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Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category

Every post I write is about something that happened a week or two before. This one (it’ll be brief) is about attending Shabbat services at Shira Hadashah, a self-proclaimed “Orthodox, feminist congregation in Jerusalem.” I had a great experience there–out of all the Orthodox services I have attended, it was by far the one I found to be most meaningful.

What makes Shira Hadashah special (in addition to the fact that so many people there seemed to have amazing voices) is the way that they incorporate women into the service. Women and men pray on separate sides of a mechitza, with the bima in the center of two equally sized prayer spaces–allowing both men and women access to the bima. Women lead “optional” parts of the service, like Kabbalat and Pesukei Dezimra, which are parts that Orthodox Judaism halachically permits them to lead. In addition, women say Kaddish, are called to the Torah, read Torah, and say Kiddush.

Shira Hadashah is not a place I’d want to pray every day–I want to pray in a place where women can lead everything, and are seen as having equal obligations as men. However, my views will never line up with those of Orthodox Judaism, and I don’t think that they need to–there’s room for many different strains of Judaism out there. Because of this, I very much appreciate and admire the way that Shira Hadashah blends peoples’ desires both to observe Orthodox Halacha and create a community based on principles of gender equality and inclusion. Praying at Shira Hadashah, I felt like I was surrounded by a group of thinking and caring people who are trying to create a Judaism that blends tradition with their modern values.

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A few months ago, I realized that I wanted to start wearing Tallit and Tefillin. Not because I had some grand change in ideology, but because I realized that doing so actually goes along with the ideology I’ve professed to have for quite some time.

I’ve always believed in egalitarianism, the idea that men and women should have the same obligations in regards to Judaism. However, until reading On the Ordination of Women as Rabbis by Rabbi Joel Roth, I hadn’t quite thought about the extent to which that belief should apply to everyday practice, including Mitzvot that are traditionally associated with only men. In his responsum, Rabbi Roth creates a justification for ordaining women as rabbis. In doing so, he discusses the fact that women are traditionally exempt from positive time-bound commandments, such as wearing Tallit (performed in the morning) because performing the Mitzvot would inhibit them from performing their duties at home. Roth brings up the idea that, for a woman who wishes for more to be expected of her than mothering, there could and should be another option: accepting full obligation of all Mitzvot upon herself, including positive time-bound ones. (His discussion of what this would entail and how it would affect people is quite long and nuanced, and worth a read.)

After reading his responsum, I realized that, in truth, I feel obligated to perform all Mitzvot–I see no reason why a male friend of mine should be obligated to perform Mitzvot that I am not. But with this realization came another one–that for years, I’ve been justifying my decision to not wear a Kippah, Tallit, or Tefillin with the word “comfort,” but that doing so is actually quite hypocritical of me. To put it simply: if I were a boy, I’d be wearing them, so why aren’t I?

And so, with that idea in mind, a few weeks ago I decided to try out a Tallit. At my school (or ex-school, as I’m about to graduate), we pray every morning, and so I asked one of our rabbis to teach me the blessing and how to put it on, and I wore it. I was immediately surprised at how comfortable it felt–wrapping myself up in the fabric made me feel warm and homey. It also just felt right–like I was differentiating between my day-to-day clothes and my prayer clothes and setting myself up to focus. That night my father took me to the local Judaica store in order to buy one of my own. We argued for a while about the color scheme, as I wanted to buy the plain blue, white, and silver Tallit that many boys wear at school, and he wanted me to buy a more feminine one. However, after both explaining my belief that if everyone’s obligated we can all wear the same type of Tallit and feeling the silky texture of a slightly more feminine but still simple white and blue Tallit, we settled on a beautiful Tallit that I have worn since that day.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to try Tefillin until yesterday thanks to many snow days and the end of school, but yesterday I woke up early, drove to school, came to Minyan, and was lucky enough to be taught by a peer how to put Tefillin on both my head and my arm. As a teacher had previously explained to me, they were very uncomfortable–they just felt weird. However, as he also explained, I found that weirdness to be very appealing–in his words, it had a kind of “shock effect.” Wearing the Tefillin on my head and my arm made me look and feel like I was not only praying, but like I was doing something overtly different from my normal life. Putting on and taking off Tefillin is somewhat laborious and time consuming–you can’t just immediately walk out into your normal life and move on like you can with a Tallit. I found that differentiation, that conscious effort, to be very powerful, and if I end up praying again on a daily basis (I’m graduating now), I’ll want to buy some and wear them (they’re pretty expensive.)

One of the best things about these two recent experiences was looking around the room and seeing both boys and girls wearing Tallit and Tefillin, comfortably (or uncomfortably, as the case may be) praying as a group. Instead of feeling different, I was one of them–obligated and fulfilling my obligation.

