Yom sheni, 30 Kislev 5775, Rosh Chodesh, Sixth Day of Chanukah.
My good friend Rivkah and I have had a running discussion over several years regarding a woman's sense of belonging to and being accommodated fairly by the synagogue and by the Jewish prayer book.
Yesterday, Rivkah wrote a passionate and beautiful post about her feelings on the subject, and about her exploration of how she might relate in a positive and healthy way to the situation because, let's face it, this subject can eat out the kishkes of an intelligent, deeply thoughtful woman if it is not resolved. I hope that you will take a moment before going further to read what Rivkah had to say (Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 1). Don't worry: I'll wait for you. See you in a few moments.
In her post, Rivkah quoted me as saying that I see the shul as sort of a "Moose Lodge" for men, and the siddur as the Moose Lodge manual. I got ready to defend myself against attack -- after all, I have been attacked for saying that men should let their brides run the wedding planning, and for suggesting that men and women with issues in their marriages might want to communicate before baling out -- so I was a bit surprised when no one took me to task. Not unhappy, mind you. Just surprised. It could be that the venue of Rivkah's blog seems to draw only very polite women. But still -- I'm looking forward to a polite group discussion on the subject. Instead of defending myself, I'll offer an elaboration on my point.
Of course, I don't really see the synagogue as a Moose Lodge. I've never been inside a Moose Lodge, and have never actually observed a meeting. But my sense from stories and movies (and from men with whom I spoke, back in my rural America days) is that there are costumes and rituals that are taken very seriously, and these add to the camaraderie and sense of an organized unity among the members. My (hopefully) humorous reference was intended to explain how I see my place (or lack thereof) in synagogue ritual -- in what I hope is a healthy way.
I suspect (without doing the required study) that a hundred or two hundred years ago, women did not necessarily expect to attend synagogue services, except on those occasions when the entire congregation really is expected to participate, as on Yom Kippur. In the olden days, it was considered normal for men to go to pray in a quorum, and for women to run the critical spiritual world of the home. I believe that it is all part of the modern need to be counted as part of the homogeneous community of Jews, equal in all ways to their male counterparts, that has driven women to want an equal place in synagogue life.
Since this is supposition, it's better if I stick with what I know. Like Rivkah, I see that the service and the prayer book are built around men and men's issues. Men are expected to join in communal prayer. In fact, many prayers cannot be said if there is not the minimum of ten men joining together for the service. (Many have been the times I have felt sad that my presence could not help some poor fellow to say Kaddish for a deceased loved one.) Many of the references in the service and in the prayer book are exclusively male. Any reference to females seems like an afterthought.
The difference between my view and Rivkah's is that I am not troubled by this, because I see the synagogue as a men's club. And even if women are successful in making an equal place for themselves in that club, I would be very unhappy if I were suddenly required to take on all of the mitzvot of men related to prayer and communal worship. It's hard enough to persuade my guys to participate! And I have found that my relationship with God is very private, and is easier for me to facilitate outside of the distracting milieu of the clubhouse.
A rabbi friend pointed out to me the importance of Jewish socialization offered by the synagogue. I would agree -- if what he is speaking about is the kiddush afterwards, or the classes during the week. After all, how much socializing are we supposed to be doing in the sanctuary? While the communal davening experience may enhance socialization among men, women's sense of community comes not from shared ritual, but from doing what is forbidden inside the sanctuary: talking with each other, sharing joy and pain and solutions, processing together.
When my sons were growing up, my shul experience consisted of taking them to the shul playground, communing with other mothers, and taking them inside for a few minutes so that they could get a feeling of the sanctuary -- and then spiriting them outside again before they could disrupt the prayer of others. As they developed, the time they spent inside the sanctuary with their father increased. At times, they were even mature enough to entertain themselves -- outside, of course -- so that their hungry-for-Torah-wisdom mother could listen to the rabbi's speech (my favorite part of the Shabbat shul experience). When they were teenangels, my main shul experience was sitting by one of the corner windows (my husband had another) to keep an eye on whether our boys could be seen leaving the shul grounds, and then going after them, if necessary.
Of course, there were moments when I connected in communal prayer. This usually had to do with being enveloped in the harmonic song of my kehilla. For me, there will never be another shul experience like Rabbi Menachem Goldberger's Simchat Torah. Listening to the Rav sing... listening to the kehilla join together in beautiful "on the same sheet of music" communal harmony... watching my boys dancing (in part for my benefit), nothing -- until the Simchat Beit Hashoeva at the Holy Temple (bimhera v'yameinu!) -- will equal that experience. But even then, I heard that women who did not have sons to watch felt disconnected from the experience, and I sympathized with them. Had I been single, had I only or any daughters, my shul needs and experiences might have been different.
Now I send my young men and husband out the door, as I have done daily for many years, with the words, "Daven well. Bring Mashiach." I mean these words. I truly believe that their participation in the communal process keeps them directed and centered. I am slightly sad on those occasions when they opt out. And if I were required to be there, if my presence counted in the quorum, I would force myself to go, because I think it's that important. (Lest you think that I only say this because I don't have the burden, for a lengthy period of time in Baltimore, I got up to attend the 6:30 AM minyan in order to show my sons that it could be done -- and yes, a little mother-guilt can be an effective teaching tool. But because I was usually the only woman in the little ezrat nashim in the upstairs sanctuary -- we didn't use the main sanctuary for the weekday morning prayers -- I was never distracted by chatter during the service. So it was a pleasure to be there.)
The rabbis have said that I am naturally connected to God, without the need for all of the rituals men require. Rather than seeing this as patronizing, I choose to believe them.
I truly look forward -- with my dear friend Rivkah -- to that polite discussion on the subject.