said, `I think that’s going a little too far …’

[laughs] … you know, there were people that were very angry because he was

talking about `Land for Peace’ before anyone had any idea about doing

that kind of stuff.

Most of my informants characterized Rabbi Kohner’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as quite contentious within the congregation. There is no question that those who belong to the Minyan tend to be more right-wing than those at the Northwest Temple when it comes to Israeli politics. However, not a single informant from either congregation emphasized their feelings on Israel politics as a prominent reason for their choosing one congregation over the other. While some of those who disagreed with Rabbi Kohner’s politics did go on to join the break away group, others (with similar politics) did not. For example, josh and Bruce were very much against Rabbi Kohner’s position on Israel, and they did go on to become leaders in the Northwest Minyan. However, Lenny and Leslie were equally disgusted by Rabbi Kohner’s politics — if not more so — and yet they remained loyal to the Northwest Temple. After the schism, Josh, Bruce, Lenny, and Leslie formed a Jewish council in town in which their mutual political sympathies were given a forum — though these long-time political allies now belonged to two different synagogues.

Another endemic source of congregational division involved various disagreements over the years surrounding a myriad of Jewish rituals and practices, for example, the extent to which the synagogue kitchen should adhere to strict kosher laws, patrilineal descent (recognizing the children of a Jewish father as Jews), changing of the Aleynu prayer (discussed below), intermarriage, the welcoming of churches into the synagogue for various holiday celebrations, and so forth. While these issues caused many rifts within the congregation, and were often hotly debated, no single issue was described as facilitating the entrenched allegiances that developed into a situation of irreconcilable opposition.

Only one particular issue was described by every single informant as utterly decisive in the schism. The issue of gender. According to all my informants, and conforming with my own participant observation, it was the struggle over women’s status and role in the synagogue that eventually resulted in irreversible schism.

It is methodologically important to point out that when I began my research, I did not go “looking for gender” as a major issue. Prior to this research, issues of gender had never been part of my academic pursuits. To be quite honest, had I known that the gender question was so central, I probably would have shied away from the study, for a variety of personal reasons. I was primarily interested in the social sources of religious schism within a Jewish community. My initial hunches had involved politics and social class.(3) But the issue of gender regulation proved not only to be unavoidable, but indeed, central.


“Sects erupt from established religious bodies because those bodies have changed,” note Stark and Bainbridge (1985:99). The break-away Northwest Minyan sect(4) was formed, for the most part, by active members of the Northwest Temple who were disenchanted or out-right offended by certain changes that took place in the latter. That is, the Northwest Temple changed over the course of a decade (largely in terms of its gender regulation), and some people were uncomfortable with those changes; these people formed the bulk of the sectarian faction.

The Northwest Temple was initially founded in the 1950s as a Conservative congregation.(5) It was during the 1980s, under the liberal influence of Rabbi Kohner (originally ordained a Reform Rabbi who later became Reconstructionist), that the Northwest Temple steadily transformed into a progressive, egalitarian congregation that sought to embrace relatively radical practices and doctrines that were quite innovative and unique.

Some of the major changes that the Northwest Temple underwent throughout the 1980s (which constituted a clear break from the Conservative movement’s form of Judaism to which the Northwest Temple had been originally committed), included the changing of the wording of one of Judaism’s most traditionally sacred prayers, the Aleynu, to be more universal and less ethnocentric; the allowance of musical instruments to be played in the sanctuary on Shabbes; the acceptance of patrilineal descent as sufficient for complete Jewish identity; an openness towards inter-married couples; and so forth. As mentioned above, all of these policies were latent sources of division, “which precipitated the eventual schism. As one man in his late thirties, who joined the sectarian faction, explained:

He [Rabbi Kohner of the Northwest Temple] is so left wing. He’s extremely

on the left. Anything traditional — out the window. And he was pushing

the shule [synagogue] all the way to the left and basically, you know,

had a very feminist agenda … well partly because his wife

is such a, you know. . . very extreme feminist. Which, I mean — none

of us had a problem with that at all — it just basically, it took the

shule from being a middle of the road. . . to a very, very

extreme left-wing agenda, and people didn’t want to be part of it


The most significant changes instituted by Rabbi Kohner throughout the 1980s were specifically gender-related.