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Debbie Friedman died yesterday at age 59 after years of suffering from multiple sclerosis. For those of you who have not heard of her, she is a Jewish singer/songwriter, famous for writing Jewish folk/rock music that has become popular in many Conservative and Reform synagogues and schools. The above link is a really nice obituary, if you’re interested.

One thing that Debbie Friedman is famous for is her use of gender-sensitive language. In the song L’chi Lach she uses the female command “L’chi Lach” instead of “Lech Lecha,” the command that is found in the Torah, to show that Sarah was commanded to make the same journey that Abraham made.

It’s a beautiful song, I think–and one that is a welcome addition to the plethora of male-centered Judaica that we have today.

From “Not by Might” to her rendition of “Misheberach,” I’ve heard and learned so many of Debbie Friedman’s songs since I was a little girl: her music has been a huge presence in my repertoire of Jewish music. Although it’s a tragedy that she died at such a young age and after so much suffering, I know that her legacy will live on in the memories and voices of the Jewish community.

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Shanah Tovah

Only two days ago did it hit me that tonight is Rosh Hashanah. Besides the fact that it’s coming relatively early (secular calendar) this year, I’ve just been wrapped up in starting school and applying to college and just regular life that I had kind of forgotten about it. And now I want to rectify that, because I love Rosh Hashanah and so many of its strange but beautiful traditions, from enjoying apples, honey, and sweet challah in the hopes of a “sweet” year, to saying a blessing on fruit because they are the first fruit of a new year. I ‘ve always felt especially moved by Tashlich, the tradition when people symbolically “throw” their sins into a moving body of water as a way of getting rid of them–I find it a kind of comforting reminder that with a new year comes another chance to do things better.

One of the things I think makes Rosh Hashanah special is the strange effect it has over typically non-religious people: on the High Holidays, people who never go to synagogue flock to it. There’s something about the High Holidays that seems to give people a sense of urgency, a feeling that this time they should and can get it right. I liked the way that this article in Tablet describes it: just like on the secular new year, we are supposed to try to make ourselves better, but unlike on the secular new year, Rosh Hashanah is predictably cyclic–and that predictability makes people feel that while maybe they can’t lose 10 pounds by next year, hopefully by the next time they have to repent they’ll be a slightly better person. The emphasis on the life being cyclical reminds people that repentance too is a part of life–that very single year, people read the same text, spend two days painfully picking apart our sins, apologizing for sins that we, or the collective we, have committed, praising God, and that hopefully it will slowly turn us into better people. I think it’s important that Judaism emphasizes repentance as something expected and significant, because doing so makes people feel that there is always still a chance for them to be better, even if they haven’t been perfect before; to me, who somehow (maybe naively) believes that people really can shape who they are, it resonates.

And now a brief word about the role of women in Rosh Hashanah. Both the Torah and Haftorah readings for Rosh Hashanah are about barren women and God giving them children. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading starts with Sarah, who had been barren until a very old age, giving birth to Isaac after God “remembers” her and her prayers. The Haftorah reading is about Hannah, a barren woman who, after intense emotional prayer (she is many times held as a model of what personal prayer should consist of), is able to have a child; she goes on to name him Samuel, which means “God heard.” Both of these stories are supposed to represent the way that God listens to prayer, and because infertility was/is regarded as such a sad and painful experience for women, God ridding a woman of her infertility powerfully conveys the extent to which God can listen and remember all of us.

Finally, here is something that I personally have found to be meaningful over the high holidays: 10Q. The site has you reflect on and answer one of ten questions each day for the Ten Days of Repentance, and then stores them for you until next year when you are once again allowed to read your answers. I discovered it last year, and sometime last week I got an email with last year’s answers. Not only was I surprised and interested by how much my thoughts have changed over the course of a year, but reading my reflections from last year helped me to get into the spirit of reflection for this year. It’s not too late to register (it’s totally free) and answer the questions, and I’d highly recommend doing so.

Shanah Tovah–I hope the next ten days prove to be meaningful for all.

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I am standing on my side of the mechitza (divider that separates men and women to prevent distractions) at Yakar, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. This is my first Friday night service since my sister’s makeshift Bat Mitzvah one year ago. I stand with my prayer book, squinting at the foreign alphabet I can barely read and whose words I can never understand. I suddenly realize that although I might never know the meanings of these words, I can make out names I recognize, names whose stories I know.

