Every year at this time, from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul into Tishrei, my mind vaguely registers that the shofar is blown daily at the end of Shacharit services. Up until now, that same part of my mind shrugged as I said to myself, “Oh well, I have four kids to diaper, dress, feed and get off to school, slapping together sandwiches, tying shoes, and zipping up backpacks. Write this off as one of the time-bound specials.” Between my children’s apple and honey projects, and eighth grade lulav and etrog sales, and my menu planning and rummaging around for non-leather shoes, it wasn’t as if Elul passed me by. But the call of the shofar belonged exclusively to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I always felt a little cheated when any of the festival days fell on Shabbat and we missed a day of shofar blasts.
This year the reminders came again — a d’var Torah here, an article there — including encouragement to learn to blow the shofar myself. Unless a woman works at a Jewish school and can participate in student services, chances are many women don’t hear the shofar blown before Rosh Hashanah. As a result, the do-it-yourself method has a certain appeal. Since Elul is a time to reassess, I did just that and realized that with changing circumstances, another option presented itself: go to synagogue.
It didn’t actually start with the shofar. My first thought was that this year I wanted to make more of an effort to mark Rosh Chodesh, so often glibly referred to as a “woman’s holiday,” and what better time to start than with Elul? I’ve never needed a second invitation to avoid laundry, but making an extra effort in my prayers seemed more challenging. With three children launched out of the house towards college and careers, I figured I could attend the early minyan and return home in time to greet my sleepy high school senior as she wafted down the stairs in search of breakfast. Attending synagogue a morning or two a month didn’t seem too onerous a commitment, and there was no one other than myself to call me to account if it didn’t work out.
Once I heard the shofar, I knew I had an opportunity to approach the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, with additional layers of meaning. I decided to extend my synagogue attendance beyond Rosh Chodesh. The daily shofar blasts are not just the echoes of ancient sound, but an immediate presence within prayer, an overture that we are privileged to hear at a specific time for a specific purpose. They tie us to the Children of Israel awaiting Moses’s descent from the mountain and to Moses himself who fasted forty long days and nights in preparation for receiving the second set of Tablets. In the here and now, the sound of the shofar carries through the rest of my day and makes me evaluate even the most superficially trivial choices.
Because I had stayed at home in the mornings for so many years, I did not know what to expect in synagogue. Did other women think that synagogue was the place to hear the shofar? Was there a community on the women’s side in the morning that I had never heard about? Did it matter? I belong to a relatively large congregation, and so far there have been two of us on the women’s side. I open my prayer book as a member of the entire community and not exclusively of the women’s side. I would be naive to think some thirty pairs of eyes don’t notice that a woman who is not saying Kaddish has started showing up regularly, but I am perfectly comfortable here. After all, these are my friends and neighbors with whom I am praying, and we are all doing our best to prepare for the Days of Awe which lie ahead. Gender really isn’t an issue. Synagogue is the right place to be, listening to the shofar together feels like the right thing to do, and I only wish more of us, both men and women, seized the moment. And I will admit to a certain pleasure at seeing the uncertainty in my daughter’s eyes upon my return: What is Mom up to now?
For more resources about women hearing and blowing shofar, visit www.jofa.org/shofarguide
We have much to lift our spirits and much to concern us in the attention paid to young women laying tefillin at outstanding high schools in the New York area. Our spirits rejoice because so many people, both men and women, are passionately engaged in the service of God. Everyone from school principals to principled women wants to do what is best for klal Israel (the Jewish people). In this age of so many competing demands, we are neither ritually lazy nor spiritually complacent, and that is good.
The tefillin conversation is a single piece of a larger conversation about the place of women in the public ritual life of the Orthodox community. Several options exist for women who want to lay tefillin. They can do so privately with devoted consistency and halakhic authorization or they can choose to pray in non-Orthodox spaces. Personal prayer is not the issue. We are also not talking about whether women should be synagogue presidents, day school principals, halakhic (legal) authorities, or students of Talmud sitting side by side with men in a study hall. Conflating every possible form of a woman’s participation in public life puts too great a burden on tefillin.
I am not the only Orthodox woman to have heard the following sort of comments from Jews and non-Jews alike: “You’re Orthodox? I don’t see how a woman nowadays can stand it. You are a second-class citizen, right? Aren’t you stuck behind a wall in the synagogue? You don’t get to DO anything! It’s all about the men.” And the questions that from our daughters are especially tough: “Why are we segregated, with no tallit and no tefillin? Isn’t my prayer as important as my brother’s? I leyn just as well, if not better. Why do we go to a women’s tefillah group when there is no such thing as ‘separate but equal?’ What about these equal rights you keep going on and on about?”
Not only are we physically separated in prayer spaces, but are we also textually excluded from meaningful prayer? What do we do with the verses in the Shema that refer to tzitzit and tefillin and the stage directions in the siddur (prayer book) which instruct a man to kiss his tzitzit? Are gender differences so essential to public prayer? Isn’t it about time we made ourselves seen and heard everywhere? Shouldn’t we be able to expand our possibilities for experience? Don’t we rationalize a deep-seated problem by declaring that men and women espouse different roles and that a textual heritage dominated by men belongs to all of us?
Well no, we don’t.
All Jewish experience belongs to all of us as does all Jewish text. We are obligated to inhabit our tradition with respect even as we question it. It takes courage, intelligence, and infinite love to commit ourselves to the complicated relations of men and women and of women and God, relations which become stronger and more profound through the embrace of the multiplicity of our obligations. To be made in God’s image is to confront the One and the Infinitely Many. By adopting uniformity of practice and homogenous responsibilities, we risk eliminating the wonder of difference. Look at family photographs of a brit (circumcision) or a wedding: everyone engaged in a mitzvah in a variety of ways, all precious and all necessary. Isn’t that what women who want to lay tefillin in public are saying: that they have a right to participate in a mitzvah in a deeply personal way? But what effect does that have on the unity of the community? No one proposes to force women to wear tefillin, but isn’t that being naive about the nature of community? Isn’t there an implicit message that “real women wear tefillin?” How does it affect the nature of public, communal prayer to have tefillin not be optional for men but always optional for women? And no – those are not rhetorical apologies for the status quo. They are questions.
Judaism is a religion not of rights, but of obligations. Born into the covenant or choosing it as an adult, a Jew lives a life of obligation to God and man. As a citizen of the United States, I claim my right to religious freedom, but in Judaism I have the obligation to follow halakhah, not the right to self-defined religious expression. We misinterpret and constrict our religious life when we reduce it to a civil rights movement in pursuit of individual liberties. “Separate but equal” is a cruel absurdity for a citizen, but not for a believer. We have no intrinsic right to pray as we please, just as we have no right to eat, honor Shabbat, or conduct business as we please. That is not to say that the definition and fulfillment of our obligations does not undergo continuous renewal. And of course spiritual life is meaningless without individual devotion. Remarkable women chose to lay tefillin throughout Jewish history. One of our questions must be whether they are models for communal behavior or whether their unique circumstances serve a different purpose.
Wrapped in the tallit of solitude on the women’s side of synagogue at 5 am on Shavuot or raised aloft by my congregation’s collective intensity during Neilah, wrestling alone with God about the pain built into His creation or dancing with His words on Simchat Torah, my community around me – I constantly question what it means to pound on the gates of heaven as a Jew and a woman.
Accept for a moment the obligation to pray without tefillin. That is one rocky path, eased by no tangible assistance – only the overwhelming magnitude of word, intellect and heart in the presence of the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
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