First came the construction and institution of egalitarian prayer. For most Jewish congregations, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, all major prayers recited throughout the weekly Sabbath services and important holidays are characterized by the reference to God as a man; God is exclusively referred to as “Lord” or “King,” and the pronoun to refer to God is invariably “He” (Daum 1992). Rabbi Kohner, with the support of several members of the Northwest Temple congregation, decided that male-specific allusions to God were inappropriate; he made it Temple policy to eliminate or change any overt references to God as male. Thus, rather than translate various names or references to God from the ancient Hebrew into obviously masculine terms, the prayers would be translated into gender-neutral wording; “Oh Lord” thus became “Oh Eternal One,” and so on. The most important Yom Kippur prayer Avinu Malkaynu was initially translated into the literal English of “Our Father, Our King.” Rabbi Kohner changed it to the gender-neutral “Our Parent, Our Source.” All male-based prayers were reshaped, not just those referring to God. Thus, “God of our fathers” became “God of our ancestors.” One traditional prayer recited weekly is the Amidah in which the Jewish patriarchs are named (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Rabbi Kohner, in his desire to make all prayers as gender-neutral as possible, re-wrote the prayer to include the Jewish matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) as well.

The changing of masculine-based prayer to egalitarian prayer was a major source of congregational division. There were those who greatly appreciated the institution of egalitarian prayer (regardless of how non-traditional it may be), and then there were those who felt that the changes in prayer were unacceptable. According to these individuals, ancient prayers should not be changed simply to fit modern political trends, i.e., feminism. Thus, the social sensibilities of the former group had initially been offended by the male-centered (albeit traditional) language, while the religious sensibilities of the latter group were subsequently offended by the “tinkering” with traditional (albeit patriarchal) prayer. As one male member of the Northweston Minyan, age 45, who was disturbed by the new egalitarian liturgy, explained.

One reason I wanted to embrace Judaism is because it is an ancient

tradition which flourishes still … and I believe that if people do

something . . . observe certain religious rites for a few

thousand years, then there’s probably something right about doing

that….And what I saw at the Northwest Temple was a casting aside

of this very tradition that I saw valuable. I found it arrogant and

repugnant to tinker around with prayers that were — depending on what

prayer it was; it may have been a prayer that was a thousand years old

or two thousand years old to tinker with a prayer or custom because it

didn’t seem politically correct in 1990 or 1995, it just seemed the

height of intellectual arrogance.

A woman in her late forties, also of the Minyan, agreed.

…They were very big on gender issues. So, you know, you could

never say `He’ for God… it seemed like the more Jewish I was getting,

the less Jewish they were getting. Yea, it was really bizarre…. To me

it got to be embarrassing because they would start off services and

they would say, `Okay we’re gonna go by the prayer book except any

time you see this word, substitute this word’. . . and … I said,

`but you know, the Hebrew word is masculine… you know

… I just thought it was kind of stupid…. It seemed to be more

concerned with current political correctness than it did with

traditional Judaism.

A further innovation was the inclusion of women as equal participants in public prayer, followed by the allowance and encouragement of both men and women to wear the same holy garb. In many Jewish congregations (to a greater degree in more Orthodox congregations and to a lesser degree in Conservative or Reform congregations), there are differences in the proscribed roles of men and women during the weekly Shabbes service. These differences manifest themselves in a distinct division of labor, different appropriate clothing for each gender, and sometimes separate seating arrangements. For example, in many congregations, only men are called up to read from the Torah; only men give drushas (interpretive talks on readings from the Torah); only men wear kippot (skullcaps), only men wear tallisim (prayer shawls); only men count as part of a minyan (gathering of ten members necessary to take out the Torah for the Shabbes service); men and women sit separately, often divided by a mehitzah (partition); only men may chant/sing prayers out-loud; only men recite the most holy prayers; women are encouraged to wear dresses or long skirts, wear long-sleeved blouses, wear scarves over their heads if married, and so forth.

