I Never Promised You Dessert: Reflections on Kol Nidre

I make all sorts of promises to my children that I do not keep. Many are made in the exigency of the moment: When  my toddler twins are refusing to get in the stroller because they want to stay at the zoo, I promise them we’ll come back the following week– even if I know that won’t happen, and I’m just relying on the fact that they’ll forget by the time they’ve calmed down. When they are fighting over a toy in synagogue and disturbing everyone around us, I tell them that if they don’t stop arguing, they won’t get lollipops at the end of the service – even though I would be powerless to keep them from the Candy Man. Sometimes my promises take the forms of bribes, as when I tell my son that if he eats all the food in his plate, he can have as much dessert as he wants – even though I then limit him after the third cookie, telling him that it’s for his own good, so he doesn’t get a stomachache.

I’ve been feeling very ill-at-ease about all these unkept promises, particularly now that the high holiday season is upon us. My children are all very young, and they are unlikely to remember tomorrow what I promised them today. But as we recite in the section on remembrance in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, “There is no forgetting before the throne of God’s glory.” God remembers His promise after the Flood never again to destroy the earth again, as well as His covenant with Abraham, as we affirm in our prayers. And so even if my children forget what I’ve promised before my credibility erodes, I know that God does not forget, and that these unkept promises will not go unrecorded.

I don’t think the rabbis of the Talmud would have been pleased with my unkept promises either. In tractate Nedarim, which deals with vows that a person takes upon himself or herself, they quote from the book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better not to vow than to vow and not to fulfill.” They warn that every time a person takes a vow, a notebook recording all his deeds is opened in heaven, and God reevaluates his fate more critically. Before Rosh Hashanah, when we ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we are supposed to annul any vows we made the previous year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, this is solemnized in the Kol Nidre service, where we declare all our vows from the previous year to be null and void. But I have already voided so many of my own promises to my children by failing to fulfill them, and I find the beautiful melody of Kol Nidre even more haunting as I think about how thin is the line between unkept vows and outright lies.

But then I am reminded of the history of Kol Nidre, which was originally formulated as a way of annulling vows made the previous year, but then became in the Middle Ages a way of pre-emptively declaring that all vows in the future—from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—will have no legal force. If so, then Kol Nidre is not just about looking back with regret, but also about looking forwards with resolve. And so perhaps that is what I’ll try to do as well. I’m not going to promise that I won’t make any more vain promises to my children, because to do so would just be to make one vow on top of another. But looking forwards, I hope I’ll think twice before making promises I can’t keep. If my children eat all the food on their plates, I’ll promise them that they will feel better and have more energy to play. If that’s all I promise, I imagine I’ll feel better too.

