This is an exciting time of the year to be an observant Jew. The religious momentum in the months of Adar and Nisan begins to build up two weeks before Purim with Parshat Shekalim and culminates at the night of the first Seder. What makes the spring time so special is that the central mitzvah of each holiday – the public reading of the megillah on Purim and the private eating of matzah on Passover – are among the few time-bound commandments that apply equally to men and women.
The reason is well known. In the language of the Rabbis, women must hear the megillah and eat matzah because “af hein hayu b’nes” – women too were included in the miracle of the rescue in Shushan and the exodus from Egypt. In the Rabbinic mind, salvation from the mortal danger which threatened the entire community rendered all Jews equal. Eve, the primordial woman, was cursed with dependence on her husband when she was banished from the Garden of Eden. But, when Pharaoh and Haman threatened the Jewish people, equality between husbands and wives, men and women, was at least partially restored. Essentialist differences based on gender are erased on Purim and Passover.
It is becoming a widespread practice among Open Orthodox think tanks like Beit Hillel to publish responsa engaging with contemporary issues relating to gender in modern Jewish life, including the questions of women’s obligation in time-bound commandments. One discomforting aspect of these well-intentioned papers is a reliance on standard halakhic categories. Much of the discussion focuses on personal status rather than the performance of the mitzvah itself. The point of departure is invariably the relative rank of men versus women rather than the intrinsic capacity of the person to fulfill the mitzvah. For example, when considering women’s participation in prayer services, the discussion hinges on the position of women in the hierarchy of obligation (slaves, children, deaf people, mentally incompetent people, women and men) and this determines whether or not women can fulfill specific roles such as reading from the Torah or leading prayers for the congregation. The same logic prevails even in the laws relating to the reading of the megillah. Some halakhic authorities persist in affording women a lower status than men and do not permit women to read on behalf of men. There have also been attempts to support specific practices with innovative applications of established halakhic principles that transcend gender status. A good illustration is Rabbi Sperber’s invocation of the principle of kvod ha’briyot, “human dignity,” to enable greater participation by women in communal prayer and Torah reading. But this is a notable exception. Usually the think tank responsa compile a list of lenient positions without establishing an underling legal basis and, as such, are unconvincing.
Back to megillah and matzah. If an external military or political threat provided a sound rationale for full equality in the requirement to perform these two mitzvot, can this model be extended to internal existential threats to Jewish survival? The notion of mortal threat to the Jewish people could be expanded to include the internal peril of inter-marriage and assimilation that is fostered by persistent gender inequality in defining status and requirement to perform mitzvot. Women and men who are fully engaged in the modern world may find Orthodoxy’s adherence to traditional gender roles, with its limitation of women’s involvement in all of the commandments, increasingly untenable and drift away from Orthodoxy. Alternatively, internal threat could be viewed on an individual level in which a person’s inner motivation to grow and thrive religiously is stymied by perceived gender inequality. This, too, might cause talented and committed men and women to abandon Orthodoxy for more egalitarian alternatives. This threat would represent a new point of departure for developing a gender neutral assessment of who should be obligated to perform all time-bound mitzvot.
Based on this reasoning, the requirement to eat, sleep, and sit in a sukkah or to participate in a daily minyan, prayer service, would be equally incumbent upon men and women. Instead of finding a reason to mandate performance of a specific time-bound mitzvah as an exception to the rule, this reformulation of the meaning of “af hein hayu b’nes” would assume that men and women are equally responsible for fulfilling this category of commandments. Rather than representing a betrayal of the Rabbinic tradition, it would remain integrally linked to classical legal texts by reformulating a concept that the Rabbis used to promote the observance by women of two specific commandments, reading the megillah and eating matzah at the Seder, to a wider context. Perhaps, looking to the future, the arrival of Adar 5776 and the change of seasons can serve as a springboard to broaden the halakhic discourse to one that emphasizes the essential equality of men and women in performing time-bound mitzvot.
