“You should volunteer to lead the Orthodox minyan, prayer services, you have the opportunity to make a Kiddush HaShem, sanctification of God’s name,” my friend told me before the Limmud NY 2015 conference. What he meant was that having someone sensitive to gender issues leading the Orthodox minyan would be an opportunity to promote the value of inclusion within the Orthodox community.
The first thing that struck me about Limmud was its impressive schedule, diverse both in the content and styles of the presentations. Most interesting was the choice of prayer options. On Friday night and Shabbat day we could choose from the following options: Orthodox (with a mechitza, a divider separating men and women and male leaders), partnership (with a mechitza and both male and female leaders), Renewal (a Jewish spiritual movement that uses musical instruments on Shabbat), and egalitarian (with no mechitza). As an Orthodox person who believes in expanded roles for women in the synagogue, I chose to attend the partnership option.
One thing I like about partnership minyans is that, in addition to women and men sharing the prayer leading, almost all the other aspects of the minyan are also equal (or close to). Partnership minyans usually have mechitzas that participants can see over or through, and that divide the room in half length-wise, so that neither side is obviously primary. For whatever reason, the non-partnership Orthodox minyan at Limmud had a large mechitza, with the ark and bima, podium, placed squarely on the men’s side, which I found odd. Considering the progressive ideological makeup of the conference, I had expected a less stringent set up.
For afternoon services on Shabbat, however, there were only two prayer options scheduled — Orthodox and egalitarian. I chose the former. As the time for services arrived I volunteered to lead the community. When it came time for the Torah reading, I was instructed by the gabbai to simply remove the Torah from the ark and to place it on the bima, without taking it around to be kissed, due to time constraints. Following the Torah reading, the gabbai instructed me to take the Torah around to allow people to kiss it, before returning the Torah to the ark. I whispered to the gabbai “women?” inquiring as to whether I should take the Torah to the women’s side. He shrugged his shoulders (the gabbai was a student volunteer, so I do not think he felt comfortable making this decision). So I did what my conscious told me to do and paraded the Torah around both the men’s and women’s sections. I would have preferred to hand the Torah off to a woman, but as we had not coordinated this in advance, I thought it would be best to just go into the women’s section myself.
As I entered the women’s section I wondered if everyone on the men’s side, and even on the women’s side, approved of what I was doing. I thought it best to keep my gaze forward and deal with any consequences afterwards. I received no complaints, and even received compliments from a couple of women, including Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, JOFA’s Executive Director, so I guess everything worked out well in the end.
I would never advocate for anyone unilaterally deciding to go against the established custom of a prayer community. However, in the absence of an established custom, such as at a temporary minyan (like at LimmudNY or another conference), a minyan at a house where there is no formal leadership, or when we simply do not know the established custom, what should we assume? Should we assume that women should have the opportunity to kiss the Torah — a position that has ample halakhic support — or should we assume that women have no active role in the service and are simply observers unless told otherwise? Is the default that women cannot participate, until male rabbis formally decide they can, or that they can participate, unless there are sufficient halakhic or sociological reasons why they cannot? The answer to that question is fundamental in understanding gender issues in the Orthodox world.
Personally, I believe in the latter option. I will not assume that women are excluded from anything and everything unless told otherwise. Inclusion should be the default.
In some ways I feel like I was—perhaps subconsciously—trying to bring the ethos of the partnership minyan—that men and women are working together in praying to God—into the traditional Orthodox minyan. I understand why there are people who aren’t comfortable with women’s leadership and active participation. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for men and women to be in partnership during the prayer services, leadership notwithstanding, and one method of attaining this unity is by challenging the default assumptions about inclusion.
My friend was correct. Simply bringing this ethos of inclusion into traditional Orthodoxy, even without creating radical change, is truly an opportunity for Kiddush HaShem.
This past Simchat Torah, my mother began planning her synagogue’s first women’s mincha, afternoon service. She was inspired by the joy of the Simchat Torah women’s reading, and wanted to extend it to a regular Shabbat. So she worked with some young women in the community to make it happen, and brought women who might never have prayed or connected as a community to a mincha service.
She recently wrote, in The Torch, that she needs to effect change because of us, her daughters, my sisters and me. It is true that we “struggle fiercely with the dissonance between our place in the religious sphere and our ability to lead in the outside world.” Outside of the Jewish community, we have power. Power to shape the discourse around us, to assume leadership, to practice the rituals of our professions and of our communities of common values without anyone questioning whether our very engagement undermines our belongingness. Outside of the Jewish community, I can use every talent in my arsenal to make this world a better place–voice, humor, and compassion are welcome–whereas the Jewish community polices them under the titles of “modesty,” “tradition,” and “careful halakhic process.”