Stronghold of the Mothers

For the first time in my life I made it a regular practice to attend Selichot services this year. Selichot are penitentiary prayers traditionally recited between midnight and dawn in the weeks preceding Yom Kippur. As a child I never went to Selichot because either I was too young to be awake at that hour, or else I was old enough to babysit for parents who were willing to pay me so that they could attend. And as an adult, I shied away from Selichot because I had enough trouble maintaining my focus during the long Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services; the last thing I was looking for was more time in shul. But now, with three kids under the age of four, things have shifted, and Selichot have suddenly become the spiritual climax of my high holiday experience.
            To some extent this is simply a matter of timing. In my synagogue Selichot are recited at 10:30pm, once all my kids are blessedly asleep and I’ve had a chance to eat dinner, clean up from the day, and prepare for tomorrow. By 10:30pm I am rarely doing anything productive, and I welcome the twenty-minute walk in the cool evening air. Unlike all the other major services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which take place either when my kids are awake or else when I need to be putting them to bed, the timing of Selichot means that I can sit in synagogue by myself, without my toddler twins vying for space on my lap while rummaging through my bag in search of lollipops or begging me to read aloud to them from the books I’ve brought to distract them. Even praying at home has become difficult lately—this year on Rosh Hashanah my husband went to a 5:30am service while I davened Shacharit at home with the kids underfoot, where embarrassingly I found myself in the very same breath affirming God’s sovereignty—HaMelech—and assuring the two-year-old relentlessly tugging at my skirt that yes, Elmo also has a tushie. I can’t do that anymore.
            And so now I do most of my soul-searching during Selichot, where the metaphors that dominate the liturgy seem surprisingly resonant. The focal point of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy; we appeal to God’s compassion in the hope that we, too, will be forgiven. God is slow to anger, gracious, and abundant in kindness –He is our king, but also our father, and I would do well to emulate Him as a parent. Lately in our household, bedtime has been extremely trying, and most nights I end up yelling at my twins when they insist, a half hour after their official bedtime, that they need to come out of their cribs to make one more peepee. “Enough! No more!” I yell in frustration, only later to regret that I am not slower to anger. During the Aneinu prayer, where we appeal to God to answer us, I think about all the times my kids wake up crying in the middle of the night–itself a theme of Selichot, where we are explicitly enjoined to “Arise, cry out in the night” (Lamentations 2:19)–and I am tempted to burrow beneath my pillow and hope they learn to soothe themselves instead of soaking their beds with tears. “Answer us, stronghold of the mothers, answer us,” we plead. I pray that God will be the stronghold of this mother too, and instill in me the strength to rally in the wee hours. “Act for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; act for the sake of those who still nurse from breasts; act for the sake of those who are weaned of milk; act for the sake of the children of Beit Rabban who have never sinned.” And so we petition God to act on behalf of those who are innocent as children – those who are dependent on their parents for their every need, as I know all too well.
            The shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and also during Selichot—is supposed to resemble a cry or a wail. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) compares it to the wailing of the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite military general who fought against the Israelites in the book of Judges. The sound of the shofar is the sound of the wailing mother, and it is, too, the wailing sound familiar to all mothers. As I sit in synagogue at midnight trying to focus on the words in the prayer book before me, I am grateful that at least at that moment, the sound of the shofar is the only cry I hear.

 

