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Essay Non-fiction

My Orthodox Jewish Life

Recently, sitting through Shabbat synagogue prayers, I noticed – really noticed for the first time in a while – the patterned partition designed to separate men and women in public prayer. This partition, known in Hebrew as a mechitzah, was comparatively modest in scope. Carved wooden lines formed delicate patterns that stretched out between ample doses of nothingness through which the women held behind were able to see into the main sanctuary, or as is often called by women, the men’s section. Through this prism of decorative shapes, I watched the services and realised that the men sitting across from me had no experience of communal prayer through a lens of obstacles and decoration. Their vision was always unimpeded.

Globally, there remain many synagogues where women are sectioned off in a way that substantially obscures their view of the main sanctuary. Quite often the structures of separation are dense enough that they also reduce the ability of female congregants to hear services. This level of religious stringency goes far beyond the requirement ofhalacha, of Jewish law, but is usually explained as being driven by standards of modesty – a preventative measure that stops men from looking at women during services. I wonder why the rabbis don’t simply ask the men to keep their eyes lowered, so the women can continue to watch the services unimpeded.

I think about Asenath Barzani, who lived from 1590 to 1670 and was the first woman to hold a rabbinical title. The only child of an influential Kurdish Torah scholar, despite her sex, Asenath was raised in Torah learning, eventually taking over her father’s role as chief Torah teacher in Kurdistan. What was Asenath’s view of this issue, I wonder. Did she, the first woman to head a yeshiva, also follow communal prayers through a tapestry of obstacles much like the minimal one of my experience? Or was she required to remain behind thick curtains because of the possibility of immodest glances from men?

In Judaism, prayer is both private and public. Ten Jewish males above the age of bar mitzva must be in attendance to create the quorum required to perform Jewish communal prayer services. This quorum is known as a minyan. Women cannot be counted in a minyan and they are not subject to the time-bound obligations for prayer that are imposed on men. Most commentaries explain that women’s greater domestic and familial responsibilities prevent them from being able to meet such obligations.

Across the spectrum of Orthodox congregations, women’s attendance at synagogue services can vary. Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities tend to encourage the presence of women, while the attitudes in Ultra-Orthodox communities can range from encouragement, to near-indifference or deterrence.

I am a regular attendee of Shabbat or festival services. In addition to the social benefits of communal gathering, I join these synagogue services out of a desire to maintain connection with my community but also for my daughter to be familiar with, and to have an understanding of, synagogue practices. But there are also metaphysical elements; communal prayer has provided me with moments of elevated spiritual experience. In particular, reciting the silent Amidah – the core prayer of Jewish spiritual practice – alongside tens or hundreds of my community can be incredibly meaningful and there have been many times that I have left services feeling spiritually enriched and blessed.

However, synagogue services are not just about communal gathering or united prayer, they are also choreographed events that require participation from congregants. In Orthodox Judaism, this participation, whether it be leading prayers or reading the Torah, is the domain of men. Women experience services from the other side of a mechitzah, or the distance of a gallery. While there are many women who are contented with this practice, gaining ample spiritual fulfilment from traditional arrangements, there are those for whom a passive relationship with the services can create a feeling of disconnect. It is not uncommon for women, who are otherwise happy with their Jewish lives, to stay home rather than attend synagogue services because neither their presence nor their absence has an impact on proceedings.

The question of why men and women have different options and responsibilities in Jewish life and practice is popularly explained as, ‘men and women are equal but different’. Irrespective of whether one accepts that there is enough similarity between all men – spiritually and emotionally as well as physically – to consider them uniformly alike and equally different from women, there are still many who believe that the lot of Orthodox men is a far more ‘equal’ than women.

In the past century, there has been a tremendous increase in the acceptance – and even encouragement – of Torah education for Orthodox girls. The establishment of the Bais Yaakov schooling system for strictly Orthodox Jewish girls in the United States in the early 20th century was largely motivated by a rabbinical acknowledgement that secularly-educated women were leaving observant Jewish life. The rabbis recognised that the best way to ensure educated women maintained their connection to a religiously committed existence was through greater exposure to Torah and rabbinical texts. While there are still people in the broader Orthodox community who believe that women are not capable of learning Torah or should not be allowed unfettered access to Jewish texts, there is now general acceptance that girls can and should be educated in this way. This decision gave observant Jewish girls and women an opportunity to learn the texts that shape their daily rituals and beliefs; their engagement was strengthened through doing and knowing.

Throughout the ages there have been women involved in Torah learning and teaching, but, for the most part, these women have been exceptions rather than the rule. One towering example lived almost two millennia ago. A sage of the Talmud, Bruriah was the daughter of a revered rabbinical martyr, Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradion and wife of the Tanna (1), Rabbi Meir. Bruriah however was also acknowledged, in her own right, as a great scholar of Jewish law and lore.

There are a range of stories associated with Bruriah, many of which emerged from commentaries written long after her lifetime. My favourite legend involves her admonishment of Rabbi Jose the Galilean for speaking too freely when asking her for directions. Instead of asking, as he did: “By which direction do we go to Lod?” she suggested it would have been more judicious to say: “Which way to Lod?”. Her remarks are explained as a reference to a passage in the canonical ethical text, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) which says:

Yose ben Yochanan, man of Jerusalem, says, “May your home be open wide, may the poor be members of your household and do not increase conversation with the woman.” They so stated with his wife; all the more so with the wife of his friend. From this, the sages said, “Any time that a man increases conversation with the woman, he causes evil to himself and neglects the words of Torah; and, in his end, he inherits Geihinam2.” (Pirkei Avot 1:5)

Many scholars have sought to reinterpret this passage, trying to make it more palatable, but for me it is clear: Yose ben Yochanan thinks Jewish men, perhaps for reasons of modesty or morality, should not have extended conversations with women and the sages, supporting this sentiment, warn of purgatorial consequences to such actions – the inheritance of Geihinam (2). While modern-day women like myself may express indignation at the idea that women should be excluded from conversation with men, we can take comfort from the historical distance that exists between us and the sages. However, for Bruriah, these rabbis were her contemporaries. Is it any wonder that a scholar of her stature might experience frustration, to say the least, at such a passage, written and codified by her peers? I can only admire the dignity of her response under these circumstances. Her irritation resonates to us through the ages, while her caustic witticism reminds us that for our objections to be remembered, it is wise to be clever about how they are framed.

My Orthodox Jewish life changed at Purim last year when I attended a women’s-only reading of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. I remember stepping inside the synagogue, leaving behind a vibrant blue sky and following the other women into the quietness of the main sanctuary. It felt awkward at first, as if we were trespassing; then came the guilty pleasure of sliding into one of the front benches – not behind a mechitzah, but beside the bima (3) from which the reading was conducted. The experience was profoundly moving, I was sitting inside the sanctuary, following theMegillah, read by voices which sounded like my own. In that instant, my synagogue practice altered forever.

Within a few months I became involved with monthly women’s Shabbat Mincha services, an Orthodox service for women run in accordance with halachic principles. I am far from alone in finding these women’s services meaningful. To partake in a service where the prayers are led by women, the Torah is read by women and women are called up to the Torah, can be tremendously poignant when you have only ever known a more spectator-like synagogue experience. For me, and for others, that sense of belonging, of inclusion, of relevance – and of learning – has been profoundly impactful.

Women’s involvement in Orthodox communal practice and prayer continues to encounter suspicion. For many people it threatens change to a tradition they have always known; there is discomfort in having the familiar altered, and there is fear that change will lead to the dismantling of a tradition. With discomfort and fear comes reaction. There are people who ask what it is that drives a woman to seek greater engagement in her Jewish life beyond that which had been allocated to her? What is her kavanah, her intention? Is it because she is a feminist, they ask? Is it because she wants to be like a man? Why does she not try to meet all her existing obligations, before seeking to take on those that have traditionally been the province of men?

Human behaviour is rich and complex, motivated by multiple drives and external factors. None of us has pure kavanot in anything we do. But while it is common for women to have their motivation questioned, it is rare that the same scrutiny is applied to men. How often, for example, is a man asked his kavanot in his daily ritual and practice? Is he asked whether he is praying with enough focus and purity of thought? Has he demonstrated that his synagogue participation is guided by proper motives? How many existing obligations he has fulfilled before seeking to take on more?

If something enlivens a person’s connection to God and to their Jewish life, and in the case of Orthodox practice, it does not conflict with halacha, then why would it not be encouraged? If there are Orthodox women who feel greater connection to their spiritual tradition as a result of increased participation, surely that is a good thing?