But Ima, it’s not “hard for me to hang onto my Judaism.” I was brought up by a role model who showed me its beauty and worth in every action; to leave is unthinkable. The struggle lies in making Judaism, which was not written for me, as much of a conduit for contribution and action as the rest of my life—to live it, not simply to be it. To live it, like you do.
Ima, it is women like you, not me, who will change Judaism. It is women like you, women who are joyous with their lot and excited to find they can do something more, who will bring Orthodox Judaism slowly but surely into the twentieth century (their great-granddaughters may bring it into the twenty-first). I, for whom a gag reflex is triggered when a well-meaning man tells me, “of course women can do that,” can no longer abide being in the same room as a discussion about whether women can or cannot celebrate some aspect of their religion in public. It’s my religion—how dare they imagine that they have control over it?
And the thing is, I grew up without bitterness. It took two years of midrasha, seminary, three years in college, and a lot of investigation into the halakhic process, to bring me to the polite distance I keep from the Jewish community today. My withdrawal from community means, to me, that I can have no say, no power, in how it develops. Seven years before this, I was leading the first women’s mincha services at my university, giving shiurim, classes, and fighting for women’s active role in the community. Now, nearly a decade later, I am tired of the constant internal struggle and cognitive dissonance. Like so many of my more perceptive and high-powered female friends, I have withdrawn to pursue leadership in other fields.
But it’s a withdrawal that has allowed me to keep my joy in Judaism. To celebrate it personally, through tefillah and learning and observing kashrut and Shabbat, through my private conversations with God and considerations of how to act and what to say. Eventually, I will find a community driven by the same impulses that drive me, and then I will again begin to contribute and be part of a community. Until then, I will enjoy the brief simple delight of reading Torah on Simchat Torah in my mother’s synagogue, quietly celebrate my religion on my own terms, in my own private space, and repeat over and over the lines of the Shabbat service, which, in my mind, represent the religious feminist’s creed:
Tayn chelkaynu b’Toratecha v’taher leebaynu l’avdecha b’emet.
Give us a portion of Your Torah and purify our hearts to do Your work with integrity.
This past Shabbat as I walked to synagogue for mincha, afternoon services, I was thinking about how I would introduce our first ever complete women’s tefillah, prayer group. With the strong and thoughtful support of our rabbi, our synagogue hosts a women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah, women’s megillah reading on Purim day, and hoshanot for women on Sukkot. However, we have never prayed together through a full prayer service. This year, we chose to add a women’s tefillah service for Shabbat mincha to our women’s programming, in order to create an opportunity for many women to actively participate in the service, without putting too much stress on our inexperienced Torah readers. In addition, we do not want to separate ourselves from the congregation and since few women typically show up in our synagogue for mincha, a women’s tefillah service would not affect the community negatively.
The prayer service was beautiful. Three teenagers delivered short divrei Torah between aliyot. Women read Torah, led prayers, and served as gabbaiot for the first time. One of our Torah readers had a baby in a front carrier, and a little girl holding her hand. The sound of women’s voices lifted in song, especially the voices of the young girls who led Anim Zmirot at the end (we added it in, why not?), was different and joyful. One of my friends, who attended just because she is my friend and not because she was particularly interested, spoke about how spiritually uplifted she felt. Another spoke of the impact of seeing all these women walking to synagogue for mincha, so different from the usual all-male parade.
What was accomplished by a single women’s tefillah service?
- The mitzvah of praying mincha was observed by women, most of whom would not have prayed on their own.
- Women’s tefillah became a little more accepted in our community.
- We were able to honor our synagogue president with an Aliyah LaTorah.
- Women had the opportunity to lead a prayer service.
- Girls realized that they could participate, not just spectate.
- Women connected together as a community.
- Women, who rarely, if ever, arrive on time for shacharit on Shabbat, were present throughout the service.
A single event does not change a community. Nor will its modesty sway those who think that we are radicals. But I have found that, over time, the response to a women’s service shifts from “No way,” to “It’s okay for you, but it’s not my thing,” to “Maybe I’ll come,” to attending a women’s tefillah, to accepting an aliyah, to “Can I read next time?”
My three young adult daughters, although committed to a halakhic life, struggle fiercely with the dissonance between their place in the religious sphere and their ability to lead in the outside world. It is painful for me to see how hard it is for them to hang on to the Judaism that forms such a huge framework for their lives. I think if I allowed myself to feel as they do, I would break. I am awed by the strength of their commitment to a Judaism that makes them feel less valued and more like second class citizens. And so I must effect change, incrementally slow as it may be, so I can have hope for a religion that will give all of us a portion in God’s Torah.
Don’t be mad, but I am ordaining myself as a Hazzanista, which is like a cantor, barista, and fashionista rolled into one. I am your musical mixologist assembling liturgical outfits for all seasons and synthesizing musical traditions from across the Jewish world to create substantive and transformative prayer experiences.
I’m not starting a new religion; I’m just impatient and want to wear this cool hat like my Grandpa Frank. Hats aside, what I really want is an “authentic” Jewish woman’s voice, something that continues simultaneously to pursue and elude me in its ebb and flow.
But does “authentic” really mean anything?
In my experience, “authentic” means text and lineage that I can sink the teeth of my imagination into and taste every bit of its richness, malleability, and complexity. Is that too much to ask?
So even if it’s a little reckless, or plain old annoying to some people or institutions, I now bestow upon myself the title of “Hazzanista.”
So how did this all start? Great question! A few years ago after graduating college, losing my job, and getting dumped big time by my opera singer boyfriend (best thing he ever did for me), I enrolled in cantorial school. The first year in Israel consisted of studying at a halakhic, gender-egalitarian yeshiva. As the year progressed and I increased my content-based knowledge of Jewish law and prayer, I felt increasingly overwhelmed and shut out by the predominantly masculine verbal and visual vocabularies of traditional Judaism. I felt a gender imbalance even more in physically egalitarian spaces because there was no mechitza, physical barrier between men and women in a synagogue, in place to serve as a concrete manifestation of gender biases. Instead, it was a lattice screen of default Divine vocabulary.
And though modifying canonized Jewish prayers in an effort to include women seems more like giving a band-aid to someone who is having a heart attack, I cannot bring myself to wholly reject this archaic and gender imbalanced tradition. Like many people who grew up steeped in old school Jewish liturgy, I still manage to maintain a deep spiritual and emotional connection to its almost exclusively male voice. The poetry and music are like colorful beads that I get to string together in different combinations each time I sit down or stand up with them.
While in cantorial school, I started out trying to embody the music of the great Ashkenazi cantors— Koussevitsky, Rosenblatt, and Ganchoff. Enchanting, exciting, and deep music, yet singing it was like walking around in a pair of incredibly beautiful shoes that just didn’t fit my feet. I needed a musical space where my voice could walk in and make itself comfortable. Ultimately, I discovered niggunim and Middle Eastern music with its subtlety, inwardness, and expressiveness in contrast to the showmanship and—dare I say—phallic high notes of performative cantorial music. The feminine began to seep into the liturgy, not through the modification of God language, but in the way this music manifested and empowered my body and mind. I could finally sing without pretense, be softer rather than louder, and listen to the silence in between the notes, which is as vital to the music as the notes themselves.
In an era of instantaneous communication revealing worldly unrest to us at all hours of the day and night, this approach to music is more important than ever before. Surrounded by gadgets and screens, we are longing to connect to a stillness found in the brilliant darkness of the starry night and in many Middle Eastern and North African musical traditions. When the world’s problems seem unmanageably big, the noise too cacophonous, the pace too swift, we can always come back to this tender voice of silence reminding us we were all once in the womb, free from time.
Prayer is a gateway into that timelessness that rests at the nexus of our time bound transient lives. It is a transformative and creative act. It is an acknowledgement of the moment right before sound comes out of our mouths, an act of faith that sound will come, will make something beautiful, and might even make things different. It might not be the most comfortable or convenient place to be in, but it is dynamic, alive, and spiritually sustaining.
And this is what songs like “Hish Hish” suggest for me, its melody originating in an Arabic pop song sung by a woman named Siham Rifqi. It is not a “woman’s song,” but it indicates that Jewish liturgy is porous and wants to be stretched further. The Hebrew text implores the Holy One saying “Raise up your banner, filled with compassion,” and “stand by the poor.” That compassion is our insistence upon digging up the feminine in our liturgy, and that banner is an amalgam of women’s voices, teachings, and wisdom that we are raising up together in real time through music, art, discussion and UnConferences. So let’s keep going.
Looking at the award-winning photograph “Chayla in Shul” I wonder:
What is Chayla thinking? Here she is. Alone in this cavernous space, standing stiff, her gaze focused somewhere in the distance. Her forearm rests delicately on the parapet, as though she ought not be touching it at all.
I can almost hear the photographer gently giving instructions. “Hold your prayer book in your left hand, and put your right arm there to support it.” Chayla narrows her eyes ever so slightly, questioning, “Here? On the wall? Are you sure?”
When the synagogue is full with worshippers, this is the wall that keeps the women from falling down to the space below, where Chayla’s brothers pray. It is the wall that holds the women in, signaling the spiritual distance that stands between them and Chayla’s father. He is the rabbi who leads the service down there.
This image has gotten a lot of press recently, as winner of the John Kobal New Work Award, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for portrait photography. The winning photographer, Laura Pannack will receive a cash prize, and her photo will be on display until February in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
Maya Benton, who wrote about the photograph for Tablet Magazine, learned that Pannack hopes the photo will convey a “positive perception of the Jewish people and of the community.” I have no doubt that it will. The image is beautiful, as is the poised eleven-year old Chayla, who is the subject. But for us insiders – who have grown up in a synagogue like the one shown here – the photo resonates in a very different way.
Like Chayla, I was once an 11-year old girl who prayed in a synagogue with a balcony. On the brink of becoming a Jewish adult, I would soon be banished from my warm seat in front of the holy ark, near my father and brother. Up above, far from the Torah, I would find a spot next to the other women. They would trickle in late to synagogue, after they finished preparing for their Shabbat guests. Catching up with friends, they would chatter while I tried to concentrate on my prayers, longing to be part of the experience unfolding in the “real” synagogue down below.
Later, as a young woman in college and graduate school, I also sat in a balcony in synagogue. In those days, I was looking for love. As I watched the young men below, I abandoned my prayers. They swayed with closed eyes, connecting to the Divine, while I, up there so far away from holiness, could not help but look down and feel empty.
Now, as the mother of three daughters, I still sometimes find myself in the balcony. I love my Orthodox synagogue; the community that it houses, its warm, traditional Shabbat space. But when the few seats in the women’s section downstairs fill up, and I head to the second floor, I am reminded of how far away we women are from the experience of communal prayer.
I hold my daughter next to me. At 10, she is just a year shy of Chayla’s age. I wonder what she thinks about what we are doing up here, and why we are so far away from her father down below. What message are we sending her about prayer and community and her place among the Jewish people?
Maya Benton believes this portrait is a successful one because its subject “evinces an air of confident composure and studious equanimity, as though she knows exactly who she is.” That is not what I see. I find it so successful because of the way it captures Chayla’s complex experience (and that of so many others). It captures the effort that is exerted to maintain equanimity in a place where you so clearly do not belong. And the confusion that comes from loving your religion, your people, your traditions, your God, but knowing – so deeply – that there is no comfortable spot for you in the synagogue space. So you stand alone, looking into the distance with a disconnected gaze, wondering: If I leave here, then where shall I go?
With great fanfare, David Zvi Kalman and Joshua Schwartz announced their production of a new, “egalitarian and queer-inclusive” bencher, Seder Oneg Shabbos. A bencher is a booklet containing the grace after meals and other prayers and songs said at the table and is often given out at weddings as a souvenir. As someone with a dining room drawer full of well-used egalitarian benchers, some decades old, some from my wedding 18 years ago, I initially wondered what the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos was, besides its incredibly beautiful typesetting and illustrations. Seder Oneg Shabbos was preceded by a wide variety of benchers that have come out in the past twenty five years that use egalitarian language in English and Hebrew and are in other ways sensitive to gender inequalities: Nashir Unevarech (Reconstructionist, 1992), Mizmor Shir (unofficial Conservative, 1993), Anim Zemirot (Independent, 1999), Mikdash M’At (Reform, 2005), Yedid Nefesh (Independent, 2009) and L’chu N’ran’nah (Havurah, 2010).