The Mehitza and the Ramp

As I sat behind the mehitza in synagogue last week peering through its wooden latticework to catch a glimpse of my son playing at my husband’s feet, I couldn’t help but feel that I had crossed a great divide. I have always been a staunch defender of egalitarian Judaism, reluctant to attend any synagogue which assigned distinct gender roles in prayer. In the Conservative synagogue in which I grew up, men and women sat together and participated equally in the service. My father was the rabbi, which meant that my parents could not sit together even in this egalitarian prayer space, an irony my mother often lamented. While he stood on the bima leading the congregation in prayer, she sat beneath her wide-brimmed hat and plied us with bags of cheerios and little boxes of raisins, always keeping one finger in the siddur to mark her place.
            When I left my parents’ home and went to college, I soon became a leader of a small but stalwart egalitarian prayer community which held services not just on Friday nights and Shabbat day, but also a couple of mornings a week. The nights before we met I would call our various constituents individually to find out whom we could count on and whom we could count, since the full prayer service requires a quorum of ten. The Hillel building in which we prayed had transparent glass walls, and I often looked wisfully at the Orthodox minyan, which seemed to organize itself automatically. Our much smaller minyan, in contrast, would not happen unless we made it happen — unless every single one of us showed up as pledged, helped set up the chairs, and took a part in the service.
            Several of my college friends who had grown up in egalitarian synagogues did not feel it was worth the effort to sustain an egalitarian minyan, and instead elected to daven in the Orthodox community, where their absence would not be as noticeable nor their presence as vital. I tried to respect their decision, but to me it seemed like they were selling out. I believed that prayer should not be about gender, but that all men and women should stand equally before God. Although the sages of the Talmud excluded women from fixed prayer and other time-bound obligations, I did not identify with the Talmudic category of “women.” As an independent woman in charge of her own finances and not beholden to any man, and as a scholar of Torah, I identified far more with the men of the Talmud than with their wives or daughters. The rabbinic category of “women,” I felt, was largely anachronistic. In our modern world where men and women were treated as equal in the courtroom, the voting booth, and the college campus, it seemed only fitting that men and women should also be equal in synagogue. And so I cast my lot with the few other like-minded Jews wherever I found myself—on the college campus, the Upper West Side of New York, and in Jerusalem, where I have since made my home.
            And then I had children, and everything changed. At first it was impossible to pray in synagogue altogether. When my son was four days old and had not yet been initiated into the covenant or received his name, I insisted on carrying him in a sling to synagogue, determined that he should become a “shul baby.” I had not counted on how often I would need to leave to nurse him, and always at the most inopportune times – when I wanted to hear the Torah reading, or recite the prayer for the sick, or stand with my feet together in imitation of the angels for the silent prayer. Babies may look like angels, but they generally don’t allow their parents to stand angelically still. And so in subsequent weeks I instead prayed from home whenever the baby napped or my husband could take him off my hands.
     Now that we have three toddlers, it is important to us that our children grow accustomed to attending synagogue and learning the prayers and melodies. I want synagogue to be a strong Shabbat association, as it was for me. And so like my mother, I pack up the cheerios and raisins and set out with my husband–who has already davened elsewhere–and kids in tow. There is an egalitarian minyan that meets a few neighborhoods over, and before I had children I would always pray there. But now it is a far walk with the kids, and it’s not easily accessible with a stroller, and so we go there only rarely. More often we daven in  an Orthodox partnership minyan where men and women sit separately and there are parts of the service that only men can lead. It has a mehitza, true – but it also has a wide ramp leading up to the synagogue, a place for me to park my double stroller, and a children’s service in which my kids have learned to sing many of the Shabbat morning prayers.
          I do not feel entirely comfortable in that minyan, even though it is committed to many of my most deeply-held progressive and feminist ideals. Though I love to read Torah, I will not leyn at the partnership minyan because on some level I am not prepared to call it home. For the same reason, I have not become a member, though we gave a donation equivalent to the membership dues. Only rarely do I manage to make it into the main sanctuary, since I’m usually in the children’s service and then the playground. But there are times when I find myself sitting behind the mehitza, trying not to think about what my idealistic twenty-year-old self would have thought if only she could see my now.
            Have I, too, sold out? Part of what I always found so frustrating about the egalitarian minyanim I took part in both in college and beyond was that they rarely attracted families. Most of our members were students and single people in their twenties. I am beginning to understand why. Even if we were in an egalitarian synagogue, it would be impossible for my husband and me to sit in synagogue at the same time, or for both of us to take on leadership roles. Someone would have to be primarily responsible for the kids. And so I have a newfound appreciation for the Talmudic sages’ exemption of women from time-bound commandments. There are some stages of life when it is simply impossible to pray regularly at fixed times. Being a parent of small children is one such stage. It need not necessarily be the woman who is exempt, but the reality is that at any given moment, it is generally only one parent who can be praying. And so the “woman” – a Talmudic category that I would define as whichever parent is in charge of childrearing at that moment – is granted an exemption that affirms the sanctity of his or her work. Handing cheerios to a child or adjudicating a dispute between toddlers is just as important as praying; it too is a form of divine service, and so the one who engaged in that service is excused from prayer.
            I remain committed to gender egalitarianism as an ideal, but I would like to think about how to translate that ideal in a reality more sensitive to the needs of young families. I hope that as soon as we are stroller-free, I’ll be back in the egalitarian minyan so my kids can hear me leyn more regularly. In the meantime, I leyn the full three paragraphs of the Shema every night to them—its frightening threats notwithstanding—so that one day it will be easier for them to associate the words with the trope. On Shabbat mornings, when I sit with my kids in the children’s service, I imagine a time when my daughters as well as my son will lead the congregation in these prayers. And hopefully by the time they have kids of their own, they won’t have to choose a synagogue based on the ramp, but on the very same deep-seated commitments for which they are inspired to pray.

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 קטנהor 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.

Confessions of the Tehillim Lady: Further Reflections on Learning How to Pray

Yesterday I was walking along the park that lines the old railway tracks linking our home and the twins’ Gan when I ran into a friend from the neighborhood. He was standing with an older man who looked vaguely familiar. When my friend introduced us, the man said, “Oh, it’s the Tehillim lady.” When I looked back at him quizzically, he continued, “I hear you singing Tehillim every morning. You’re so devout!” It took me a few moments to realize what he was talking about, because as far as I know, I never chant Tehillim. But then suddenly I understood.

