What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
- Muriel Rukeyser
If you're a Jewish woman who is completely content with your place in the Jewish world, my words are not intended for you.
But if you are a Torah-observant Jewish woman and there is a restlessness in your soul, a sense that things are not as they should be in your Jewish life, I am speaking to you.
I have written many times about things in the Orthodox world that infuriate me as a Jewish woman - the tendency to use collective language when referring exclusively to Jewish men, excluding women entirely, the subconscious misogyny that has otherwise progressive men making decisions that negatively impact women, the absolute disrespect of women evidenced in the women's sections of many synagogues, feeling marginalized on Simchat Torah and more.
These are all things that needed to be said, so I said them. But I am tired of saying them. I am tired of being hurt by these things. It is wearisome to be angry for decades. My soul needs something positive to rest on.
I was so often offended by what I experienced in so many Orthodox shuls
over such a long period of time (e.g. having to enter through a small door
in the back instead of using the main doors, not being able to see when
the aron kodesh was open, not being able to kiss the Sefer Torah, not
being able to dance and sing without worrying that some man was going to
feel it was his right to silence me, not being able to hear the
davening, not being able to see the Sefer Torah when it was raised during hagbaha, being completely disregarded in the delivery of the drasha,
inferior seating, etc. etc.) that it became all but impossible for me to pray inside a shul.
It gradually dawned on me that I'd had enough trying to accommodate myself to a model of prayer that really didn't work for me. Since so much of my discontent comes from synagogue-related experiences, I stopped going to shul. I am no longer willing to participate in an institution where the secondary nature of my presence is communicated so powerfully. I am no longer willing to be a passive participant, an audience member, in someone else's prayer service.
You're a woman who loves going to shul? Kol HaKavod. I have no issue with your choice. It just wasn't working for me. And, for the most part, I've been content crossing shul attendance off my list of Jewish experiences. But I've had a nagging feeling, a residue, of guilt. Am I being a bad Jew if I don't want to go to shul?
I often resent the siddur. That's the truth. There are so many tefillot that were written with the assumption that the person praying is male, that it interferes with my desire to talk to God. In the morning, I am reminded of the importance of showing up to the Beit HaMidrash early. I pray in the merit of the Avot, the forefathers, but never in the merit of the spiritual power of the Imahot, the foremothers. The reference to brit mila in bentsching. Even the Shema, the central prayer of Jewish faith, references the gender-based mitzvot of tzitzit and tefillin. These are just a few examples.
I have a hard time transcending these recurrent reminders that I am not male. While trying mightily to speak to God in the language of the siddur, I find myself constantly needing to reorient my gender identification. I am perpetually alert, scanning the text, asking myself, "Am I going to have to step over my un-maleness to say the words of this prayer?"
A friend for decades and fellow blogger Ruti Eastman refers to the Orthodox shul as a Moose Lodge and the siddur as their manual. In so doing, Ruti intends no disrespect, nor is she minimizing the importance of the synagogue for men as a place of communal prayer. She's using humor to remind me that the Orthodox shul and the siddur are, really and truly, part of the masculine domain. Her humor helps me vanquish the last remnants of Jewish guilt I feel about the fact that shul and the siddur don't nourish my soul.
If I'm crossing shul and the siddur off my list of Jewish activities, what then is the substance of my Jewish spiritual life?
I have long maintained that we tend to confuse the masculine trappings of Jewish worship with Judaism itself. The tools of a Jewish man's observance, including tallis, tefillin, Sefer Torah, siddur, lulav & etrog, gemara, etc., are so concrete, it's easy to identify them as essentially Jewish. And they are. But only for a portion of the Jewish people.
I can understand the actions of the liberal Jewish traditions which have deputized women to be the liturgical equivalents of men. They saw an imbalance and, assuming that communal prayer was a central pillar for all Jews, made it possible for Jewish women to be included.
I get it.
But it's not my solution.
From the ancient words of Aishet Chayil to the controversy surrounding
partnership minyanim today, in the Orthodox world, our identities as Jewish women have, in large measure, been
publicly defined in contradistinction to Jewish men. We often say what Jewish women don't do, but we fail to emphasize what the spiritual life of an Orthodox Jewish woman actually looks like.
Jewish women are not simply Jewish men, plus or minus a few mitzvot. And whether she is ever a wife and/or a mother, the Jewish female exists as a soul in relationship with her Creator; she needs something more than a husband and children to define her spiritual life. As a community, we have failed at articulating, much less valuing, the range of possible spiritual paths for traditional Jewish women. Lacking much of the paraphernalia that defines Jewish men, the Jewish woman's pathway to God is often so subtle that it completely escapes our notice.
I want to help us notice. I want to write about the ways we, as Jewish women, nurture our souls. I want to write about what we actually do. How we invite the sacred into our lives. How we talk to God. How we live as spiritual beings without the accoutrements that surround Jewish men. How we experience the holy. What things we say, read, think, believe, study and touch that define our Jewish lives.
I want to hear from women for whom articulating the specifics of their spiritual path is effortless, and from women for whom articulating the specifics of their spiritual path is confronting. I can tell you what I do. But I want a follow-up essay to represent a broader spectrum of women's voices.
I invite you to comment below, or to email me at rivkah30 at yahoo dot com to share how you express your soul. With God's help, and with your input, I'll have more to say about distinctively feminine pathways to God.