What makes Seder Oneg Shabbos egalitarian? It has gender-neutral God language in English, optional insertions of our female ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) along with the male (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). But so do all the other egalitarian benchers that preceded it. Traditional benchers include Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valor, the traditional song from Proverbs sung weekly by husbands to their wives praising their housekeeping duties. Most egalitarian benchers either excluded it or included a parallel song Ashrei Ish, Praised is the Man (Psalm 112), to be sung to men. Eshet Chayil was omitted or partnered with Ashrei Ish, because associating women primarily with housework or having women be the focus of public ritual only once a week was not in keeping with the modern roles envisioned by the creators of the egalitarian benchers. Seder Oneg Shabbos includes Eshet Chayil, and purposefully illustrates it with an image of a woman in battle, but this is not as strong as statement as omitting it or making a parallel version for men.
Seder Oneg Shabbos also includes wording that is suitable for same-sex couples in the invitation to prayer used at weddings, which is really new, but not as comprehensive in terms of LGBT inclusions as innovations that have come out of Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue that recently issued its own prayer book. For example, it is unlikely they would have included a hymn for female spouses but not male ones. Beyond that queer-friendly insertion, however, the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is not its egalitarianism.
The innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is its desired audience. Seder Oneg Shabbos, according to its authors, is intended to be used in Modern Orthodox communities as well as non-Orthodox ones. Kalman and Schwartz color-coded the inclusionary language so those who want to use only the traditional Orthodox text can just skip over anything colorful. While the simple presence of inclusionary language will probably mean that the vast majority of traditional Orthodox communities will not use or buy this bencher, its release is a real milestone. It means the authors think that there are enough Modern Orthodox Jews who will make this a viable bencher.
The initial reaction of some liberal Jews to the announcement of an Orthodox-friendly egalitarian bencher, was anger that all their efforts beforehand to create egalitarian and queer-friendly benchers which made this bencher possible went unacknowledged. The authors mention they include “a number of common egalitarian insertions.” Those insertions became common through the work of liberal Jews and that debt is not really acknowledged. It is true that what is done by liberal Jews and seen as heretical by one generation of American Orthodoxy, becomes commonplace for their Orthodox grandchildren (like hosting Bat Mitzvahs and baby namings for girls in synagogues). But for observant liberal Jews to focus on that frustration is missing a real and significant opportunity.
The focus should not be on the different paths taken to arrive at this place but instead we should rejoice in the fact, exemplified by the optimistic release of this bencher, that there are many modern Jews from various backgrounds seeking egalitarianism, inclusion, modern liturgy and rich, text-based observance.
All those who use egalitarian benchers, from the earlier liberal ones to this new Orthodox-friendly one, need to see how similar they are as Jews, get together, have an intense philosophical discussion over a meal, and bench together out of the same bencher. Ki va moed. The time has come.
I did not have Simchat Torah this year. Bold statement, right? Some of you are probably thinking that I must not be observant, because how could a good Jewish girl miss such an important holiday? Well, I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with Simchat Torah. So if I start at the beginning, maybe you will come to understand my point.
When I was little, as in elementary school little, I loved Simchat Torah. I ran around the synagogue with my friends, danced with my dad, and got loads of candy. I had a blast, and looked forward to it each year. Then, I turned 12 and celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. Now, I could no longer dance with the men in my synagogue and I was relegated to the balcony with the women. At the time, I was a bit nostalgic for the good old days, but I still enjoyed the holiday. You see, watching from the women’s balcony as the men danced below with the Torahs was all I knew. So I enjoyed the holiday and spent it chatting with my mom and friends. And my relationship with Simchat Torah proceeded like that until I graduated from high school and attended Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s seminary in Israel.
Initially, when I saw women at Midreshet Lindenbaum dancing with the Torahs and leading hakafot, the processionals, I was overwhelmed by this newness. Where I grew up, women did not even kiss the Torah, let alone carry it and dance with it. But by the end of the holiday, I had become comfortable with this new concept. I had accepted that women could interact with the Torah in a religious and meaningful way. I realized that a world existed where I could celebrate Simchat Torah, the celebration of the Torah I lived by every day and studied my entire life, with the actual Torah. But what would happen on the next Simchat Torah, after I left Midreshet Lindenbaum and returned to the United States? You see, I was at a tipping point in my relationship with the holiday. At this point, I could still return to the women’s balcony and write off my seminary experience as a chavaya, a one-time experience. But instead, I went over the other edge.
I spent four years at the University of Maryland, College Park, where Simchat Torah became my favorite holiday. I danced around the Torah, I held the Torah, and I fell in love with the Torah. The ruach, the energy, the sheer excitement was so contagious. It was not only the men who danced their socks off, but the women too! Every year at the University of Maryland, I went to Simchat Torah services expecting to come home with aching feet and drenched in sweat. I was a member of a community where both women and men loved the Torah equally and displayed that affection publicly.
