Parshat Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24
I do not recommend nor do I advocate that the Jewish law regarding the composition of a minyan should be abrogated in any fashion. But I do admire the openness and the discussions of the ancient Talmudic rabbis who possessed myriad diverse opinions on every topic in Jewish tradition. Our sages encouraged and mandated dissent, as they reached a consensus on every matter.
I am opposed to the change of the law in its final form after being established by the rabbis and codified in Jewish law. Though to question everything in the manner of the Talmud is the Jewish way. There is not one consensus of opinion on any topic contained in the Talmud. After much arguing during the debate, the decision becomes the law. Yes, there is a Beit Hillel, but their opponents, the school of Shammai, existed as well. Even though we almost entirely rule in favor of Hillel, a Shammai analysis is important and essential.
The Hebrew word minyan means numbers, and it originally stood for 10 Jewish male adults imperative for public synagogue service and other religious events. The source of this enactment is deduced from the term edah found in Numbers 14:27 meaning “community,” which in the scriptures is utilized in connection to the 10 spies. Thus, the 10 spies who were considered 10 adult males were a minyan, assembly or congregation. This quorum of 10 adult males is required for the recitation of the Amidah, Kedushah, Kaddish, the Torah reading with aliyot and other prayers and events. Thus like the 10 spies, 10 adult males are considered an assembly or congregation as well.
The Talmud also mentions Ruth 4:2, which refers to 10 elderly men as constituting a minyan.
From these sources it is apparent that a real minyan can only constitute 10 males above the age of bar mitzvah. Some extreme Orthodox denominations go one step further and require that the entire minyan be composed of only Sabbath-observant Jews who are wearing tefillin. On the basis of Psalm 8:21, the Talmud in Brachot explains that if 10 men pray together the Divine presence presides among them.
Based on Genesis 18:32 in this week’s Torah portion, some Jews relate the requirement of a minyan to Abraham’s pleas to save the wicked city of Sodom. If at least 10 righteous “persons” not necessarily males or Jews were found in Sodom, G-d would not destroy the city. Included in the census of 10 were only a few individuals including Lot, his wife and two of his daughters. Additional individuals, including women and even the counting of G-d Himself, could increase the amount to a minyan of 10. It is interesting to note that both Lot and his family and Noah and his family were not of the Jewish faith yet G-d included them in his counting. Both men were considered righteous as compared to the decadence that existed among the societies in which they had lived.
Based on this understanding, there are more progressive Jews who might argue that a minyan should consist of both men and women as it did in the time of Lot. In addition, Abraham specified that a congregation consisting only of 10 individuals, both men and women, would be sufficient to save this community. From this analysis many Conservative congregations count Jewish adult women for a minyan.
What would happen if there were only nine individuals present and in addition a righteous gentile such as Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg or Chiune Sugihara, who all risked their lives to save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust were present as well? What would be if one of them was the 10th person to arrive at the synagogue door on a Saturday morning? Their actions seem to me more pious then the 10 spies or Lot’s family.
I must defer to Jewish law and decline to count them even though I would like to see them as part of the minyan. Jewish law takes precedence over my own personal feelings and beliefs. Though I must admit that if Schindler, Wallenberg or Sugihara showed up one morning at the synagogue door it would be hard for me to say no. Probably I would cancel shul and davening in order to listen to their experiences saving Jews.
Rabbi David Novitsky is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Washington.