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.

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.