Monday, December 22, 2014

Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 1a

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.)

Now I send them out the door, as I said, and I have wonderful testosterone-free time to focus on my ongoing conversation with God. I use the prayer book for a certain amount of structure -- how brilliant were our rabbis for lighting on relevant topics! -- and otherwise simply talk with God, as I have done since I rediscovered Him. He is my therapist when I am sad or angry (except when I am angry at Him, and then of course I need to speak with someone else); He is the One to Whom I can pour out not only my troubles, but my immense gratitude; He is the One Whom I expect to eventually repair all of the terrible ills of the world. I cannot imagine managing this conversation in the sanctuary, wherein there is the distracting hubbub of speed Hebrew, children demanding their mothers' attention, chatter among women who appear not to have opportunities to get together at other times.

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.


  1. Ruti, I am in your camp. I was taught that the men need those rituals and physical items (i.e .Torah scrolls etc. ) to connect in a greater way. They need the structure and kavode. Women have binah ; they don't. We have a spirituality built into us that we can access without the physical items beforementioned. I believe this in my kishkas, but, there are others, like Rivka who need to find other outlets for her needs. I suppose like a woman's Minyan (not a criticism at all) . I respect her desire and need for something else;I just don't have it at all.

  2. Ruti, like Sandra said, "I am in your camp" but with one or two toes in Rivkah's. I do not have as many years of growing up in shuls as the two of you, so my experiences are a little different. When my hubby was alive, and on the rare instances he was able to attend a service, I felt a tremendous sense of pride in him and of how far we had come in our journey. And if he got an aliyah I felt like most Jewish mothers (I assume), if their sons were called to Torah. Look how far we had come. The same thing happened when my oldest grandson became Bar Mitzvah, I could not stop crying for all the joy it brought. In all these examples, it was by THEIR experiences, not mine, that I lived vicariously and enjoyed a blessing. Well my hubby is no longer here, my grandchildren are grown and raising their own families, I rarely get a chance to kvell in shul on their behalf. So now, what am I left with? A large massive void! Not in my feelings toward G-d, nor in my spirituality. But something is missing!
    I attend shul now almost every Shabbat and like you, I feel like I am in the men's club.Women chitter away and if I really try very hard I can almost tune them out, but not very well. I come away mostly annoyed by the seemingly disrespect for the Holy. But I have finally realized why this might be so. For the VERY reasons you and Rivkah so carefully uttered. There is something greatly missing for the female experience, and our expression of devotion in our uniquely feminine needs. Do I want to be obligated in all the ways men are---no! But I am currently exploring what I can do to make my personal experience more meaningful. So I am on another journey and it looks like I have lots of company.

  3. I had the happy, and I now understand rare, experience of coming to my Judaism in a mostly Baalei Teshuva Modern Orthodox shul in the midwest. Our sanctuary was divided down the middle by a mechitza that was 3 feet of wood under 3 feet of clear plexiglass. The women on the left could look over at their husbands on the right. The Bimah and Ahron were in the front, in clear sight of all. Both men and women were officers on the board, and both filled all positions, including president. On Simchat Torah we danced in the gym, men's and women's sections divided by folding tables, for the ease of passing Torahs between the two sides. When the community davened it was entered into by all, it was wonderful. We all knew we were standing before HaShem together. Have not had anything like that since making Aliyah. I went to a High Holiday service last year where the women were afforded a tiny space at the back of the room behind the men (their backs were to us) with a ceiling high wood mechitza so we couldn't see anything at all. Why why why! I find myself angered when I enter a community where the little boys are dressed in shorts and short sleeve shirts, but little girls the same ages are covered neck to toes.. not matter that it's 98 degrees outside. I find myself angered that the man coming to my door to ask for charity won't even look at me. I rarely attend shul here in Israel. But I talk to HaShem all the time. My faith/relationship in HaShem isn't any different. But I am sad that the men who lead our faith are so lost in understanding what HaShem wants from all of us.

  4. I miss the secret handshake. Sometimes the Shul can be like a Moose Lodge. Men gather and talk about work, vacations, family and other stuff. Every now and then someone prays. Womens role in prayer and the community is a needed discussion. I think that many men need to look at why they go to the Moose Lodge. It is about connecting to G-d and less about weekday activities.

  5. Wonderfully written and I do so agree with you. I am quite comfortable in my role as a woman in Judaism and shul going (or not going). But I do believe there are some shuls where one can really have a true spiritual experience without all the noise and chit chat. (If I find one, I'll let you know, lol). The only thing I disagree with is when you said "(except when I am angry at Him, and then of course I need to speak with someone else);". I tend to tell Him how I feel, even if I'm angry at Him, although it rarely happens since I know I deserve whatever is coming to me. It's kind of a cleansing thing. Anyway, looking forward to Part 2a.

  6. I'm at the stage where I really have given up on shul. I'm not looking for a shul that's "better". I have no interest in a women's tefillah group. What Ruti and I are striving for in this conversation is a way to articulate what Jewish women do, separate from tefillah b'tzibor, to nurture, grow and strengthen ourselves spiritually. In other words, not including shul, what does Jewish women's spirituality look like?

    1. I don't think spirituality looks like anything. It's a personal feeling, a connection between us and Hashem. Daily hitbodedut, private prayer and looking for G-d in every aspect of my life is my way of getting closer to the Source. That is also what separates us from men as they need those davening requirements to force their spirituality. Woman encompass it by nature.

  7. Great conversation, ladies (and one gent)! I purposely did not get involved in the comments, because I want your thoughts to flow freely. Later, it will be more of a conversation, I hope. Now, onto Part 2a, as my dear friend Rivkah has provided us with Part 2: