By Devorah Rubin
I read with great interest most of the articles about women which appear in Orthodox publications. I have found that, in general, the religious press presupposes that only feminists raise issues for contemporary Yiddishkeit. We gather that once feminist issues have been dealt with, nothing else requires discussion. In my opinion, there exists another group that has nothing in common with “women’s rights” activists. I want to stress that I am referring to women who are strict followers of halachah and who share mainstream hashkafos. They have no wish to become rabbis, to join tefillah groups, or to be taught Gemara. These women simply want acknowledgment that they are entitled to have a spiritual life, and that their striving towards spirituality deserves encouragement and respect. Unfortunately, in too many cases, neither are forthcoming. Let me illustrate the problem by focusing on the issue of women and davening.
As stated in Chovos Halevavos, one of the basic roads to spirituality is through davening. It is generally accepted that, whenever possible, women should daven Shacharis and Minchah every day.
Amazingly, in the present-day observant world, it is assumed, as a matter of course, that women would not want to take advantage of minyanim, whether at work, at weddings, or at other social functions. As a result, no provision is made for them. At public Jewish events, for example, while the men organize themselves in a tzibur, the women have to find dark corners to furtively daven Minchah as if they were doing something reprehensible. Likewise, in work settings that permit it, men regularly daven Minchah betzibur, while the women are left to fend for themselves. Surely a solution could be found, if it were taken for granted that women also have accepted a duty to daven.
It is encouraging to see what happens when it is understood that women sincerely want to daven betzibur without a feminist agenda. For example, several women wanted to join the Minchah minyan at an investment bank in Manhattan. After it was paskened that it was halachically acceptable, the women joined the minyan but were restricted to an uncomfortable davening behind a soda machine. A few days later, a congregant bought the raw materials, built a mechitzah, and installed it.
Women deserve to be given maximum opportunity — from behind the mechitzah — to benefit from the enhanced spirituality offered by a proper tefillah betzibur. On Shabbos, on Yom Tov, and especially during the Yamim Noraim, it enhances one’s kavanos to see the baal tefillah; to watch the Torah being read and raised; to see the shofar being blown; and to see the Hakafos on Hoshana Rabba. Surely there is no halachic basis for denying women the spiritual benefits of a tzibur. At the present time, in many shuls, it requires imagination to feel that one is part of the congregation. It is also harder to follow the rabbi’s drashah when one cannot see his face. The solution adopted in some shuls of drawing back the curtains during the speech does not take into account that some of us are uncomfortable being suddenly put on display.
Several major Orthodox shuls have had the good sense to try to remedy the situation. The technology certainly exists, for example: the one-way mirror; a combination of smoked glass and screen; adjustable wooden louvers; and of course, balconies, especially tiered balconies, afford a good view. Installing a kosher, women-friendly mechitzah need not be difficult or expensive; all it requires is good will and ingenuity.
I find that numerous siddurim and machzorim often convey the same message: davening is not for women. In many siddurim, the brachah specific to women is written in small print, and prayers said by both genders are written only in the masculine. On erev Yom Kippur, Tefillah Zakah — to my mind, one of the most important prayers of the day — is printed without thought that women might want to say it. Thankfully, the more recent ArtScroll editions have placed parentheses around the passages relevant to men only. The message that these admittedly “minor” examples convey is that women’s davening is of little importance, or is unexpected. This message flies in the face of girls’ chinuch in recent years, which stresses davening for women.
Women, no less than men, are greatly in need of spiritual guidance in order to make the right choices in their multifaceted lives. Unfortunately, in their drashos, rabbis all too often address themselves only to men, apparently unaware that women also have spiritual needs that require attention. The Akeidas Yitzchok, a fifteenth-century commentator, had the following to say: Chavah had two names, Ishah and Chavah. “Ishah” was the name Adam gave Chavah when he first encountered her. The Akeidas Yitzchok understands this to mean that he saw that they shared the same potential for spiritual self-perfection. The name “Chavah,” given by Adam after the expulsion from Gan Eden, refers to her role as mother of mankind. This explains Yaakov’s anger at Rachel when she told him that without children she was “dead.” Clearly, she had forgotten that she had her “Ishah” potential to fulfill even if she could not fulfill her “Chavah” potential.
I was very touched to read that Rav Isbee, zt”l, used to prepare two completely different Shabbos Hagadol drashos: one for the men and one for the women. He felt that because of their different needs, men and women had to be addressed separately. Men who search for spiritual self-improvement can go to their roshei yeshivah or to a wide choice of rabbis who regard their seeking as natural, and who encourage them. Women have a much harder time finding sensitive guidance. Perhaps rabbis are uncomfortable dealing with a woman’s spiritual life. One woman had the experience of calling a rabbi — known for his breadth of vision — for pressing spiritual help: his curt response was that she should “listen to some Torah tapes.” In speaking with a rabbi, women also must be careful of how they express themselves; one can too easily be dismissed as a feminist and receive no proper response at all. To the ears of some rabbis, a woman’s expression of dissatisfaction immediately brands her as a feminist bent on challenging the establishment, rather than simply as a Jew with spiritual quandaries. This knee-jerk response is a great injustice.
There was a time when women had a simple religious life. They received their emunah pshutah from their mothers, and for some, nothing more was needed to rise to great spiritual heights. Today, due to greatly changed social conditions, many of us have, to a great degree, lost that option. To make up for it, we need an environment, both educational and social, which will awaken and nurture the innate potential for spirituality present in all of us.