Over the course of the last decade, as he was drawn closer to the Reconstructionist vision of contemporary Judaism, Rabbi Kohner instituted a strict policy of egalitarian practice within the congregation; there were to be no role distinctions between men and women. Both men and women could wear, the same holy garb (kippot and tallisim), both men and women could be called up to read from the Torah, both men and women could give interpretive talks and lead prayers, women didn’t have to wear dresses or long skirts, and so forth. In short, the traditional division of labor based on gender was abolished, as well as gender-based seating arrangements and dress codes.

As with the changes in prayer, the change that transformed the Northwest Temple from a Conservative congregation marked by a modest level of traditionally enforced differential gender roles into a staunchly egalitarian congregation, was a major source of division. Many people were supportive of the changes, others were offended. As would be expected, the same people who felt uncomfortable with the changes in the prayers, were the same people who were disenchanted with the institution of egalitarian practice in public worship. One woman in her early forties, a member of the Northwest Minyan, explained her initial discomfort with the Northwest Temple’s insistence on gender equality:

I find that alienating, actually. I find it — it just feels

inappropriate. You know, I have my own ways…. I like covering my

head [with a scarf]; I don’t want a kippa on my head…. I can’t put a

kippa on my head. I’ll wear a scarf, but I can’t — I just can’t do

that. I don’t want to wear a talis. My grandfather wore a talis.

His grandfather, you know, for millennium [sic]. Why am I putting on

a talis? That’s not my symbol…. I’m not comfortable with it … this

is the way its been handed down for centuries — this is Judaism. If

you want something else, fine. You’re welcome to another religion,

but its not Judaism.


Unhappy with the above-described changes that the Northwest Temple underwent under the auspices of Rabbi Kohner, several active members of the congregation decided to form their own separate prayer group to meet in the back of the Temple. At this stage, breaking away to form a separate synagogue was not in mind. Rather, these congregants simply wanted to pray in a more traditionally structured manner within the walls of the Northwest Temple, which they still considered their synagogue.

The disgruntled group initially coalesced around one individual, Abe Shibel. Abe Shibel had nothing to do with the Northwest Temple — a fact that was well-known in the community. He was an elderly university professor who also happened to be an ordained orthodox Rabbi, though never employed as such. To him, the Northwest Temple was “treyf” (not kosher; un-clean). He had been offering a Wednesday night Talmud class in his home for twenty five years, with consistently sparse attendance. However, with the growing disenchantment over at the Northwest Temple, attendance at his classes suddenly began to swell. Abe Shibel did not actively recruit a following, by any means. Rather than a resourceful leader who garnered a following, the opposite was the case: a group of disgruntled members of the Northwest Temple found themselves under Abe Shibel’s reluctant tutelage; his Talmud class was simply the only structured Jewish activity within Northweston outside of the Northwest Temple. (Indeed, once the Minyan group began having separate services, Abe Shibel refused to act as leader or Rabbi.). Anyway, it was in his home, during his weekly Talmud classes, that people began expressing their shared dissatisfactions with the Northwest Temple, and it was here that the assembled individuals first became aware of themselves as a separate group with common dissatisfactions regarding the Northwest Temple.

Eventually, these individuals decided that they wanted a more traditional Saturday morning prayer service. For them, the services at the Northwest Temple had gotten far too liberal, far too experimental, far too loose. They wanted to “get back to tradition.” They wanted what they considered to be “real,” “authentic” Judaism, not some watered-down, egalitarian, “politically correct” Judaism. And, in a reactive manner, these individuals did not just want to get back to a regular conservative style of worship (as the Northwest Temple once had offered), but they sought a decidedly orthodox approach. If the Northwest Temple was going further and further into its own interpretations of what Judaism should be and how it should be practiced, then this traditionally-minded group would go in just the opposite direction: not progressive innovation, but back to strict tradition. If the Northwest Temple was going to change, up-date, and “modernize” Judaism, this group would get “back to the roots.” If the Northwest Temple’s gender regulation was getting more egalitarian, then this group would enforce a hierarchical form of gender regulation that was decidedly non-egalitarian.

