Monday, November 01, 2010

What Women CAN do!



RivkA bat Yeshaya of Coffee and Chemo was a longtime member of the Shirat Sara a women's tefilla group which meets regularly in Jerusalem. This is a post on a subject I began writing a few times since Simchat Tora and now I dedicate it to her memory. 


It has been established that men and women should be separated during the rituals and worship.
Gender separation is a defining characteristic of the Orthodox synagogue, especially as this became a hotly contested issue in the US in the middle of the Twentieth Century. The Talmudic source is Sukkah 51b  which tells of the Simchat Beit Hasho’eva in Temple times. While men and women were in separate sections, this proved inadequate to maintain decorum during this festive occasion, and it was decided to build a balcony for the women. It is fairly remarkable that the authorities of the time changed the design of the Temple, since it was designed by the Architect of architects, but that shows how serious the issue was. In an open letter Rabbi Soloveitchik described the fundamental importance of gender separation in synagogue. He said that separation is biblically required, while the mechitza is rabbinic.(more discussion here)
(As a child I remember commercials for "the family that prays together, stays together" which it turns out was a commercial for Catholics - who knew?) Clearly this did not apply to Orthodox Jews. Even in shuls where there was mixed seating the women were just there, alongside but not participating.

In the 70's that began to change..In the Reform movement Hebrew Union College admitted a woman to its rabbinical ordinations program. Some Conservative synagogues began giving aliyot to couples (the woman accompanied the man when he blessed the Torah). In the Orthodox community we began examining the possibilities.

One avenue was to separate and set up a minyan  (quorum of 10 required for public prayer) for women. On closer examination we found that ten women (or 100 or 1,000) don't make a minyan. But still maybe there were ways we could remain within Orthodoxy and still have more participation.

Reading Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) turns out to be something that women have an equal obligation and according to most can read the megilla and recite its blessings. (See "Women's Megilla Reading" by Rabbi Aryeh A. Frimmer here.) These readings are especially delightful for me and I attend them whenever I can. Here in Rehovot we have one in the morning at our synagogue and I know of several other places  where women read the Megilla. This has become a very widespread practice in certain circles in Israel. RivkA organized participated in and taught her daughter to read Megillat Esther.

Sara Friedlander Ben-Arza, a poet, editor and lecuter in the field of  chasidut, midrash, piyut and music wrote an eloquent article in the Succot edition of Hebrew newspaper 'Makor Rishon' about the Shirat Sara women's prayer group of which she is a member. (Unfortunately the article is not online.) The group was organized to celebrate the Shabbat Kallah (Shabbat before the wedding) of a woman around 16 years ago and later was named in memory Sara Rachel Duker one of the participants who was later killed in a Jerusalem bus bombing. The group meets at intervals of five to six weeks. The women sit in a semi-circle and sing the prayers together. They sing the parts they would be saying if they were praying individually but not the parts that require a minyan which would turn the service into t'fila b'tzibur (public prayer). The Torah portion is read from the Torah scroll. As each woman is called up they recite a verse in lieu of the Torah blessing and another one at the conclusion of the section. The service includes lessons in Torah and Jewish law as well. Sara Ben-Arza points out that the young girls who attend these services are growing up with the expectation that they to will take their place next to their mothers and make this a tradition. See RivkA's proud post about her daughter's Bat Mitzvah here.

I participated in a service at Shirat Sara and it was a wonderful experience. It is not a mimicking of a 'real' service but something else. It is uniquely feminine and you can feel the effort, preparation and love that goes into making this so special.  Ben-Arza's article describes how the group deals with the halachic issues. This search for alternatives then brings the women a deeper study and understanding of the prayers and the solutions are just that much more meaningful because of this confrontation.

I like the Shirat Sara model. If I lived in Jerusalem I would be there often. There is a lot of preparation that goes into the Torah readings and it will be a long time before we have enough women who can deal with that kind of preparation on a wide basis. Here in Rehovot there have been a few Bat Mitzvah celebrations where the young lady prepared the Torah reading and her friends and family came and a service was held. It is, of course exciting and uplifting to participate in these services as well. But it does not come close to a group that meets at regular intervals.

But there is a tension between the two worlds that the women live in. The group doesn't meet every week because they want to stay connected to their community and family. This way most of the time they are part of the general community and on these special weeks they are part of their own special women's community. One of the wormen put it this way:: "On the other Shabatot I pray in a regular synagogue. There I am not an integral part of the community prayer experience. In that setting which halahically is tefilla b'tzibur (public prayer) I feel as if I am praying as an individual. But at the women's prayer service  which is not technically deemed t'fila b'tzibur  I feel the experience of participating. In the women's service I am the community. My absence would be noticed."

With the passing of RivkA these remarks take on another meaning. RivkA personified the modern Orthodox Jewess taking the tradition building on it to include our womanly connection. Her absence will most certainly be noticed.
RivkA bat Yeshaya
רבקה בת ישעיה
יהי זכרה ברוך

3 comments:

ilanadavita said...

Very informative post and a great tribute to RivkA.

Batya said...

Risa, I remember that you were involved in some group in the early 1970's.
But Risa, why didn't you mention the option of a complete women's prayer group at Tel Shiloh, instead of the more impromptu Hallel plus? You're the one who gave me/has given me the greatest encouragement for calling women to Tel Shiloh every month.
Please help me make it even better!
Rosh Chodesh Kislev Women's Prayers at Tel Shiloh
Sunday, November 7 · 9:30am - 10:30am
תפילת נשים
There will also be a Dvar Torah
ראש חודש כסלו
תל שילה
יום א' ל' חשון
7-11 9:30
יהיה דבר תורה, בע"ה
נא לפסם ולהזמין נשים

Rivster said...

Being equal does not mean the same. Both can be equally fulfilling, though fulfill different needs.

Thank you so much for sharing this.

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