Sunday, December 21, 2014

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

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?

There's more.

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.


9 comments:

Batya Medad said...

I do enjoy shul much more since I now have a front row seat and can see and feel connected to what's happening downstairs. And I don't want to be halachikly obligated to all that men are supposed to do. Isn't life full enough? Mine is. In my shul I can sing loudly, and nobody seems to hear me in This World.
Ruti's well prepared for this, considering that she describes her profession as "raising a crop of boys."

Tamar said...

ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם -- learning Torah, teaching Torah. (in response to what may be the most potent route for many Jews -- male or female, and definitely mine -- to connect with the Divine)

Ruti Mizrachi said...

Brava, dear Rivkah! I look forward to hearing the conversation -- a real meat&potatoes women's conversation -- on the topic you have opened for discussion.

As Batya points out, my "thing" -- given to me by God -- is to raise "crops of boys." I have sent them out the door with the words "Daven well; bring Mashiach!" for decades... and then happily enjoyed the testosterone-free spiritual sanctuary of my own home, where I can converse joyfully (or sadly, or argumentatively, or spiritually) with God, at my own pace, partly in my own words.

We each bring the Geula in her or his own way. I'm so very contented with mine. May each woman find her path to spiritual self expression, individually and as part of the Jewish people.

Anonymous said...

Have you attended Orthodox shuls that truly embody "separate but equal," like Kehilat Yedidya in Baka? an open room, full of light, mechitza exactly down the center. Women say kaddish and are answered. Women can carry the Torah on the women's side but it's not a partnership minyan like Shira Chadasha. All divrei Torah are given from the front of the room, equally visible from both sides.

Simchat Torah there is just divine. Women don't have to read Torah or get aliyot if they don't want to, but can definitely dance and sing with several sifrei Torah.

I also can't go to most shuls because I leave feeling angry instead of spiritual. However, good shuls DO exist! It's up to us to make them more a norm and less an exception...

Hatzlacha :)

Anonymous said...

This makes me sad. I feel so unwanted by judaism and can't find a way to get past that. Although I do enjoy the partnership minyanim, they just aren't anywhere near where I live.

Unknown said...

I invest my feminine spiritual energies in compassionate outreach to cholim. Females are more oriented to doing H' will, and Av HaRakhamim is one of Her/His names. So, I do what I can to open public awareness to healing and coping possibilities. I even use the Spiritual Healing techniques for which I'm certified. They tend to excite people to the possibilities of being receptive to H's help.

Yocheved Golani said...

That's my comment about helping cholim, above. I apologize that my name & photo did not appear. I must have pressed the wrong click.

Baila said...

Loved this article, Rivkah. I hate to admit this, but when I go to shul, I don't go for the spirituality of it, but for the camaraderie. Is it awful that I go to see my friends--to get and give support? I try not to talk because I am aware that that disturbs others, but being there together and then hanging out afterwards is always a joy for me. I also go to support my husband, who of late has become active and sometimes makes announcements or the like.

Another thing I do: I say Bircat HaShachar every morning, and when it comes to the bracha "sheh-asahni kirtzono", I always add "sheh-asani isha". It takes away a teeny bit of the sting of the male bracha, "sheh lo asahni isha". A teeny bit.

Ye'he Sh'mey Raba Mevorach said...

The "women's" mitzvot do a lot for me. I spend a long time talking to G-d after I light Shabbat candles. When I take challah, that's an opportunity too. I try to create it when I can. I try to be 'in tune" with Hashem at all time, and try to be perpetually grateful. As I get older I go to Mikvah far less than I used to (b'H) but this, too, is an opportunity to connect. Heck, Modah Ani in the morning starts my day connected.
And Ruti taught/reminded me (of) the tremendous power of "shehakol nihiye bidvaro." Finally, I try to push down my ego and accept that I'm just a simple servant, just as our matriarchs were. We serve Hashem, and whatever I'm going through I try to react in the way that seems to me to most give Hashem nachat ruach.
Love you, darlin'.