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.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
This post references various parts of the morning prayer services, or Shacharit. For an overview of the parts of that service, click here.
Yesterday I was walking along the park that lines the old railway tracks linking our Jerusalem home
and the twins’ gan (daycare) when I ran into a friend from the neighborhood. He was standing with
an older man who looked vaguely familiar. When my friend introduced us, the man said, “Oh, it’s the Tehillim lady.” When I looked back at him quizzically, he continued, “I hear you singing Tehillim every morning. You’re so devout!” It took me a few moments to realize what he was talking about, because as far as I know, I never chant Psalms. But then suddenly I understood.
Every weekday morning, as I push the girls’ stroller on our way to gan, I “daven” aloud with them. I am putting the word “daven” in quotes because it’s a far cry from serious prayer. I do not have a siddur (prayer book) with me, and I do not recite the full morning service, nor do I stand and sit at the appropriate points, since I am pushing a stroller all the while. Rather, I sing my favorite melodies from the opening psalms of Psukei Dezimra as we walk: I recite Mah Tovu as we walk down the hill to Derekh Hevron, then I chant Ashrei as we cross the busy highway, and I belt out a few Hallelujahs as we make our way through the parking lot towards the park. Many of these prayers are indeed psalms, which explains that older man’s misperception. By the time we get to their gan, I am usually up to the blessings before the Shema. But at that point I stop to take out the girls from their strollers, deposit them in their high chairs, and bend over to kiss them goodbye on the tops of their heads.
I did not realize until now that anyone overheard my morning davening, and I’m a little embarrassed by it all. After all, the proper way to daven is in synagogue with a minyan, while holding a siddur and bending and bowing at the appropriate moments. And yet my approach to prayer is not without precedent; in the third mishnah of Berakhot (10b) we are told of a famous debate between Beit Hillel and Shammai (two schools of thought) about how to recite the Shema. Shammai says that at night one should recite the Shema while lying down, and in the morning one should recite it while standing, to fulfill the verse, “When you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Hillel, who is more lax, says that any position is acceptable, in fulfillment of the verse, “When you go along your way.” That is, Beit Shammai would never approve of the way I daven on the walk to gan, but Beit Hillel would have no problem with my ambulatory prayer.
My husband, too, has a hard time finding time to daven during our rushed and busy mornings, so he has come up with his own creative solution. He puts our two-year-old Matan in his chair with breakfast in front of him, and then brings his siddur and tefillin to the table, where he davens while standing next to Matan. Our son loves singing along, though he knows that he is not allowed to touch the “feeleen” boxes until he finishes eating and washes his hands, after he and Abba have sung Adon Olam together. And Daniel is grateful for the opportunity to daven, even though he looks forward to the day when he can return to minyan and not have to worry about picking cheerios off the floor in between Psukei Dezimra and the Shacharit prayers that follow.
When I think about where we are in our prayer lives, I am reminded of the first mishnah of the fifth chapter of Berakhot (30b), which teaches that one should not begin praying except with koved rosh, a phrase that literally means “heavy-headedness” and connotes tremendous reverence and respect. The mishnah goes on to state that the early pious ones used to wait an hour before praying in order to get into the proper frame of mind for speaking with God. Neither Daniel nor I are able to pray with any degree of koved rosh at this point in our lives. If we feel heaviness of head it is not from our tremendous powers of concentration, but rather from major sleep deprivation caused by our three children under the age of two and a half. Nonetheless, I like to think of our prayer these days as analogous to that preparatory hour of the early pious ones. It is not really prayer, but a preparation for the rest of our prayer lives, when hopefully we will be able to focus better.
The Talmud, in discussing the mishnah about the early pious ones, relates that the Biblical source for the laws of prayer is actually the prayer of Chana, who wept in Shiloh for God to grant her a child, and then offered a beautiful and poetic prayer of thanksgiving after Shmuel was born. And so the rabbis derive the laws of how to pray from a parent. As Chana herself surely knew, praying as a parent is not easy, particularly not in the early morning hours when you are drunk with exhaustion and can hardly see straight. Even so, when I set off to gan with the autumn wind blowing through my hair and my two gorgeous daughters sitting side-by-side in the stroller before me, I feel so full of gratitude that I cannot help but pray.
I am a person who puts on, or “lays,” tefillin (phylacteries). I happen to be female. While my gender, to my mind, does not affect the nature of my performance of this mitzvah, it inevitably adds a layer of complexity to others’ perception of it. I constantly smack up against the tremendous double standard that is applied to women who perform mitzvot that are seen as “male,” both in my day-to-day life and in the communal discourse.
I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times of Israel about high school girls who lay tefillin. The piece was, on the whole, interesting and balanced. In this article, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates the two most flawed and problematic ideas surrounding the concept of women and tefillin and most other “men’s” mitzvot. He questions the “seriousness” and motivation of the women who take on these mitzvot.
“For those people who are troubled by women putting on tefillin,” Rabbi Boteach says, “the message needs to be, ‘Fair enough, put on tefillin, but accompanied with a serious embracing of Talmud.’” In all my years as a halakhically observant Jew, it is only when it comes to women wearing tefillin and tzitzit (fringes) that “seriousness” is made a qualification for the performance of a mitzvah. Is a person who does not often make the blessings on food told not to bother praying mincha, the afternoon service? Is a person interrogated about how much Talmud they learn each day before they are encouraged to give to tzedakah (charity)? Since when does one have to meet a certain standard of observance, or “seriousness,” before one is given “permission” to perform mitzvot?
This issue of “seriousness” takes another form as well. I have often heard and read that it’s all well and good for “serious” women to lay tefillin, provided they do so every day. As a person who considers herself to have a binding halakhic obligation to lay tefillin, I can testify that I sometimes mess up. As a teenager who likes to sleep in, this is a difficult mitzvah for me to do, as I know it is for many of my peers. Despite my commitment to halakha and mitzvot, there have been Sundays when I have slept through my alarm and rushed out to teach Hebrew school without laying tefillin. I make mistakes; then I make a commitment to do better next time. But my “right” to lay tefillin is not contingent on my consistency. Do Chabad shluchim (ambassadors) only offer tefillin to men who don them daily? No. Mitzvot are mitzvot, and I do not need to prove my right to lay tefillin any more than my equally sleepy male friends do.
The second women-and-tefillin trope Rabbi Boteach employs is to question women’s motivation. “Judaism is not in a state where we can play games with it…If it’s to demonstrate [women] can do everything men can do, it’s not a spiritual motivation, rather politics, and that’s not favorable to Judaism. Assimilation is catastrophic. Let’s never forget the bigger picture.” Setting aside Rabbi Boteach’s ludicrous slippery-slope fallacy (women performing more mitzvot will lead to assimilation?), I will simply say to this: enough. I, and all other women, do not need to prove our motivation to you. We are seeking equality because it will bring us closer to God.
The dichotomy between religious and political motivations is a false one. Our demand to perform mitzvot to which we have been denied access is inherently political in a community where certain mitzvot, like tefillin, are indicators of power and masculinity. However, that does not make the mitzvah any less about God. Women’s performance of these mitzvot will enhance the Jewish community as a whole. By democratizing access to ritual practice, we can redefine “men’s mitzvot” simply as “mitzvot,” and thus change their function from an indicator of who’s a member of the “club” to an expression of commitment to God and Torah. By laying tefillin, I make a political statement about the moral and halakhic correctness of feminist innovation, evolution, and influence. This statement is a reflection of deep religious and moral convictions, and I am proud to make it.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.