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.

One thought on “The Women’s Section

  1. Tamar Orvell says:

    I love reading your blog, and first discovered you as the translator of R. Yehuda HaLevi's poem that Kobi Oz adapted, and posted to YouTube. (See סיום מסכת בבא מציעא | Siyum masekhet Bava Metzia [tractate completion] ‎‎of our group in Tel Aviv that Kobi launched last year at Alma.) Like you, I have shifted seats, priorities, and preferences as my relationship to worship — form, content, space, and community/ies has evolved over the years. I'm thankful for options and freedom to shift, re-examine, and change, and thankful for your insights, creativity, and questions. Chag sameach!


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