Ever since I was young, I have always felt a strong connection to Purim. For most girls at that age, the focus was dressing up as princesses and making lots of noise at appropriate moments during the Megillah reading, but for me there was something about the courage of our heroine Esther that made her stand out as a true role model. It was always refreshing to celebrate the actions of this extremely brave young woman, who I interpreted to be rather unassuming and from a regular background just like you or me.
As an Orthodox girl who attended a non-Jewish school throughout my education, I understood to some extent how it felt to be in the minority but, unlike Esther, I was able to be outwardly proud of my Jewish identity, and never once considered hiding it. I used it as an opportunity to educate my fellow students about a religion with which most of them had no previous experience.
My teenage self found special affinity with Esther over the fact that we were both vegetarians, something which I still am to this day. According to the Talmud, Esther was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Ahasuerus, Vegetarianism would have allowed Esther to have avoided violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret. Not necessarily my reasoning for abstaining from eating meat but, in my eyes, it was another factor that contributed to my personal understanding of Esther’s character and conduct.
When I moved to my community of Borehamwood and Elstree a few years ago and discovered that there was a women’s Megillah group, I was immediately drawn to it and felt I must try to be a part of it in some way. However, as much as I was extremely keen to learn to recite a part of the Megillah, this decision came with a great deal of fear and trepidation. Would my Hebrew be good enough to allow me to learn my section accurately? Would I be able to conquer the tune, reading Hebrew without vowels, and overcome my stage fright? And, perhaps bizarrely, would the other women in the group accept me with open arms? I remember turning up to the first meeting with a huge sense of intimidation and worry—was I really capable of this or was I aiming a bit too far out of my comfort zone?
In contrast, what I discovered was a group of like-minded, supportive and dedicated women, all with their own reasons for wanting to read the Megillah, which made me realize that I actually hoped to gain more from this experience than I initially thought. Yes, there was the obvious challenge of tackling something new and becoming more involved in my community but also, when offered the chance to be a public voice in a festival that exists as a result of one woman having the strength to stand up for what she believed in, and when halakha permits all of this, how could I take a passive seat? It made me start thinking about my two-year-old daughter, the image of women in Judaism that I wanted to project, and the opportunities that I hoped would be available to her in the future.
The women’s Megillah reading in Borehamwood is such a special event in my calendar and, as a result, Purim holds more meaning for me than it ever has before. Listening to the clear and beautiful voices of all those women who strive to recite their portions without error and knowing the hard work that has gone into it, especially when we all have our own pressures from our family and professional lives, makes me very proud to be among them. It is a very emotional experience for many of us – the sense of achievement and camaraderie is hard to put into words. It is something that I hope I will continue to share with my daughter in the years to come. While not all of us are faced with obstacles as extreme as Esther’s, Purim allows us to reflect on the fact that each of us is capable of making a difference in this world in our own unique way.
Last month, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. In the months before her Bat Mitzvah we moved from the Boston-area Jewish community (where we had spent the past fourteen years) to Shepherd Park, Washington D.C and a day school my children had barely known existed. Following our move, planning a Bat Mitzvah was exactly what we all did not have time or energy for. Before our move, my daughter and I had studied some Mishnah together and participated in the Matan Bat Mitzvah program, so I considered suggesting that we just throw her a small party, opting out of the difficult process of defining and negotiating a meaningful Bat Mitzvah ritual for her. No sooner had I formalized the idea, when I realized that that was exactly what had happened to me when I was her age. My parents had offered to throw me, the youngest child and the only girl, a party of no religious significance for my Bat Mitzvah, and only if I really wanted it. I recognized the cue and had opted out. I had felt that loss. For me, the loss was realizing that my Bat Mitzvah was not Jewishly significant and that it need not be celebrated.
In stark contrast, my older son had studied with a local rabbi leading up to his Bar Mitzvah, learned to read Torah under his father’s tutelage, prepared and delivered divrei Torah, led the prayer service, and read Torah on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. He always expected to do those things; and we also expected them of him, and were so proud to fete him. I realized that my daughter, and all of our daughters, deserve the same high expectations and just as importantly, our admiration and celebration of their becoming members of our adult Jewish community.