At our Simchat Torah celebration, there was something for everyone. There were women’s aliyot if that was your thing, and there was “Torah Dash,” where men and women gave thirty-second divrei Torah on every portion in the Torah while community members received their aliyot. There was even a Kallah Torah and Kallah Bereishit, honors given to women of the community, in addition to the traditional honors, Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit, given to men. Women were integral members of the Simchat Torah celebration in College Park, and I felt like my presence was meaningful and positively impacted the community.
Simchat Torah of my senior year was bittersweet. I had an amazing time, and had the honor of leading the community in two hakafot, together with my fellow graduating seniors and community leaders. But the dark cloud of impending doom loomed over me. I was depressed enough about leaving the University of Maryland Jewish community for many reasons, but I felt even more upset on this holiday. I wondered: Would I ever dance with a Torah again? Would I love the celebration of the holiday wherever I was in one year’s time? I suppressed these thoughts, not wanting my fears of the future to ruin what might possibly be my last chance at Simchat Torah happiness.
So what was my Simchat Torah like this year, my first year post-college? Well, it was not Simchat Torah.
It was like any old holiday. I went to synagogue, watched the men do things on the other side of the mechitzah, and socialized with the other women as we stood around with nothing to do. My husband later asked me if I heard them sing this song and that song, and if I had seen him carry a Torah. No, I did not hear the songs they sang, and no, I could not see who carried the Torah. As I watched the men dance with my Torah, I felt utterly invisible and extremely empty. I had been so far removed from the celebration, that I had no longer had any part in it. This time when I was relegated to the women’s section, I was not okay with it. I had tasted the forbidden fruit of equality and religious expression and I was not content being downgraded from a passionate participant to an irrelevant bystander.
Join us for the JOFA UnConference on November 23 will be exploring topics related to Ritual Innovation. More information at jofa.org/unconference2014
I pray every day. Most days the early morning cerebral fog is pretty dense and my anxiety about being late for work crowds out thoughts about the Divine. But even then, in the midst of constantly adjusting my tallit, prayer shawl, and fiddling with the straps of the tefillin to make sure they are not digging too deeply into my skin, I sometimes find myself actually reading the words on the page with a concentrated mind.
Recently I have been thinking about one sentence that in recent years has been reinserted into Aleinu at the end of the prayer service—she’haim mishtschavim l’hevel v’rik u’mitpalelim l’el lo yoshea, that they bow down to something worthless and empty and pray to a god that cannot save (SMLVULLY). I remember being introduced to this sentence in late adolescence and thinking it was the coolest thing going. I was on the winning team and felt like a member of a secret club, privy to a powerful incantation that not everyone knew. I experienced the power of once again saying a sentence that had been removed from the prayer book because of fears of arousing the animosity of Christian censors. Finally, it felt like a vindication of the validity of Orthodoxy as a whole. Heady stuff for a teenager.
Fast forward more than a few decades. These days, when I am paying attention I find myself having more and more difficulty with this sentence. If I can stay alert and avoid the sing-song rhythm of the daily prayer ritual, I do not recite this line. With the passage of time and my own perception of what is happening in our world, I am more uncomfortable with this expression of Jewish supremacy and denigration of other religions. I value the ethical meaning created by a life lived in the shadow of the Divine and acknowledge the truth and value of conduct structured by adherence to the halakha. But genuine pluralism and respect for others motivates me to recognize other religious perspectives. Thinking we are superior to others because we believe our God is superior to theirs will not enhance our holiness. I worry that this is a recipe for mutual hatred. So as everyone quickly takes off their tefillin and the men and women rush out the door, I quietly skip this sentence.
So why am I coming clean now? Perhaps it is the time of the year for confessions. But I will not venture into that area. Instead I think my engagement with SMLVULLY may offer an insight into prayer. Jewish prayer is criticized for being fixed and formulaic. Scholars like Catherine Madsen, contributing editor to the inter-religious/interdisciplinary journal CrossCurrents and author of the book The Bones Reassemble, have demonstrated how effective liturgical language has been constructed to foster associative thinking and to make the routine seem new. The implications are that text is capable of almost limitless change. But we have heard that before and this exhortation may fall on deaf ears if one is not fully aware of the many literary associations being invoked in the language of prayer. So instead of looking at prayer as the disco globe that is always changing and revealing new light patterns, I think we can reinvigorate prayer by recognizing that we change.