Every weekday morning, as I push the girls’ stroller on our way to Gan, I “daven” aloud with them. I am putting the word “daven” in quotes because it’s a far cry from serious prayer. I do not have a siddur with me, and I do not recite the full morning prayer service, nor do I stand and sit at the appropriate points, since I am pushing a stroller all the while. Rather, I sing my favorite melodies from Psukei Dezimra as we walk: I recite Modeh Ani and Mah Tovu as we walk down the hill to Derekh Hevron, then I chant Barukh She’amar and Ashrei as we cross the busy highway, and I belt out a few Hallelujahs as we make our way through the parking lot towards the park. Many of these prayers are indeed psalms, which explains that older man’s misperception. By the time we get to the Gan, I am usually up to the blessings before the Shema. But at that point I stop to take out the girls from their strollers, deposit them in their high chairs, and bend over to kiss them goodbye on the tops of their heads.

I did not realize until now that anyone overheard my morning davening, and I’m a little embarrassed by it all. After all, the proper way to daven is in synagogue with a minyan, while holding a siddur and bending and bowing at the appropriate moments. And yet my approach to prayer is not without precedent; in the third Mishnah of Berakhot (10b) we are told  of a famous debate between Hillel and Shammai about how to recite the Shema. Shammai says that at night one should recite the Shema while lying down, and in the morning one should recite it while standing, to fulfill the verse, “When you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Hillel, who is more lax, says that any position is acceptable, in fulfillment of the verse, “When you go along your way.” That is, Beit Shammai would never approve of the way I daven on the walk to Gan, but Beit Hillel would have no problem with my ambulatory Shacharit.

My husband, too, has a hard time finding time to daven during our rushed and busy mornings, so he has come up with his own creative solution. He puts Matan in his chair with breakfast in front of him, and then brings his siddur and Tefillin to the table, where he davens while standing next to Matan. (I am usually nursing and dressing the girls in the bedroom at this time.) Matan loves singing along, though he knows that he is not allowed to touch the “feeleen” boxes until he finishes eating and washes his hands, after he and Abba have sung Adon Olam together. And Daniel is grateful for the opportunity to daven, even though he looks forward to the day when he can return to minyan and not have to worry about picking cheerios off the floor in between Psukei Dezimra and Shacharit.

When I think about where we are in our prayer lives, I am reminded of the first Mishnah of the fifth chapter of Berakhot (30b), which teaches that one should not begin praying except with koved rosh, a phrase that literally means “heavy-headedness” and connotes tremendous reverence and respect. The Mishnah goes on to state that the early pious ones used to wait an hour before praying in order to get into the proper frame of mind for speaking with God. Neither Daniel nor I are able to pray with any degree of koved rosh at this point in our lives. If we feel heaviness of head it not from our tremendous powers of concentration, but rather from major sleep deprivation caused by our three children under the age of two and a half. Nonetheless, I like to think of our prayer these days as analogous to that preparatory hour of the early pious ones. It is not really prayer, but a preparation for the rest of our prayer lives, when hopefully we will be able to focus better. If we were to stop praying altogether, it would be much harder to return to the discipline of daily worship. And so instead, we pray “along the way” or at the breakfast table. It is just enough to stay in shape so that when we do indeed have time to run through the full service properly, our bodies (and our souls) will not have forgotten how.

The Talmud, in discussing the Mishnah about the early pious ones, relates that the Biblical source for the laws of prayer is actually the prayer of Chana, who wept in Shiloh for God to grant her a child, and then offered a beautiful and poetic prayer of thanksgiving after Shmuel was born. And so the rabbis derive the laws of how to pray from a parent. As Chana herself surely knew, praying as a parent is not easy, particularly not in the early morning hours when you are drunk with exhaustion and can hardly see straight. Even so, when I set off to Gan with the autumn wind blowing through my hair and my two gorgeous daughters sitting side-by-side in the stroller before me, I feel so full of gratitude that I cannot help but pray.