My daughter and I, after much discussion and with the help of the Rabbi, the Maharat and my husband, navigated among the diverse and well thought out Bat Mitzvah options available in our Shepherd Park community. We decided to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah during a women’s mincha service on Shabbat afternoon where my daughter led the service, read from the Torah, and delivered a d’var Torah. Her service followed the regular mincha service at synagogue which meant that both men and women were present at the service, although only women were invited to actively participate. This allowed all of my husband’s large, non-Orthodox, family to attend, something which was very important to both my daughter and my husband’s family. It was celebratory and beautiful in every way, not the least of which was her grace and competence. But in planning this celebration, we realized that it would not have felt complete if we did not also celebrate her becoming part of our regular community. So we decided to celebrate on Shabbat morning as well.
I admit, when I was first asked if my daughter would deliver the d’var Torah in synagogue on Shabbat morning, I was ambivalent because there did not seem to be any meaningful space within the Shabbat morning service for her to mark the occasion of becoming a Bat Mitzvah. I realized though that we celebrate each baby joining our community and each boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah as a community, with singing and sometimes dancing. And so, on Shabbat morning, after the mi sheberach prayers, and before the Musaf service, my daughter stood and recited a special prayer that we had studied during the Matan mother-daughter Bat Mitzvah program. It marked her transition to becoming a full member of the community and asked God for guidance and help. Afterwards, my husband and I blessed her and the congregation broke out in song and dance – with all the women near the front of that section dancing around her and celebrating her entrance into the congregation. After the conclusion of the morning service, she delivered a d’var Torah to her and our whole community.
As my husband said, when he spoke following the mincha service that my daughter led so beautifully, we hope that the skills our daughter developed in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah – leading prayers, preparing divrei Torah, studying and reading Torah – are skills she will continue to hone as part of her continued Jewish growth. But as importantly, I hope that she can internalize the joy she witnessed as her community celebrated the significance of her becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Our daughters deserve that much.
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.
“Tzi-tzit tzitzit tzitzit, where are you today?
I need you for a bracha, I need you right away!”
This was a common refrain for my three-year-old daughter Dahlia in the morning as she goes through my closet while I get dressed. She sings the song every morning in her class when each child chooses whether to take a pair of tzitzit, ritual fringes, from the box. In our house she will often playfully put on my tzitzit, but the one morning I spent in her nursery school class, none of the girls chose to.
And that’s just fine. None of the women she knows wear tzitzit, and I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if she didn’t either. But with her fourth birthday coming up, my wife and I thought about what tangible rituals might be relevant and meaningful for a little girl.
Enter Atara Lindenbaum, Rabbi Roni Handler, and their JOFA UnConference session on reinventing rituals for early childhood. Atara shared that her daughter began lighting Shabbat candles when she was three, and I thought that was a beautiful idea. In a conversation with Atara after the session, she recommended that we not only engage Dahlia with the ritual, but also make it a bit more of a meaningful ceremony—invite the rabbi or do something special in synagogue. I loved that idea, and with Dahlia’s fourth birthday coming up, we ran with it.
Since we had no template for a ritual like this, I posted a note on Facebook to solicit ideas for how to make this moment special. You can read the full back and forth here, but it spawned debates over how many candles she should light, whether to do the first lighting at home or in synagogue, and whether having the rabbi attend reinforces the perception that a male rabbinic presence is required to legitimate Jewish ritual experience. We received recommendations for what candlesticks to use, blessings to make, and texts to incorporate. It was a great discourse.
What we settled on was a very small ceremony at home with our immediate family and our community’s rabbi. We bought Dahlia a beautiful set of travel ceramic candlesticks, and my sister sent a box of colorful candles. With only a few minutes before Shabbat, I spoke to Dahlia a bit about what it means to be growing up and connected it to Moses’ growing up in the Torah portion, the rabbi said a few words about how Dahlia is now part of a tradition of lighting candles that goes back thousands of years, and then she lit the candles and said the blessing together with my wife Adina. After the rabbi left for synagogue, Adina and I blessed Dahlia, and then we sat down to read some emailed notes from grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
I had imagined that this would be a memorable (and perhaps formative) experience for Dahlia. I thought it would be serene and we would all be present in the moment. But she’s four years old, and within seconds she was much more concerned about her brother taking a balloon than the significance of her candles. And that’s alright. Because I know that again this Friday afternoon, the next, and—please God—many hundreds to follow, she will stand next to my wife, light her candles and say her blessing.