The same words can have profoundly different meaning and impact at different times because we are not the same person reading the prayer each and every day. I loved reading Lord of the Flies during my first year of high school but I am glad I was not asked to read American Pastoral before I was forty five. Similarly, my response to SMLVULLY has changed. I don’t know if it is for better or for worse but I am glad that for that moment, as I come to the conclusion of the prayer service and consciously mull over that sentence, my prayer is meaningful and makes me think about something important. As we get ready to dig in for the onslaught of high intensity synagogue time in the coming weeks, I see the prayers inviting me back to read them again because they know I am not the same person I was last year.
It was mid-August and the air conditioning was broken in the café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Across from me sat a woman I was about to interview. Her hairline, concealed by a dark brown wig, emanated sweat. Every so often she would raise her arm and, using the long-sleeve of her blue shirt, wipe the perspiration away.
I apologized for the heat and pulled at my slightly-too-short skirt so that it covered my knees. She should feel comfortable, I thought, knowing that I, too, was a modest Jewish woman suffering through the humidity.
But this was not entirely true. I am not an Orthodox woman who adheres to the modesty laws—not in the strictest sense. I was there to talk to her, and, over the course of the summer, I would speak with twenty-one other Orthodox men and women, about their understanding of the morning blessing “she lo asani isha,” Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has not made me a woman. My hope was to uncover how Jews from different branches of Orthodoxy grapple with—or ignore—the implications of sexual hierarchy established by this blessing.
I was masked by my role as a detached academic, researching my senior thesis topic. More honestly, it was a personal project laden with frustration, pain and a longing to find my place within the Jewish tradition that I love.
Why do I want to be a part of a religion that values this blessing? The question has plagued me for the last few years as I find myself yearning more and more for traditional Jewish ritual and community.
I was not raised Jewish. My mother is a practicing Unitarian Universalist and my father is a non-practicing Jew. While our family celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, we never went to a Shabbat service or spoke the words of Hebrew prayer. Until I was fourteen, I attended a Unitarian church in Manhattan every Sunday. I participated in the youth group, Christmas pageant, and children’s choir. I identified both as a Unitarian Universalist and as a Jew. But at the start of high school, a major shift occurred.
I began to wonder if my Unitarian practice was the right fit. I convinced my father to join me for our first Kabbalat Shabbat service at a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. The awe I experienced that evening changed my life. It was like returning to something I had not known and yet understood somewhere in the recesses of my body. The Hebrew sounds were foreign, the music was mysterious, and I felt simultaneously at home and like an outsider. I fell in love that night, and I became determined to immerse myself in Judaism and to work towards feeling like an insider.
Since that evening I have struggled to learn about my Jewish tradition. I studied for two years to become a bat mitzvah at the age of sixteen, majored in Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, spent a year in Israel studying at Hebrew University, and, most recently, went to the mikvah for an official conversion and a re-commitment to Judaism and my practice.
But the deeper I have traveled into the body of Jewish text and ritual and the more I crave a rigorous faith, the more I run into the wall of what it means to be a woman inside a traditional community. I am constantly battling the side of me that wants to be enveloped in an Orthodox community and the side of me that is accustomed to, and believes in, contemporary norms of gender equality.
I set out to spend two years researching and wrestling with the blessing “she lo asani isha.” I looked to the blessing as the site of a struggle between tradition and modernity. I believed that through engaging with this blessing, I could resolve a tension within myself and a tension that I imagined many other men and women feel.
Each time I sat across from my interviewees I hoped that they would provide me with an answer. I saw them as guides—individuals filled with wisdom and spirituality who might share my sentiments. Did they wrestle with the blessing too? Could they give me a persuasive answer about why it is said and why it is important to say? How did they bridge the divide between tradition and change? Their words had the potential to counsel and revive my spirituality.
What I learned through the process of my research was that there was no resolution to be found—no answer that would quiet my battles and the tension that many of my Orthodox interviewees experienced. What I found were a variety of rationalizations that often seemed to evade the insulting nature of the blessing. Nearly everyone I interviewed applied multiple explanations even if one line of logic contradicted another.
This tangle of answers, combined with my own daily struggle with the words “she lo asani isha,” has enabled me to become more comfortable with my religiosity and with spiritual tension. At the start of my interviews I was uncomfortable critiquing women’s roles within Jewish tradition and within many forms of Orthodoxy. I was uncomfortable because I felt the weight of being an outsider. How could I critique what I did not know—a world that I was not raised in? I did not feel that I had the right.
