Friday, March 30, 2012

The Women’s Section

Last week I found myself in the paradoxical position of reading Elana Maryles Sztokman’s The Men’s Section, a sociological study about why some Orthodox men choose to daven in egalitarian minyanim, while sitting in the women’s section of an Orthodox shul. Reading in shul is nothing new for me; I have spent many Shabbat mornings buried in a novel that was buried between the pages of my siddur. But reading—or indeed davening—in the women’s section is a first. I have jettisoned neither my feminism nor my loyalty to the movement in which I was raised; it is with deep ambivalence and bewilderment that I seek to understand why I am sitting behind a mechitza after a lifetime of leyning, leading davening, and championing the cause of egalitarian prayer.

In the past I was willing to daven only in egalitarian minyanim. It was important to me to read Torah, lead services, offer divrei Torah, and participate fully in the life of the community. Often I was one of the leaders of the minyan, which meant that during shul I was thinking about whether there were enough chairs, or whether the person reading the Haftara had arrived yet, or whether kiddish should be held inside or out. Only rarely could I concentrate on the words in the siddur, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since concentrating on prayer is difficult and exhausting. It seemed easier to worry about creating a space for others to pray than to channel my own aspirations and worries through the language of the siddur. And so I spent shul being outwardly rather than inwardly focused, and feeling none the worse for it.

Something changed for me in the past year. Perhaps it was the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, which sensitized me more deeply than ever before to how much of our lives are in God’s hands. When davening for the health of my unborn child or for the safety and welfare of the little boy we had brought into the world, I found myself craving the privacy and the solitude to open not just my lips but also my heart. Or perhaps it was the fact that the Jerusalem minyan in which I had been davening has been shrinking and declining, such that nearly everyone in the room needs to arrive on time and participate in the service because the numbers are so tight. Whereas reading Torah had once been an honor and privilege, it now became more of a chore. Or perhaps it was my growing awareness that prayer is an embodied activity, and the physical space in which I daven affects the quality of my tefillot. I no longer wanted to daven on folding chairs in a dirty classroom; I wanted to place my siddur on a proper shtender so my hands could hang freely at my sides and all my bones could be free to proclaim: My God, who is like You?

Was it the need for privacy and focus, or the desire to daven without standing at the Amud, or the wish to daven in a more beautiful tent O Jacob? I am not sure why I have spent the past few Shabbat mornings speaking to God from behind the women’s section. But I am certain that the conversation has been richer and more intentional. For me, davening is about reading the words of the siddur in light of my hopes and fears and aspirations. It is about finding my own personal meaning in the “choral symphony the covenantal people has sung to God across forty centuries” (R. Jonathan Sacks). This is not always an easy task; it requires first figuring out what I am praying for (“Prayer is less about getting what we want than about learning what to want,” writes Rabbi Sacks), then thinking about possible meanings of the words of the siddur, and then connecting between the two. This is harder to do when I am running the minyan or (even worse) feeling responsible for how it is run by others.

Perhaps my search for a new davening space is related to a newfound understanding of prayer as a spiritual discipline. I once tried to take a yoga class but I gave up after one session; I decided that if I were going to devote time to an embodied spiritual practice, it might as well be davening. Like yoga, davening requires being fully present in my body so that I can stand still with my legs close together, raise myself forwards three times on my toes, and sit comfortably with my back and thighs pressed against the weight of my chair. As with a yoga class, it helps to have a leader who sets the pace and keeps everyone synchronized; I cannot daven on my own because I tend to rush through the siddur impatiently, and impatience is anathema to prayer. Prayer likewise requires practice and therefore a regular commitment in order to get better at it. I must daven even when I do not feel inspired, so that when I do feel inspired I will have the words to give those feelings voice. I must be open to the unexpected moment when I find myself able to move—or to be moved—in a new way. And I must make sure that I daven in a space where this can happen.

I would like this space to be an egalitarian minyan, because I remain committed to gender equality in all spheres of my life. I will not be able to go too long without hungering for words of Torah to be on my lips again as they are when I am learning a leyning. And I do not want to abandon the struggling egalitarian minyan I have worked hard to nurture and strengthen over the past seven years just because it is not a place where I can daven with kavana at this point in my life. And so I remain somewhat on the fence—or on the mechitza—when it comes to the question of where to daven. Though I’m almost finished reading The Men’s Section, I’m still not sure why some Orthodox men daven in egalitarian minyanim. But I hope I am coming closer to understanding why this egalitarian woman davens in Orthodox minyanim – and how she can come home again.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Hullin, Prakim 2-3


Rabbi Yohanan was interrogated:
Just how were the birdies created?
On land or on sea?
In between them, said he
Citing verses his students debated.

A menstruant woman was raped
She was dunked when she made her escape
May she sleep with her spouse
May she eat in his house
Teruma; or must we say: Hold that grape!

Shchita is done with one slice
It’s done quickly, and must be precise
Don’t drop the knife
Ere the animal’s life
Has been taken. That will not suffice.

You slaughter a beast and the blood
Lands on pumpkins of Teruma – oh crud!
Can the pumpkins now be
Made impure? Woe is me
Hence aim not for the plants but the mud.

If an animal’s soon gonna die
And you shecht it; or maybe you try.
You must check it was still
Live and well ere you spilled
Its blood. Do its limbs jerk, all awry?

If you inherit a slave -- one or two
But you don’t want slaves, what should you do?
Can you then de-accession
Them from your possession
Say: Dad gave me slaves, but I’m through!

Never shecht into the sea
If you’re on a boat, then hopefully
You can shecht off the side
Of the boat as you ride
Let the blood drip down slow, steadily.

אלו טרפות

These are the Treyfot: The brain
Has been punctured within the membrane
Or the skeleton broke
Or the windpipe got poked
Or the wolf trampled, leaving it slain.

If an animal’s hechshered by you
Can you eat it? It seems wrong to do.
For you might be tempted
To have it exempted
From treyfness although it’s not true.

Rabbi Elazar always refused
Any gifts he was sent. And he’d choose
Not to go to a feast
When invited. At least
He’d explain: It’s my life I would lose!

Rabbi Zeyra said: I will not take
Any presents. But if my friends bake
And invite me to eat
Their delectable treats
I’ll accept. It’s for my honor’s sake.

Roman soldiers came into the town
So two rabbis ran, fleeing the crown.
And while fleeing they taught
Rabbi Zeyra: One ought
Check the place where the liver is bound.

Natan HaBavli related:
This poor woman I met – she seemed fated
To lose every son
When Brit Milah was done
So I said: Make your next bris belated.