So the group began having Saturday morning services in a back room of the Northwest Temple. Thus, simultaneous services were held on Saturday mornings: in the main sanctuary was the egalitarian service with re-written prayers, non-gender-specific liturgy, and men and women wearing the same holy garb, conducting the same practices throughout the service, and sitting together. In the back room was an orthodox, halakhik (lawful) service, with only men leading traditional (i.e., non-revised) prayers, only men wearing certain holy garb, only men conducting various practices, and men and women sitting separately — divided by a mehitzah (partition). According to one male member of the Northwest Temple in his early fifties:

. . . there were a group of people … who had gotten together and

wanted to be a little bit more traditional … what they wanted to

do was they wanted to pray and use the temple — they were just pleased

to use the back room … but a lot of the members of the temple no

longer wanted to allow the Minyan to use the back of the facility

as a sanctuary. We were in a political time where there was a lot

more recognition of women in Jewish events here, and basically in terms

of our community, women and men are equal. So … I think the straw that

kind of broke the camel’s back was the fact that the minyan was using

the mehitzah — women and men were separated.


According to a male in his 40s:

I think the issue that actually caused the split was the separation

of men and women, the mehitzah. The orthodox group wanted women

separated and wanted a division, and a very significant [non-orthodox]

membership [within the Northwest Temple] said, `that is morally

repugnant to me. I could not belong to a synagogue — we cannot

allow a division of men and women in prayer in our synagogue.’

And I think that’s the issue that sent one group packing.

A woman in her early 50s agreed.

I think the mehitzah was the linch-pin from the point of view of our

community ejecting that group — um, and they ejecting themselves.

Such sentiments were shared by Rabbi Kohner’s wife.

… the issue of sitting apart, polarized the whole community. You

know, the issue of mehitzah.

Norma Baumel Joseph (1992: 120) contends that “this particular issue [the Mehitzah] has become the hallmark of the divisions that exist among American Jewry.” Judith Plaskow (1990: 190) agrees, noting that the separation of the sexes by a mehitzah is a “highly contentious issue, which has split many a US congregation.”

Although various individuals within the Northwest Temple had been divided over many issues over the years, they had always considered themselves one congregation. Even when the small group, unhappy with the changes implemented by Rabbi Kohner, began holding separate traditionally orthodox Saturday morning prayer services in the back room, the congregation was still one. However, it was the mehitzah dispute around which the two groups actually became separate and a chasm widened that would never be repaired.

When it was realized by certain members of the Northwest Temple that the orthodox group in the back room had erected a mehitzah, the controversy truly flared. Several outspoken members of the Northwest Temple made it known to the rest of the congregation that they could not tolerate the existence of a mehitzah, even in a back room. It was their position that the small, newly-orthodox group had to either get rid of the mehitzah, or get out of the Northwest Temple. It didn’t matter that many of them were integral members of the Northwest Temple (ex-presidents and current board members included), it didn’t matter that they were practicing a traditional form of Judaism, and it didn’t matter that they were in a separate back room. They had erected a mehitzah, which to some egalitarian-minded members of the Northwest Temple, represented destructive hierarchy, patriarchal oppression, and sexism — the very trends which the Northwest Temple had fought so hard to counter over the last decade.

It was stressed by these egalitarian-minded congregants that with the erection of the mehitzah came additional severely anti-egalitarian regulations. In addition to the physical barrier of the mehitzah, women would not count towards assembling a minyan (religious quorum); only men count in the quorum necessary for taking out the Torah; women could not be heard during services; women could not be called up to read from the Torah; and so forth.