In Orthodox Judaism, women are a front-line issue. In the tussle for centre-ground between the parts of the Orthodox world engaged with modern life and those who cling to the past, the area of Jewish life that is often surrendered as a compromise by more modern communal leaders is the lot of women. What is lost by rabbis who wish to demonstrate their religious rigour and piety to their stricter colleagues by taking a more strident position in relation to the roles, responsibilities and opportunities afforded to women? It is easier to flex one’s religious muscles when one’s own prospects are not at stake.

I think of Rayna Batya Berlin who lived in Lithuania in the 19th century. Descending from a long line of renowned rabbis, she married Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin, the Neziv, who rose to prominence as the head of the pioneering Lithuanian yeshiva founded by Rayna Batya’s grandfather. Like other women in her family, she was said to have been, by the standards of her time, unusually learned in Jewish texts. However, she was also known as a woman who despaired of the limits imposed on her gender by halacha and contemporary custom; in particular, the prohibition at the time against studying Torah. After years of chafing against the status quo, her loyalty to her spiritual tradition overrode her anguished quest for equal status with men, including the right to learn Torah. Her nephew, Rabbi Barukh Ha-Levi Epstein, recounted Rania’s eventual unhappy acceptance of her lot in his autobiographical work, Mekor Barukh:

Afterwards, she turned to me and said, ‘Just as everything has an end and limit, so let there come an end and limit to this painful matter’. From that time on, never again spoke on this subject. (Bacon, Brenda)

For me, the pathos in Rayna Batya’s struggle for spiritual recognition and emancipation is deeply moving, especially as, in that moment of history, her aspirations were so hopelessly beyond reach. I wonder how she would have greeted the news that some fifty years after her death the prohibition against women learning Torah would be lifted by rabbis in America? Would it have gladdened her heart? Would the bitterness have outweighed the sweetness?

Rayna Batya was asking for more than the ability to study Torah; she wanted complete equality with men in Jewish life and Orthodox practice. The equality she demanded 150 years ago was too much for her time and too much for ours. But as we have seen, the borders of Orthodox Judaism can move, attitudes can shift.

A century ago education for Jewish girls underwent radical change. Orthodox life survived – even prospered – as the mainstream position on this issue shuffled and resettled. Let us apply the same pragmatic wisdom from that time and acknowledge that some women today – although, of course, not all – crave greater participation in Jewish practice. They are not seeking to become men but are asking for greater inclusion in their spiritual inheritance – a metaphorical lightening of the mechitzah, so to speak. Halacha provides options for women to partake in religious practice if they wish, affording opportunity for fulfilment, growth and a great deal of learning. In an age when Jewish women are more educated, financially independent and existentially confident than ever before; where equality of opportunity for men and women in secular life is vastly different from that which is available in our religious tradition, it seems only prudent to act to reinforce women’s connection to their spiritual heritage. As we look towards the future, Orthodox Jews from across the spectrum share a desire for a strong and vibrant Jewish continuum.

Already, there is some movement in this direction in other parts of the world. In Israel and America, in particular, there are Orthodox communities redefining female participation in Jewish life and practice. But they are the vanguard. It is my hope that as these pioneers forge ahead – sensitively and halachically, as they have been – that the rest of the Orthodox world will see that this small revolution does not dismantle our tradition, but instead serves to strengthen our future.

It is my view, that one way to promote this future is by opening ourselves up to halachically permitted possibilities that allow greater engagement for our daughters as well as our sons.

Footnotes

1 Tanna/Tannaim: Rabbinic sages well versed in the Oral Law, recorded in the Mishnah. The period of the Tannaim, lasted approx. 210 years (10-220 C.E.) http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14240-tannaim-and-amoraim

2 Geihinam: Jewish purgatorial concept. The average person may descend for an interim period to a place of punishment and/or purification prior to ascending to heaven. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/heaven-and-hell-in-jewish-tradition/

3 Bima: The platform in a synagogue holding the reading table used when chanting or reading portions of the Torah and the Prophets. The focus of the service. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/bima

References

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, 1:5
Translation provided by Sefaria (Viewed on August 5, 2018) https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.1.5?lang=bi

Bacon, Brenda ‘Rayna Batya Berlin’,

https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Berlin-Rayna-Batya

Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1page6image21053632

March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on August 5, 2018)page6image21067456

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