The Person Behind The Posts

Friday, December 26, 2014

Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 2

This is the next installment of a blogging experiment. My delightful friend for decades and fellow blogger Ruti Eastman and I are having a blog-based conversation about how, in the absence of many of the rituals and accoutrements that accompany Jewish men through their lives, Torah observant Jewish women express ourselves spiritually .

In my first installment, I wrote about being finished with shul and, to a large degree, with formal prayers in the siddur that were written with the assumption that the person praying is male. I asked for women to share how "we, as Jewish women, nurture our souls... 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."

The most common reactions I got were from women who suggested that maybe I'll be happier praying exclusively with women, or finding a partnership minyan or just concentrating on Hashem and not thinking about the limitations of the ezrat nashim while I'm in shul.

I feel unheard.

Whenever I write about these issues, I hear from people who react, in predictable ways, to the questions Jewish women like me raise about our tradition. People sniff anything that smacks of feminism and jump in with their reactions to the issue of the role of women in Judaism. I've been having those conversations since 1988.

It's old ground. I'm don't mean to sound hostile. I am genuinely tired of people counseling me about how to fit in better with normative Judaism.

Normative Torah observant Judaism is broken when it comes to Jewish women. It's skewed so heavily toward the masculine that the feminine has trouble being recognized, let alone valued.

What I want now is a new conversation.

To be completely fair, we did get two responses on point.

One woman told us her spiritual energies are deeply connected to learning and teaching Torah. Another said that she concentrates on "compassionate outreach to cholim" and Spiritual Healing. 
That's what we're looking for here. How do we recognize the spiritual acts of Jewish women?

I know there are women who have it. Women who are surrounded by their own flavor of holiness. Who are completely content in their relationship with God, who have no need for shul, for daf yomi shiurim, for the whole male package.

But their voices are whispers.

Ruti and I are on a mission to locate, capture and amplify those voices. We want to empower Jewish women - converts, ba'alot teshuva, FFBs  as well as the not yet religious - with a positive articulation of the spiritual lives of Torah observant Jewish women.

Ruti recently sent me an essay by Rabbi Aron Moss of Sydney Australia in which he says, "Men have stronger bodies, women have stronger souls." He also writes, "Women are more soulful than men. While men may excel in physical prowess, women are far ahead when it comes to spiritual strength. Women are more sensitive to matters of the soul, more receptive to ideas of faith, more drawn to the divine than men. The feminine soul has an openness to the abstract and a grasp of the intangible that a male soul can only yearn for."

Very poetically expressed, Rabbi Moss. But it doesn't answer the question.

What do Jewish women DO to express all that spiritual power that rabbis tell us we have? How do the souls of Jewish women manifest in the world? How do we name, so that we can recognize, when a Jewish woman is engaged in a spiritual act? Further, there is tremendous valuing of the rituals of Jewish men. How do we create a culture where Jewish women's spiritual lives are clearly identified and also valued? What does it look like, sound like, feel like when a Jewish woman is expressing herself in the spiritual realm?

This is our quest.


Susann Codish said...