There is singing and amidst the singing, fierce communal prayer. This is not an egalitarian synagogue. I knew that when I walked in and saw my friends disappear behind a white curtain and the rabbi follow suit. Yet this truly hits me when I look down at the page and the only names I recognize are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I grew up learning that their wives – Rachel, Rebecca, and Sarah – are equally important. I wanted to read more about them – the women who persuaded their husbands to change the face of Judaism, who gave birth to tribes responsible for my existence in red tents. I went to synagogues where, immediately after we chanted “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov,” we chanted “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah.” Yet miles away from home, I realize that these names are missing. The mothers are gone. How are there sons without mothers?

How could we forget Sarah, the woman who birthed a nation when she was told she was infertile, who lost all hope of getting pregnant, who wanted to be a mother so badly that when she finally gave birth to Isaac, she made certain she raised a son capable of continuing a religion?

And Rebecca? A woman who obeyed her father’s orders to marry up, to marry Isaac, and to give birth to Judaism’s first twins, she was strong-willed and pragmatic. She went to any length to make sure Judaism – the birthright of one of her sons – was put in the right hands when her husband died, tricking her husband on his deathbed. Why is her epic story not mentioned with the simple courtesy of a name?

As for Leah and Rachel, where are they? Where are the names of sisters who loved the same man, but who were able to realize that sisterhood is what matters above all else? They raised each other’s children and lived a life of pressure in polygamy, all the while known for their individual identities – Leah for being intelligent and having a good eye of judgment and Rachel for being staggeringly beautiful and too mature for her age.

It is crucial that we remember the matriarchs. Too often, they are left out and forgotten, their contributions to Judaism ignored while their husbands sneak in all the credit. To honor the matriarchs means we hear the whole story instead of half of it. We empower ourselves as women by honoring those that came before us.

These women must be remembered not exclusively in the context of men. We must remember them as women in their own right, women who possess identities beyond wifedom and motherhood, women with lives and stories of their own and with a perspective that just might differ from that of men. These four women are symbols for thousands more that live today. It is my job to hear their stories in Shabbat melodies so that I can live out my own.

That is why on a hot Jerusalem night I stand as the white cloth waves with the too short and unexpected breeze and I hear the Aleinu being read. And I hear my Orthodox friends sing “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov.” And I make a decision. I decide I will no longer be passive. I decide I will say the names of the mothers – metaphorical or not – that made it possible for me to stand here in the first place. As the congregation moves onto the next verse, I whisper with triumph, “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah,” the names of my metaphorical mothers.

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This is cross-posted at JWA.

I walk into what is undoubtedly the most beautiful house on campus. Its simplicity allows for the exuberance of the people within it to shine. The rabbi opens the door, a young father of twins, all smiles and joking about having to convince me to attend the university even though my mind was already made up. I follow my friend Tobah, a Conservative Jew who has yet to skip a week of coming to the multi-denominational Havurah, into the living-room-turned-synagogue. We squeeze onto a couch with a sisterhood of freshmen and sophomores who make up the majority of the Kabbalat Shabbat crowd.

The singing begins immediately and I can hear the feminine voices of women who will become my peers high above the few tenors in the room. I notice that the prayer book was published by the university’s Havurah itself, the liturgy and the interpretation unique to the school’s liberal arts academic philosophy. There is a feminist Amidah, as well as stories for each of the matriarchs that accompany those of the patriarchs. This book takes away all the excuses I have used to not pray. As the service continues, I realize that it could not be any other way.

Read the rest here.

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The Women of the Wall were (you guessed it) praying at the Western Wall this morning like they do every Rosh Chodesh morning. At least, they were trying to pray; praying is made pretty difficult when rather large plastic chairs are being thrown at you from behind a mechitza that resembles a tent.

The work of the Women of the Wall is considered civil disobedience – a nonviolent fight for the right to pray where women have not been traditionally allowed to pray through doing the very act they are prohibited from doing. This is a historical practice, a form of protest that exists in the exertion of positive rights. It is the practice of the great heroes who have changed the world like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Alice Paul. Now, it is also the practice of Anat Hoffman and all those who pray with her.

But who was really being “disobedient” this morning? Who were the Women of the Wall disobeying? Certainly not their religion, a minority fraction of their government, and then the men on the other side of the wall who somehow think that they have the right to take away the religious entitlements of their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. It seems to me that the Haredi men throwing the chairs were the ones doing the disobeying and it was so far from civil.

These outbreaks are terrifying. They remind us of how far we have to go as Jewish feminists and they remind us of the ridiculous nature of some people who would interrupt their own prayers to throw chairs at women. One would think that if they were that into davenning they wouldn’t want to shave time off of a spiritual practice to hit women.

These outbreaks simultaneously help the movement because they show the irrational cruelty of those who claim they are the opposition and the sanity of the allies who instead of fight for equality practice it and resist the fight for inequality that comes in the form of chairs interrupting prayers.

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