Under the leadership of Rabbi Kohner, diversity, universalism, and egalitarianism were the core values of the Northwest Temple. And to these members of the Northwest Temple, the mehitzah stood for just the opposite: segregation, oppression, and sexist domination. The mehitzah, and all the regulations on women’s participation that went with it, were unacceptable. One man in his mid-forties recalled that:

… this group of people became so unhappy and so incensed, one person

actually said that they felt physically ill each time they walked into

the Northwest Temple and knew that the minyan was davening [praying]

in the back room.

One woman, in her late forties, explained:

… what was really going on was that they put up a mehitzah…. And

they refused to count women in the minyan. And you know Rabbi Kohner

and his wife were very strong on egalitarianism…. And there were a

lot of arguments over the whole mehitzah issue — many. My husband

Walter finally resigned over the issue because he said would not — he

wrote a letter to the board saying he would not be a member of an

organization that’s gonna discriminate on the basis of gender.

The demands of this egalitarian-minded group were clear: the mehitzah had to go, or they — the newly formed orthodox group praying in the back room — would have to find another place to put it, outside of the confines of the Northwest Temple. One man, age 45, who was part of the orthodox group praying in the back, explained it this way.

… there were about a dozen of us who found the politics and religious

practices of the Northwest Temple repugnant … so a few of those people

started meeting … to daven [pray] traditionally, that is, with men and

women separated and to have the whole service in Hebrew…. Now

simultaneously, our practices infuriated a group of people at the

Northwest Temple, uh, mainly — the mehitzah, which separates men and

women in the service became a hated object by a small group of people

at the Northwest Temple. Now, of course, there was never any talk of

having that mehitzah at the Northwest Temple, in the main sanctuary …

[and] there was certainly never any program or mission to try to get

people to quit going to the reform service. But this mehitzah became a

symbolic fixation for the most leftist types at the Northwest Temple …

it was a ludicrous situation. Everybody who went to the — except Rabbi

Shibel — who went to the minyan service was a member of the Northwest

Temple, and for what its worth, about half the people who went were

women who are highly articulate, educated, serious people,

professional women and mothers who are perfectly aware of what

they are doing and what they want to do, an& in my humble opinion,

ought to be able to choose how they daven. But then there was another

group of people, the Northwest Temple people, who thought that wasn’t

relevant that these people chose to daven in this way, that it shouldn’t

be allowed because it was inherently oppressive.

To be sure, some members of the Northwest Temple weren’t bothered by the separate orthodox services being held in the back room on Saturday mornings, and really didn’t care about the mehitzah. After all, it was Jewish (it wasn’t like the small group was in the back room holding communion or praying to Buddha), and furthermore, it was voluntary — women weren’t forced to participate; if they didn’t like sitting on the women’s side of a mehitzah they were free to come into the main sanctuary and enjoy the egalitarian service. As one woman, age 37, expressed:

. . . personally I didn’t — if they want to have a mehitzah, fine, let

them have it. I mean, I just didn’t see like what the big deal was, that

much…. I kind of felt like, let ’em. do it. I mean, it did

not offend my feminist principles in the least. I don’t want to do it,

but I — this is what orthodox Jews do, so if you don’t like it, don’t

be an orthodox Jew…. If you don’t like it, don’t go….

However, the small “anti-mehitzah group” was vocal and influential, and also enjoyed the support of Rabbi Kohner. As one woman in her forties, who was part of the orthodox group recalled:

… the ultra-feminists at the Northwest Temple became very alarmed,

including Rabbi Kohner’s wife, that there was a mehitzah anywhere on

Northwest Temple property . . . that this was an offense to God and

to all, you know, politically correct Jews, and it couldn’t be

allowed. And it was really quite a big hoo-ha.

A petition against the orthodox group was drawn up and circulated. It read, in part:

We support the principle of egalitarianism at the Northwest Temple,

including the full participation of men and women in the minyan and

other aspects of Jewish life; and we are opposed to any religious

services at the Northwest Temple that exclude members on the basis

of gender or sexual orientation …

… and we are opposed to mehitzah barriers that segregate women from

men in our synagogue.

…and we oppose the use of our Torah scrolls in any services that deny

access to some of the Jewish people [i.e., women] …

… and we oppose the use of the Northwest Temple, which is a public

facility of the Jewish community, for any religious services that enforce

sexual discrimination.

Rabbi Kohner signed the petition, along with 25 others. One man, in his late fifties, explained his feelings.

Jane Frankel created a petition declaring we will not have — any

organization that wants a mehitzah cannot be a part of the Northwest Temple,

or affiliated with the Northwest Temple. I signed it…. I said Fuck it. I

don’t work for this organization, I’m not on the board. I’m gonna say what

I think: that is disgusting, those people are disgusting.

Another informant, a woman in her late thirties, wasn’t so sure about her position.

Somebody started passing around this petition … saying the Northwest

Temple shall only allow egalitarian davening. So, by signing the petition

you’re saying the minyan needs to get out of here. And I had a really hard

time because these are all my friends, I mean, I had friends on both sides.

And I felt really stuck in the middle. And they asked me to sign the

petition. And I felt like if I didn’t sign it, I was siding with the minyan

and I was like not an egalitarian Jew. And if I did sign it, then I was not

allowing the minyan to daven in our temple. So I did not sign it….

The actions of this small anti-mehitzah group which generated the petition inevitably only served to reinforce the identity of the small orthodox group, and it was under the pressure of the former that the latter first began to imagine leaving the Northwest Temple to form their own separate congregation.


Why the mehitzah? Why did this issue, when so many others had caused controversy over the years, finally sever the community? Most likely, it was the symbolic nature of the mehitzah. The mehitzah is a symbol, a tangible, mundane thing in and of itself, yet imbued with spiritual meaning and moral value. As Susan Sered (1997: 3) notes, “[r]eligious conflicts tend to be, by definition, conflicts over symbols (symbols are, after all, the currency of religion).”

For members of the split-off orthodox faction, the mehitzah was a symbol of tradition. For those opposed to the mehitzah, it was a symbol of oppression. And at the heart of it, the mehitzah is a symbol — first and foremost — of gender regulation. Those wanting a traditional religious communal affiliation based on unequal gender division were ultimately unable (or not allowed) to remain under the same roof with those seeking gender equality, and the mehitzah served as the symbol around which both sides could rally. These two approaches to gender regulation could not be reconciled, and it was within this lightening rod symbol of the mehitzah that each factions’ fears and aspirations were invested. No compromise was possible. The result was schism.

One woman from the Northwest Temple, in her late thirties, explained:

… we are an egalitarian synagogue. That was — putting up a mehitzah all

of a sudden, negated that, this building, as egalitarian … and the

mehitzah, that’s what that stood for: non-egalitarian.

According to another woman from the Northwest Minyan in her early forties:

… they thought that it [the mehitzah] was some kind of symbol of

oppression, that it was an anti-feminist symbol of oppression.

One woman, age 49, a member of the Northwest Temple, explained her position and what the mehitzah symbolized for her.

… [The Northwest Temple was] progressively becoming more and more

egalitarian … and so this was a real shocker that there was a mehitzah in

this building, in this house … and it was seen as offensive and some women

would even use the word abominable. It was an abomination … And its really

ugly to me, because I also hold the view that before the patriarchy we

actually had a sane society. And then there was this wave of migration of

people who had iron, and who practiced unbelievable atrocities called war,

who destroyed a world-wide, maybe … ten thousand year old matriarchal,

pacifistic, agrarian society, where women had been honored, where God had

been honored but in a female form, where the earth had been seen as a

mother that brought forth life, women were held in reverence … and so I

have a whole deep and very well-thought out rage at the patriarchy in

general, and what the mehitzah represents to me is that control of women,

the silencing of women…. So the patriarchy is the source of all

evil — that’s a given — the mehitzah is the symbol of keeping women


Another woman, who prefers davening at the Northwest Minyan, explained:

… there really is an image of the mehitzah as just like treating

blacks — to sit in the back of the bus … the Northwest Minyan would get a

hundred new members tomorrow if there wasn’t a mehitzah. It touches those

nerves and those buttons in such a powerful way, in terms of women being

silenced, women not having to take responsibility … those issues are very

big because they are at odds with how women are evolving in our own society.