I'll start with my general take on Orthodox Judaism. Jewish tradition and culture developed in a broader context of male/masculine entitlement. It is going to take a very long time to chip away at this in a world that no longer has much need for physical superiority (brawn is not rewarded in the current economy nearly so much as brains); in fact, it is not coincidental that the industrial age coincides with changing gender roles.
As a result of such thinking, I have both come to a much more egalitarian view of Judaism in general. That will probably not satisfy you. For, whereas I take a more sociological/anthropological view and it does come at the expense of Orthodox 'halakha,' I gather that that for you that's not the answer as it remains important for you to label yourself and your community as Orthodox.
That said, within the Orthodox setting I felt exactly the same way as you do for a very long time. In my own blessings and prayers, I freely interpolate the 'imahot' with the 'avot,' say 'she'asani yisrael' and 'hamekhin mitzadei adam,' and make changes that enable me to use the outline of the 'siddur' without seething with resentment. But I think that the base of your assumption may be flawed. Do you really think that *men* are so fulfilled by synagogue ritual and the 'mitzot aseh shehazeman grama' that they can feel His presence in those aspects of their lives? I would bet heavily that those who do are in the minority of Orthodox men. If you offered men the choice between 'bikur holim' and 'davening' - wouldn't most choose the former? I used to love 'shul' - I loved the 'pesukei dezimra,' I loved hearing the Torah reading - but I had to switch to another 'minyan' because the *men* were so disruptive. It was hard to identify anyone who actually wanted to be there. They were there because they felt they had to, not because it was fulfilling in any way.
As for Rabbi Moss's musings on strong bodies versus strong souls: that smacks to me of apologetics. His is yet another assertion lacking empirical data and clear definitions. "Soul" and "soulful," "spiritual," "openness to abstract".... - it's lots of words saying *absolutely nothing*. The Jewish tradition has this dual attitude to women: as more 'gashmi' - we're lumped with children, the deaf & dumb, the 'eved ivri,' etc., and more 'ruhani' as is R. Moss's tack - in my opinion invented because men were/are afraid of female sexuality. I believe that these categories were attempts to explain why, historically, the lives of men and woman as Jews have been so very different.
Personally, I assume that spirituality - whatever it means - varies wildly from person to person and has nothing to do with biological sex. (In my own family, I would say the men are the bigger romantics while the women much more pragmatic and goal-oriented. How does that fit into R. Moss's paradigm?) And what does "physically strong but spiritually weak" have to do with waving around a 'lulav' and 'etrog' or putting on 'tefillin' or wearing 'tzitzit'?
I'm not sure that any of what I've written above answers any of your concerns. But I think my conclusion will: in the end, the core 'mitzvot' of Judaism are the same regardless of sex. We supposed to keep Shabbat, eat kosher, treat other people with respect and integrity, not spread lies and rumors and gossip, not be wasteful, not be envious - I can recite 30 more without thinking too hard. Let's not allow sociological and anthropological factors outside our control affect our peace of mind and our joy in spreading love of 'mitzvot.'

Unknown said...

I am nervous about posting this comment, but here goes. Rivkah, feel free to approve or not.
Not an answer, just some thoughts.

First, a question: What do YOU think you can do that will make you feel more fulfilled? Not a whole framework, just one thing.

"Normative" Orthodox Judaism appears very different in different generations. For one isolated example, I believe (can't provide the source, though) that in Jewish History there were accepted and acceptable ways to avoid the problem of the Agunah. On the other hand, during that time it was probably unheard of for a woman to eat in a Sukkah. But all the evolution happens within the framework of Halacha. We have been around for thousands of years while other civilizations disappear because that's part of God's plan, but also because we haven't strayed very far from basic Halacha. There are things I do because I am obligated to do them, even if they don't provide me with personal satisfaction and positive energy because it's part of the package. I don't have to like it, but I do have to do it. And even though it is awful when a generation doesn't use Halacha properly to its fullest, as in the case of agunah, I am hopeful that discussions like these within the frame of Halacha will make it better in my daughter's and granddaughter's generation.

Then there are the things I do that I am obligated to do into which I infuse the spiritual energy (for me, it's head covering) (Infuse being an active verb, rather than passively waiting for the spiritual energy to somehow just come to me).
So, the problem of the synagogue not providing the answer is an easy one for women. Not an obligation. Don't go. Perhaps there is a reason it isn’t an obligation. And replace it with something that means something to YOU. But that thing is not necessarily going to mean something to everybody. There is a reason why women’s spiritual needs have been “whispers”. Part of it is that one-size-fits-all might work for men but doesn’t work for women.
For example, I think Rosh Chodesh women's drum activities are beautiful, probably very meaningful to the participants, and probably fills some spiritual need in them. Rosh Chodesh can “belong” to women. Spiritual activities surrounding Rosh Chodesh could become a groundswell. It just so happens not to be a draw for me. And it won't ever be universal because it isn't obligatory.

I once asked my Rav, who is a historian, if there was ever a time in Jewish History that we did all the things we were supposed to do. His response was that there was probably a five minute time period at some point...My own personal perspective is that Jewish History is like a sine wave. Sometimes we are on the top of the curve and sometimes on the bottom, or headed downhill or uphill. Despite the feeling that some have that this is an awesome generation, my feeling is that we are pretty close to the bottom of the sine wave, but hopefully looking at the uphill climb. Achad Ha'am was not wrong when he said "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews" Substitute "Torah" for "Sabbath".

