Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Learning How to Pray: Time-Bound Exemptions

Recently I noticed that most of my davening takes place in doctor's offices and hospital waiting rooms. Davening has become less a regular practice than a red telephone to God in times of urgent need. This goes against everything I have always believed most deeply about prayer – that one needs a regular discipline of prayer so as to keep the channels of communication open; that prayer is most effective in a communal context; that one should pray out of gratitude as much as one prays out of need. Instead, prayer seems less like a spiritual practice and more like a siren of alarm, or, when necessary, a howl of distress.

Have I become a less spiritual person? I suppose that the change in my prayer practice is largely due to motherhood – with three kids under the age of three, I cannot concentrate on davening in shul, and even davening in the morning seems impossible so long as the kids are underfoot. D somehow always manages to steal a few minutes to put on tefillin and mumble into his siddur, often with a baby on the bed before him playing with his tefillin cases or wrapping tzitzit around a finger, an image that reminds me of Psalms 119:92: "Were it not that your Torah were my plaything…" But unlike D, I have not managed to make davening enough of a priority to find a way to integrate it into my everyday routine. I am more likely to daven minchah at work—when I can close the office door for a few quiet moments—than shacharit at home with the kids.

And whereas I used to lead davening and read Torah regularly at a local egalitarian minyan, now I am more reluctant to accept when I am asked to take on a formal role in shul. First I need to make sure that I will have coverage for the kids—that either my husband will agree to join me in shul that morning (instead of attending his own shul with our son), or else that there is a friend I'll be able to ask to watch the twins for as long as I am standing in front of the congregation. I also have to feel confident enough that I'll be able to leave the house on Shabbat morning by a specific time, which does not always seem possible. And so although I want to contribute my skills to egalitarian religious prayer communities in Jerusalem, whose values I hold dear, all too often it just seems too difficult to orchestrate.

For a while I've been feeling like a bit of a hypocrite. I spent most of my adult life leading egalitarian minyanim, championing the cause of egalitarian davening, taking on the lion's share of the Torah reading, recruiting others to join the prayer groups with which I was involved. Many of my friends davened in Orthodox shuls, where women sat behind mehitzot and did not participate as equal members in synagogue ritual. These friends considered themselves feminists and regarded themselves as equal to men in all other aspects of their lives, but synagogue ritual remained somehow compartmentalized.

I write "somehow," but of course I understood why. Historically the ancient rabbis exempted women from positive time-bound commandments (Kidushin 1:7), and someone who is not obligated in a commandment does not have the authority to exempt someone who is (Rosh Hashanah 3:8). I will not go into the halakhic analysis here, because many others who are far more learned have done so before me; but suffice it to say that the Talmud and the most prominent medieval commentators held that women were indeed obligated in daily prayer, and it is not clear why the conclusion should be that women cannot serve as prayer leaders. Indeed, it was not until the seventeenth century that any major halakhic authority argued that regular prayer with a fixed liturgy was not obligatory upon women. It is true that for most of Jewish history, women did not lead services or fulfill certain ritual obligations that were regarded as the exclusive province of men; but in any case the women of today are different from the women of ancient times whom the rabbis had in mind when they issued these rulings. If today's women can sit on the boards of major organizations, run schools and banks and laboratories, and serve as the primary (or sole) wage-earners in their households, why should they be second-class citizens when it comes to Jewish ritual? Jewish law has to evolve to reflect the changing social reality, I argued (even though a close look at the halakhic sources would render even such arguments superfluous). And so I made it my business to become competent at all synagogue roles that had been historically reserved for men, and to daven in minyanim in which no ritual roles were specifically gendered.

And yet, look where I am now. I have not been to shul on Shabbat in several weeks. Our daughters still nap from 8:30-10:30 every morning and they refuse to fall asleep outside of the house. If I keep them home, I can daven in our living room while they sleep. If I schlep them to shul, I have two cranky toddlers to entertain and no hope of praying. So shul does not seem worth the effort these days. Instead I let my husband take my son to shul and I stay home, though I am already worrying about the gendered associations he will develop as a result. In theory my husband and I could switch off taking our son and staying home with the girls, and perhaps that is what we will start doing; but this only became an option very recently, when I stopped breastfeeding. I recall one Shabbat morning when I sat in our big armchair nursing one of the twins, trying to reach for a siddur on the bookshelf behind me as the baby, sensing my body's tautness, sucked even more vigorously in fear that I might be pulling away; then all the books on the shelf came tumbling down to the floor and I could not bend down to pick them up. At moments like this I began to wonder whether everything I had always believed about women's synagogue roles was collapsing as well.

And then I thought back to my bat mitzvah. I remembered how meaningful it was to me to chant my Torah portion and lead services and become counted in a minyan. It wasn't until nearly twenty years later that I became a mother. Would I have wanted to give up on twenty years of religious obligation—twenty years of deriving so much spiritual satisfaction from my active participation in egalitarian prayer services—just because I had a the potential to become a mother (a potential that, back then, I had no way of knowing if I would ever realize)? This seems like quite an unreasonable and unnecessary sacrifice. Yes, while raising young children, it is difficult to participate fully in Jewish ritual and prayer, and positive time-bound commandments pose a particular challenge. But would it not make more sense to exempt women for that period when their children are young, especially given that women are having children later and later these days – generally at least a decade after they become b'not mitzvah? Why deprive women of decades of meaningful religious practice?

Bearing all this in mind, I'd like to regard my retreat from active participation in synagogue life as temporary. It is a stage of life dependent on clear-cut physical signs, much as being a קטנה or a נידה are stages and phases of life. Like those stages, it too shall pass. I look to the example of my sister-in-law, who experienced a total transformation in her davening commitment and in her spiritual life in general when her youngest child (of five) turned four. Granted, the immediate impetus for this transformation was her commitment to saying kaddish three times a day with a minyan to honor her father's memory. But I do not think she could have made such a commitment—or have experienced it as more empowering than burdensome—if she still had a child in diapers.

I trust that when my twin daughters are a bit older—and I can't say what age, since (as far as I know) no one has codified the approach I am advocating, and I have not yet lived through it myself—I will be able to get up from that armchair and return to davening regularly, leading services, and leyning full parshiyot. I would like my children to have the example of a mother and a father who daven every day and stand up to lead the congregation in prayer. I would like to believe that I am living by my values and transmitting those values to my children. In the words of the Shema—which I consider myself obligated to say twice a day—"you shall teach them to your children." I hope that both my son and my daughters will share this sense of obligation, and that participating in synagogue ritual will be a source of spiritual meaning and fulfillment for them, as it has been for me.