It creates a real chasm. Its really hard to say, here’s this woman who’s the

CEO of a company and she’s behind the mehitzah and she cannot partake of the

greatest honors … its a slap — is how my friends see it. They are shocked

that I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel that way at all. I think the

mehitzah’s fine … I think it serves a valuable purpose; I think that men

and woman are different. I just kind of like my own space … [I find] the

mehitzah to be, on a personal level, fairly liberating. Um, though I also

really understand why people have a problem with it.

Since Emile Durkheim’s (1915) classic study of totemism, scholars have been exploring the ultimate importance of symbols in religious life (Geertz 1966; Turner 1967; Bynum, Harrell, and Richman 1986), especially within religious conflict. Fred Kniss (1996: 8), argues that “[I]deas and symbols play a central role in most religious conflicts”; Kniss characterizes, religious symbols as “cultural resources” and suggests that “[s]ince concrete cultural resources are not likely to be divisible, they are more likely to result in intense, all-or-nothing battles ending in schism rather than compromise” (p. 12). In his study of Mennonite history, Kniss found that struggles which involved concrete cultural resources were nearly three times as likely to end in schism than those over abstract resources. The schism of Northweston’s Jewish community offers further support to Kniss’s insight.

The potential power of symbols within a religious cultural context is further strengthened when those symbols involve gender regulation (Sered 1997). As Howard Eilberg-Schwartz (1994: 5) argues, “gender is not just another subject that intersects with religion, but is central to the work that religion accomplishes and the ways in which it goes about it.” Since gender regulation is central to religious systems, symbols which encapsulate gender regulation are that much more controversial; they speak to the ultimate cultural/religious meanings of what it means to be “male,” “female” — in short, human. In the case of Northweston’s Jews, the mehitzah was just such a symbol.


Struggles over gender regulation were at the heart of this case of religious schism — twice.

The first instance occurred in response to the institution of egalitarian prayer and practice within the Northwest Temple. This innovative approach to gender regulation sought to de-masculinize God, de-masculinize prayer, and instill equal practices, behaviors, and dress codes for men and women within the synagogue, thus curtailing as much as possible differential “feminine” and “masculine” roles within public religious practice.

A group formed in reaction to this egalitarian gender regulation — response number one. This group’s response to egalitarian gender regulation was to establish traditional, non-egalitarian services in a back room of the Northwest Temple in which God’s masculine character was stressed, prayer remained masculine in orientation, and men and women were relegated to completely different/un-equal roles within the prayer service.

Subsequently, a group formed within the Northwest Temple to oppose the newly-established traditional, non-egalitarian approach to gender regulation going on in the back room — response number two. This “anti-mehitzah group” interpreted the non-egalitarian, orthodox form of gender regulation as demeaning to women, dangerously sexist, and against the principles of equality which they felt were central to the Northwest Temple. This group reacted to the splinter group’s insistence on practicing non-egalitarian Judaism by demanding their eviction from the Temple.

Thus, two opposing factions were present at the point of division: the small, newly-orthodox group that wanted to hold separate prayer services in the back room of the Northwest Temple, replete with all the differential gender roles of traditional Judaism, and then the small group of anti-mehitzah members of the Northwest Temple, who sought to evict the former on the grounds that they were non-egalitarian in prayer and practice.