WHATEVER we come up with now to soothe our aching spirits, we must, whether we like it or not, if we want to be part of the chain that continues and not fall by the wayside, as has happened to so many in Jewish History who had good intentions, work WITHIN Halacha because it is ultimately not about how fulfilled *we* are as individuals.

Leah said...

Rivka, while I don't identify with your sentiments about prayer and shul, I do see your point that it is easy for women to feel excluded from the community aspect of Judaism.

I applaud your choice to focus on the positive instead of feeling angry. For me my personal connection with God is based on the netivot shalom's teaching about Tikkun and yeud. Every soul is a single time creation with a unique mission to pay in the world, which makes us feel energized and vital and on the flip side a core imperfection to cultivate and improve upon throughout our lifetime. I am deeply connected to what I identify as my yeud - giving people the awareness and the tools to do theirs. I have built my entire business on this premise. Every time I talk to a client I feel it is part of my avodat hashem.

Each person has this mission, a way to make God's world a better place. Bekol drachecha daehu.

The other side of this equation is working on bettering my character and bringing more awareness of God into whatever happens in my routine.

Thank you once again for starting this conversation

Tamar said...

Part of the problem is claiming that the daf yomi shiur is part of the "male package."

Ruchel said...

What beautiful ideas have flowed from the hands of Jewish women. Kol ha kavod.
I grew up in an Orthodox shul. The women could see and hear everything. They sang and danced when appriopiate. I loved it. I did not know what was going on at the time. As a child I would doven what I could and then go downstairs to help the ladies prepare for the kiddush. When the rabbi spoke, most people went out. No one would think of walking in during his talk.
I felt spiritual as long as I can recall. I had some negative and sad experiences with some people who did not understand my background and was off the path for about 15 years. After grad school in Atlanta Georgia. A new wave of spiritualality hit me. something was so missing from my life. It was Hashem. I came back to being observant at age 30. Was in shul having a spiritual experience, I was shaking, got cold and I knew, I was in the right place. Now 30 odd years later. I follow Rabbi Brody's words of emunah and do my best to share those with anyone I can. I suggest the books. I am glad Hashem made me the way I am. I still like shul where I can see and hear it all. Yet being there closing my eyes during the Mussuf I feel like Hashem is taking me away for few minutes. As a psychotherapist, with many years helping people grow. I open doors to the soul with spirituality and emuna, those who are able to benefit from this seem to make changes with more ease.
Love Yourself, and the beauty we have. Sure I have seen girls wearing kippot, tallis, they need to feel something material to get in touch with Hashem. Go for it, if it helps, Then when you have it within YOU, you can let go of the material and feel your heart fly. Blessings & Joy Ruchel, Israel

Rahel Jaskow said...

Rivkah -- as one who is observant by choice for more than 25 years, I have come to feel that what we know as normative Judaism is broken entirely, not only when it comes to issues of women in Judaism.

Rahel Jaskow said...

I posted the following thoughts on Ruti's thread about your first blog post on this topic.

I think it's important to recognize that Jewish women have more choices available to them than before (as in general society too) and that this is an entirely appropriate and good development. What is the feminist movement, in its purest sense, about? Choice. A woman has the right to choose how she will live her life without undue restrictions imposed on her. So it is in Judaism. Halakha and custom are not static and have never been. A woman who worships on her own or in a balcony is not "more than" one who worships in a women's tefilla group or partnership minyan or wears tallit and tefillin.

The most arrogant headline I ever saw came from the Jewish Observer in 1986 or so. The article was against women's tefilla groups, and the headline read: "When women's prayer is accepted, and when it is rejected." As if they were God. They were no better than Eli of Shilo.

The anti-suffrage campaign a century ago was vicious. The caricatures against suffragists can be seen on the Net, and they speak for themselves. I find much the same thing regarding women in Judaism: women who accept the traditional situation are portrayed as good and pure, while women who do things differently have everything about them called into question and derided: their piety, their character, their sexuality and their very personhood. The issue of women and communal prayer is only one symptom of a much larger problem, and the many scandals we have been seeing in recent decades are proof of that, in my opinion. It is all very well to let the men bond in shul. But when the power is in men's hands only, and when religion is given as the reason for keeping women from sharing in that power, we get corruption and greed for the inappropriate use of that power. We get Eli's sons, who molested women at the sanctuary in Shiloh. We get rabbis sexually assaulting vulnerable women who come to them for help. We get coverups of abusive situations that are allowed to go on for decades. And yes, we get cameras in the mikveh.