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.
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.
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I didn’t mind the mechitza at first. The wall—more frequently a short partition—separating men and women in ritual spaces was something to which I had grown accustomed in my long experience with traditional, Orthodox synagogues. Partnership minyanim were not a reality in my adolescent consciousness as I traversed the long road of a yeshiva day school student; but feelings of inequality, misogyny, and the limited opportunities for women to publically express their dedication to ritual Judaism grew increasingly prominent. Everything I did as a Jewish woman seemed to be in the context of a male experience, even within the walls of my all-girls high school. We learned Torah while the men learned Talmud, hailed male figures in Jewish history, dressed modestly to prevent men from succumbing to their basic instincts, and were shipped off to seminaries, whose names would feature prominently in conversations about our future shidduchim, marriage prospects. Halichos Bas Yisroel, a text filled with proverbial advice for young Jewish women, was to become the mainstay of our religious experience. And, because I had “lost” my copy, I wasn’t having it.
I remember the first time I received an aliyah. It was the summer of 2011. I was shocked when the female gabbai glanced my way as though I was a viable option for the position. When I heard my Hebrew name—Naomi bat Zev—being called, I murmured the most sincere shehechiyanu that I have ever said, gingerly approaching the scroll that I had been taught was off limits to me and my kind. This was a turning point for my religious practice, as I suddenly recalled a line from a famous Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And that something was me.
My distaste for exclusion from the action on the bima led me to partnership minyanim. Though most of these spaces still had me face to face with a mechitza, I found so much comfort in the sound of a woman’s voice ringing through the pews of an Orthodox synagogue that the partition became less and less significant. I learned to chant from the Torah, properly singing the blessings and songs that I had tuned out for years when I was quarantined on the woman’s side. I needed to ensure that when I was called upon, I’d be ready. Women’s ritual expression electrified a room of worshippers who had grown tired of the silence of being an onlooker. In the past months and years, as partnership minyanim have become central to the media tug-of-war between the right and left factions of Orthodoxy, I balk at the notion that women are being kept from carving a meaningful space for themselves in some Orthodox synagogues. Sitting, as I often do on Saturday mornings, with my coffee and New Yorker, I can’t believe that rabbis would prefer that I be in the comfort of my apartment reading about Putin and Ukraine than leading pesukei de’zimrah (a portion of the prayer service that women are permitted to lead in partnership minyanim).
And yet, on most Shabbat mornings, I still find myself doing just that: waking up late and catching up on my reading. I realize, though I am loath to admit it, that partnership, and even fully egalitarian, minyanim just aren’t doing it for me. Though I will fight to the death for the right of these prayer spaces to exist, the actual experience of joining the tefillah has withered since that first aliyah I received on that Shabbat afternoon almost three years ago. I continue to want to be revved up by the feeling of my own voice in the Orthodox prayer space, but when I’m honest with myself, I need something more.
I found it completely by accident. When a colleague and friend approached me about a new synagogue starting in Washington Heights, his passion for creating an inclusive, alternative community drew me in almost immediately—even if it would mean giving up my Saturday morning coffee ritual. Beit Hamidrash Hagadol, a statuesque and historic synagogue that boasts being the oldest in Washington Heights, was the scene for this revival minyan, which we have loving taken to calling “the Beis.” As a motley crew geared up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the behemoth sanctuary of this synagogue, I found myself face to face with my old frenemy: the mechitza. This time, however, I would not need to approach the bima for my voice to be heard.