Immersing myself in the interpretations, both historical and contemporary, that surround “she lo asani isha,” I began to feel more at home with critique. I could listen, contest and judge from a place of greater knowledge and understanding. While I am without a resolution, and while I am still deeply troubled by this blessing, I am more at ease in my Jewish body. I can embrace my critiques of Judaism because I am battling with my faith, my Jewish tradition and my Jewish forbearers from a place of immense love.
I was sitting in synagogue beside a beautiful, ornate, wood carved mechitzah when I saw something I had never noticed before. The Gabbai, while checking if the congregation was done praying the Shemonah Esrei and if the leader should continue with the prayers, looked over to my side of the mechitzah. It was only then, as a senior in college, that I realized what I had been missing—a prayer community that acknowledges and values women’s presence.
I have never really been interested in women’s prayer groups as I feel that communal prayer is about community and mine includes all people, men and women. While I won’t argue with their validity, I also have never been a proponent of egalitarian style minyanim, prayer communities, as I am very okay with the fact that I, with a nursing baby and no eruv have a different halakhic requirement for praying with a minyan, quorum, than men do. But, I am also not okay with the fact that I am often all alone in the women’s section for the first hour and a half of synagogue services on Shabbat morning and for all of synagogue services on Shabbat afternoon.
My family normally attends a small Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn where my husband is the rabbi. On two occasions this year, we have gone away for Shabbat. When we arrived in synagogue on Shabbat morning, the first thing my daughter asked was, “why is there no one on our side?” and then she ran to the men’s side to be with Daddy.
Orthodox Judaism, you are failing me as a mother! I have never felt like a lesser member in an Orthodox synagogue than at that moment.
How was what I did in synagogue any different than what my husband was doing? Or for that matter, what most of the men were doing? When it comes down to numbers, only about 3-8 men are up on the bima, podium, leading or visibly participating in the service for those three hours on Shabbat morning. It was not until that college Gabbai turned to check that the women were done with Shemonah Esrei that I realized that I want the synagogues in my daughter’s future to make a much more conscious effort to make her feel like an important member of the community. In our small synagogue there is no noticeable difference between the two sides of the mechitzah (as I said, we’re a small synagogue to begin with), but in all too many Orthodox synagogues the women’s section is lacking in numbers of attendees, as well as space.
My daughter was born on Tisha B’Av, which excited me because it means that she could have a truly purposeful Bat Mitzvah. Instead of reading a speech in synagogue written by her grandfather, like I did (and even that was pretty progressive), she has a variety of meaningful options. She can learn to read the Book of Eicha, Lamentations. She can make a siyum (celebrate the completion) on Eicha or on select selichot. Those projects have lasting purpose. They are transferrable skills. She could reuse her skills and read Eicha every year on Tisha B’Av.
Recently, my synagogue began a women’s megillah reading program. As I prepared to read Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, on Passover, and the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, I thought about making sure that my daughter was up in the main synagogue while I read so that she could see her mommy doing “something important” in synagogue. I then realized that the point of all this is to normalize women’s participation. She should be able to miss my megillah reading sometimes, just like she sometimes misses her daddy’s Torah reading. Women’s participation shouldn’t be special, it should be normal. She should think, “Mommy and Daddy both go to synagogue and sometimes Daddy leads prayers and Mommy can read me a book, but then sometimes Mommy is busy praying and Daddy can get me water.” If my megillah reading is special, then it is not common place.
Sadly, the “normal” in today’s Orthodox synagogue is an empty or half empty women’s section until two hours into the service. As a larger community, we need to look deeper and question why this has happened and then instill policies that can ameliorate this problem.
Is the problem child care? Then let’s start children’s groups at the same time as services, or let’s be more accepting of children’s noise. Let us even go so far as to create a dark, quiet space for babies to nap.
Is the problem a lack of opportunities for women to get involved? Then let’s invite and encourage women to read the prayers for the government and for the State of Israel. Let’s pass the Torah around the entire synagogue. Let’s have two Hoshanah circles during Sukkot—one for women and one for men. Everyone should be able to dance with and celebrate the Torah!
The question that needs to be asked is: How do we make sure that everyone is valued the same whether they are male or female? How can we create Orthodox synagogues that value our daughters as important members of the community?
Gabbais should always know to check the women’s side to make sure that they are ready for the next section of prayers, and there should always be a packed house looking back.
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