Hannah, it is said, taught us how to pray. What we are not told is that she also taught us how to respond to bad leadership. See Berakhot 31b. Lo adoni. A leader who automatically suspects women of impure motives is likely impure himself, or the environment where he leads is impure (see Eli's sons -- and I call BS on the later softening, or perhaps censoring, of the story; the text says specifically and explicitly that they molested the women who came to the sanctuary). So: restrict me, cast aspersions on my motives, and I will respond with Lo adoni. You are no leader of mine and I owe you no obedience.

rutimizrachi said...

Fascinating thoughts!

Yocheved Golani said...

I find great comfort and insight in hitbodedut and in hitbonenut. Time alone with HaShem and in-depth focus on the whispers of heavenly messages can be group activities, too. When I graduated my spiritual healing courses with Ilan and Sandy Feldman, I'd experienced the startling power of group meditations. Each participant accurately intuited thoughts on the minds of specific participants, and contributed to developing solutions for various issues. Perhaps you can delve into this, too, Rivkah and Ruti.

Hannah Blachman said...

I really love going to shul.

Chanah said...

Rivka, I relate to what you express and have read your frustrations expressed previously on this subject.

The main thought is that I don't think today's Orthodox Judaism really satisfies anyone, man or woman. I've heard men say they don't know what they're praying, that the Hebrew doesn't mean anything to them, and basically, the davening is just reading sounds. And some of these should understand Hebrew. A few men have said they got to shul because they have to and want a fast service so they can finish quickly. A relative from the US wrote that he was participating in a boycott of shul until the talking by the men during prayer stops, He attends a Chabad shul. The boycott was not just a local thing.

Personally I think that music is a very powerful way to reach the soul, and tragically, music through instruments is not allowed on Shabbat. Yet it seems strange that we should experience our spiritual high on normal days when we can listen to spiritually touching music, even from recordings. Though I understand the basis for this law, it seems we Jews have shot ourselves in the foot and doomed our souls to dry worship on the very day we seek to get closest to Hashem. So for me, I stay home from shul and do my own prayer, and some hitbodedut. Shabbat is still a very spiritual day, imbued with its own power without shul. Eating with friends still provides the community aspect and the chance to get into deep spiritual conversation. And in this context, men and women are usually treated as equals, so the outsider perspective is not a factor.

All in all, my spiritual highs were experienced back in the days of Reform congregations which broke all the laws, where nice songs were song in a an egalitarian crowd, accompanied by lots of percussion instruments. I have to admit, I really miss this.

rutimizrachi said...

I had a conversation with an elderly Moroccan friend. She surprised me with her take on women and Judaism. She said that being the "akeret habayit" is really the "ikar" -- that the Jewish woman's role is more important than the man's. While he is performing those public aspects of communal worship (and historically the lion's share of supporting the family, though this is changing in modern times), the woman is tasked with what my husband calls the "clutch and brake" of running the household. We're not talking about cooking and cleaning here, though these may also fall to her, if her husband (again, historically) is the primary breadwinner. My friend is referring to the Herculean balancing act of all of the personalities in and around the home: the children (and their disparate needs and personalities); the husband (which includes keeping peace between him and the world, between him and the children, between him and HIMSELF); the extended family; the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. She said, "My role is too full and too important for me to be troubled by the external jobs of a man. Who has the time? And who would want to exchange my delicate, precise workmanship for such large and uninteresting tasks?"

Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod said...

This post has been included in Haveil Havalim: The Vayechi Vantage. Stop by, check it out, pass it along!

marinag said...

Rivkah - you articulated my feelings exactly.

I think that this pain IS a part of our spiritual mission. The Shechinah / moon / Jewish people / Woman is in exile, and we are the embodiment of that in a way that most men can't comprehend. Being content with the status quo is the true exile because it shows that we don't even know that we are in golut. However, experiencing pain means that we are awake to our spiritual golut and are yearning for it to end. This is the first, and most difficult, step of geulah.

Yes, we should all look for ways to be spiritually fulfilled. But, let's not run away from this pain or try to sweep it under the rug. Instead, let's acknowledge that this too has profound spiritual significance and is an important part of our avodah.