One of the stand-out sessions for me at this year’s LimmudNY was a panel called Can You Hear My Now? Fixed Liturgy and the Crisis of Prayer.
It included such luminaries as Rabbis Michael Strassfeld, Reuven Hammer, and Andrea Cohen-Kiener.
They each had a lot of interesting insights on prayer,the possibility/necessity of change to the service, and more.
At the beginning of the question and answer portion of the session I raised my hand and asked a question that all of the sudden seemed very important:
How can I balance my own spiritual needs–my desire to have a deep and meaningful prayer experience–with the education and care of
my young child?
I sat back and waited for their words of wisdom. Interestingly enough, only Andrea Cohen-Kiener, the sole woman on the panel, chose to answer the question. And she answered in a way that I truly didn’t expect. Especially not from a feminist (and female) Renewal rabbi.
First of all, she said, you should know that there’s a heter (exemption) for you that allows you not to be obligated to fixed prayer during this time in your life. (A misleading statement–in the tradition it’s not so much a heter as a lack of obligation altogether–and covers a woman’s entire life).
Also, she continued, though in the ancient period a women spent most her short life childbearing, for this is only a short period in your life, and before you know it, it will be over, and you’ll probably miss it. And meanwhile, you’re engaged in some of the most spiritual work of all, shaping a young spirit.
That doesn’t mean, she said, that you don’t need “the pause that refreshes” that prayer offers. You just may not be able to get it at 9:30am on Saturday morning.
Her advice? Form a Rosh Hodesh group or create some other form of woman’s prayer group. Or set aside time each night to read something spiritually uplifting. Find the time, inside or outside synagogue, to nurture your soul.
I appreciated her advice, but I also found it somewhat troublesome…she essentially advised me to give up on finding spirituality in my Shabbat prayers until my children are older. I don’t think that I’m ready to do that, and I’m sure that I’ll continue to search for ways to make it work.
And as for forming women’s groups…an interesting idea, but most of the women in my circle don’t have the time or the inclination to join yet another group and take away from the already limited time that they get with their children.
But she also reminded me that having my son with me in shul–even as he pulls off my hat, throws cookies, and shouts at the rabbi–adds a level of joy and truth to my prayers that would have been totally unachievable without him. And with every “amen” he utters, I can feel pride in the beautiful Jewish soul that is developing within him.
Had her advice come out of the mouth of an Orthodox rabbi, I most certainly would have taken issue, seen in it hints of the “women are on a higher spiritual level” idea that is used to exclude women out of so much of traditional Jewish public life.
But coming from a female Jewish renewal rabbi, it was something else entirely, and so I listened with an open heart. And that’s how I came to remember that though communal prayer will always be an important part of my Judaism, there are many types of spiritual experiences to be had in this life.