Though women were not involved in leading the prayers at the Beis, a group of volunteers worked together to prepare explanations that they would share as an accompaniment to the Yom Kippur Avodah prayer service. Intermittently during prayer, a designated man or woman would interject his or her own kavanot, intentions, for people to ponder during a service that is seemingly endless and often monotonous. These words—spoken in English—provided inspiration, focus, and new perspectives on ancient texts for a community of individuals that ranged from secular to Orthodox. When I volunteered for this role, never having seen explanatory services done in this fashion, I had no idea how powerful and empowering it would be.
“During the next prayer, Aleinu, we bow our bodies so that they are prostrated fully on the ground,” I pronounced to the room of worshippers. The prayer leader’s voice floated behind my words as I grew louder, ensuring that both men and women could hear me from where I stood on the women’s side of the mechitza. “Often, we find ourselves serving God with our hearts, connecting to God through deep emotions and spiritual experiences. Other times, we serve God with our minds, learning the laws and considering the existence of a Creator. Invariably, a hierarchy exists within us between the heart and the mind. Today, we have the opportunity to put our hearts and minds on the same level and serve God as a single being – with heart, mind, and body coming together in anticipation of welcoming His presence in our lives.”
As I bowed to the beautiful sound of the leader singing Aleinu, I didn’t feel out of place in the slightest. The curtain between the men and women disappeared as I took part in one of the most meaningful, innovative ritual experiences that I have had to date. Throughout the day, fellow worshippers thanked me for my contributions to their prayers. They really felt connected this year. And I did too.
Ritual inclusion for women is not merely about interpreting laws in a way that allows for women to occupy a place that is traditionally reserved for men. Rather, it’s about considering which experiences —both new and old—will be meaningful for both the men and women who come to synagogue to connect to God, eat the sponsored Kiddush food, and chat with friends. Full inclusion of women is allowing their physical presence, and their creativity, to enter into a traditionally male space.
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My youngest daughter will turn nine in just a few weeks, but I have already begun to actively arrange for her Bat Mitzvah. No, I have not bought her a fancy dress, shoes, and matching hair accessories. I have not put together a guest list of friends and relatives. And no, I have not actually looked at the calendar and chosen a date. So how could I possibly be preparing for her Bat Mitzvah?
In my hometown, the local Orthodox synagogues offer no opportunities for women to engage in ritual leadership. However, for the past few years, a warm and inviting women’s Kabbalat Shabbat/Ma’ariv Friday evening service has been held on a monthly basis in individual homes. Though my daughter is not always excited about going (especially if the weather is nasty or if she is caught up in a good book), I bring her along nonetheless. It is true that she does not yet know all of the tunes. And sometimes, she can only tolerate sitting through the first two psalms, “Yedid Nefesh” and “Lechu Neranena,” before she needs to take a break, returning mid-service for “Lecha Dodi.” But she is there, and the entrancing tunes of erev Shabbat are slowly filtering into her head.
Oftentimes, the prayer leader is a post-Bat Mitzvah teenager. It’s important that my daughter be present to see a young role model in action, to hear a high-pitched (and sometimes wavering) voice, and to witness a girl standing at the amud, podium. And each time we attend, I can see that my daughter participates more and more, that she is able to follow along, that her body sways with the chanting of each psalm, and that the unfamiliar is becoming familiar.
All too often, I hear the following refrain from mothers of sixth graders in my community: “I would really like my daughter to do something meaningful for her Bat Mitzvah—maybe lead at a women’s tefillah service—but she’s too nervous about it and it’s just not her thing.” My plea to each of those mothers is that you make it “her thing.” Start early and go often! Drag your third, fourth or fifth grader along to a women’s celebration this coming Simchat Torah! Remember: Your daughter won’t want to read from the Torah scroll if she’s never touched it, danced with it or peered inside. Or, shlep her to a women’s Megillah reading on Purim. And convince your friends to do the same, so that your daughter will have a cohort of peers to support her as she advances into new territory.
A boy may not begin to practice his Torah reading until the year before his Bar Mitzvah date. But he has been preparing for the event for years beforehand by being present in synagogue where he can absorb the rhythms, music and traditional words of the prayers, and be exposed to the routines of the service. Why should the expectations be different for a Bat Mitzvah girl? With the New Year, I urge you to make a commitment to your daughter and give her a head start!