Hunter (1991: 43)describes a general cultural division between groups of people with an “impulse toward orthodoxy” versus those with an “impulse toward progressivism” (p. 43). What is at stake between these two groups is “(competing systems of moral understanding” (p. 42). According to Hunter (drawing upon Durkheim), problems exist between these two camps because “not only does each side of the cultural divide operate with a different conception of the sacred, but the mere existence of the one represents a certain desecration of the other” (p. 131). Hunter’s characterization of these two ideal-types (orthodox/progressive) fits Northweston’s Jewish community: the traditionalists of the Minyan and the anti-mehitzah group of the Temple, respectively. The “orthodox” group could not tolerate a synagogue which instituted full gender equality; to them, this was a desecration of something they considered sacred: traditional Judaism. The “progressive” group could not tolerate a prayer service within their temple which enforced gender in-equality; to them, this was a desecration of something they considered sacred: egalitarian Judaism.

Most members of the Northwest Minyan say they were kicked out. Most members of the Northwest Temple say that the orthodox group wanted to leave on their own volition. Either way, it is no accident that this sectarian group went on to call its newly established orthodox congregation the “Northwest Minyan” — as noted above, a “minyan” is a traditionally understood as a quorum of ten men necessary to take out the Torah. Women do not count towards the making up of a minyan.

Where there had once only been one synagogue in Northweston, now there are two — and gender regulation was at the heart of the schism.


As discussed above, Hunter (1991) speaks of a newly-emerging cultural/ religious rift within the United States. The rift is characterized not so much by inter-religious tension, but by a social division which cuts across religious denominations separating liberal/progressives from conservative/ orthodox within given denominations (see also Wuthnow 1988). The case of Northweston’s Jewish community offers sound qualitative data to support this paradigm.

Additionally, this case study adds ethnographic data from a Jewish community to previous research concerned with the centrality of gender within religion, and confirms that struggles over gender regulation have great potential for contemporary religious conflict and change, especially when that struggle involves symbolic representations of a given religious system’s form of gender regulation. By illustrating the cultural significance of gender within contemporary religious life, and the potential for religious schism it entails, this case offers support to those who argue that understandings of gender cannot be separated from religiosity; attempts to challenge or change the former, inevitably involve the latter.

(1) By “schism,” I mean the splitting up of a religious body into two or more oppositional groups (Stark and Bainbridge 1985).

(2) It is crucial to remember that my sample of informants is not a random sample. I did not conduct a valid statistical demographic analysis of the two congregations. However, considering those I did interview, as well as my over-all knowledge of the two congregations, it is safe to say that the two groups are more or less demographically homogenous in terms of level of education, occupation status, age, race, place of birth, religiosity of parents, etc.

(3) As it turns out, these hunches proved incorrect. There was no correlation between either social class (assessed by education and occupation) or political affiliation (98% were registered Democrats) and religious group membership among those interviewed. This homogeneity of congregational membership is a topic that will be discussed in a forthcoming paper.

(4) I am employing the term “sect” here as described by Johnson (1963;1971) and reiterated by Stark and Bainbridge (1985) to mean a religious body in a relatively high state of tension with it surrounding social environment as opposed to a “church” which refers to a religious body in a relatively low state of tension with its surrounding social environment.

(5) My typological use of the three main American Jewish denominations represents a continuum, with Orthodox representing the most traditional, strict, and sect-like congregational style, Reform representing the most modem, liberal, and church-like congregational style, and Conservative failing somewhere in the middle of the two poles. A fourth denomination, Reconstructionist, by far the smallest denomination, is difficult to place on the continuum. While known for being progressive, egalitarian, and innovative, the Reconstructionist, denomination is unique. Reconstructionist Judaism is deeply committed to Jewish tradition (unlike Reform, which was created to simply mimic German Protestantism of the 1800s), and yet it is highly creative in liberal ways that distinguish it from Orthodoxy and Conservativism, resulting in a denominational style sui generis that does not fall neatly within the reform-conservative-orthodox continuum. However, Reconstructionism is noted for its progressive social values, such as its acceptance of homosexuals. For further clarification of the above denominations, see Neusner (1974).


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COPYRIGHT 1997 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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