My Heart Exults in God: Hannah’s Exemplary Prayer (Berakhot 30b-33a)

INTRODUCTION

            “I am a very unhappy woman. I am not drunk, but I have been pouring my heart out to God. Do not mistake me for someone worthless. I am praying out of my great anguish and distress.” These words, spoken by Hannah to Eli the priest, are part of the haftarah that we will read tomorrow, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Hannah, who is one of the two wives of a Jewish man named Elkana, longs desperately for a child. Every year, when Elkana brings the family to Shiloh to offer sacrifices to God, Hannah is cruelly taunted by her husband’s more fecund wife Penina. Distraught, Hannah weeps and prays and refuses to eat. One year her prayer is overheard by Eli the priest, who mistakenly thinks she is drunk. But it is not just Eli who hears Hannah’s prayer; the rabbis of the Talmud, too, listen closely to Hannah’s words and to the Bible’s description of her prayer. In the fifth chapter of the tractate Berakhot, the rabbis look to Hannah as an ideal model of how to pray. I’d like to study this passage with you this evening in the hope of coming to a better understanding of what is so remarkable about Hannah’s prayer. After all, we’re all going to be spending a lot of hours praying over the course of this holiday season; and if Hannah is indeed the rabbis’ model for how to pray, then perhaps she can teach us something as well.

20 MINUTES CHEVRUTA – SOURCESHEETS WITH DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (SEE BELOW)

COME TOGETHER

I want to start by asking a question: What is the relationship between the Mishna that appears at the top of your page, and the Talmudic sugya that follows? Does the extended discussion in the Talmud illustrate the principle articulated in the Mishna, as we might expect?

[brief discussion]

The Mishna seems to articulate two major principles: First, the person who is engaged in prayer should be in a reverent frame of mind. And second, this person should countenance no interruption of his or her prayer. And yet surprisingly, Hannah, who is cited as a model of ideal prayer by the rabbis, satisfies neither of these criteria. She does not seem particularly reverent. On the contrary, she speaks to God with the utmost chutzpah: She tells God that He is like a stingy king who refuses to share one morsel from His lavish banquet with his poor servant. Then she threatens God to make herself into a Sotah so that God will have no choice but to grant her wish for a child. And finally, she rebukes God for giving her breasts but no child to suckle. This hardly seems like reverent, pious behavior! Likewise, Hannah fails to live up to the rabbinic dictum to pray without interruption. In the middle of her prayer, Eli interrupts to ask if she is drunk. Hannah, still standing before God, defends herself to Eli before continuing her prayer. She allows herself to be interrupted, and she remains nonetheless the rabbis’ model of ideal prayer. Why?

I want to suggest that there is something remarkable about Hannah’s prayer nonetheless. Hannah describes herself as אשה קשת רוח, an unhappy woman; literally a woman of tough spirit. She has been hardened by her pain; her spirit itself has been hardened by the agony of her years of childlessness. Year after year she has endured the taunts of her rival Penina, and the carrion comfort of her husband, whose insistence that he is more devoted to her than ten sons strikes Hannah as unfeeling if not downright patronizing. Hannah’s grief has made her  מרת נפש, “bitter of heart,” as Rabbi Elazar quotes in the Talmud’s opening words. Yet the very same Biblical verse that describes her bitterness also tells us about how she cried to God: “Hannah was bitter of heart, and she prayed to God, weeping all the while” (10). In spite of her bitterness, Hannah has not become hardened past the point of tears. She does not break off all communication with God. She does not insist that she wants no relationship with a God who can cause her so much pain. Nor does she (anachronistically) deny the existence of any God who could create a world with so much suffering. Rather, she continues to live her life in dialogue with God. Even if all she can do is rebuke, threaten, and yell at God, she continues to engage Him. The alternative for Hannah would be to allow the gates of prayer to swing shut, and to close herself off completely from all contact with the divine. Perhaps Hannah knows, as the rabbis go on to say later in this same sugya in Berakhot, that even when the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears remain open. We might say that tears oil the hinges of the gates of prayer, causing them to open for the broken-hearted. And while they may open just a very tiny bit, miraculously that proves to be enough: God opens Hannah’s womb and she conceives and bears a son.

Hannah’s prayer is also remarkable because it consists of not just the verses we have discussed thus far. When the Talmud discusses Hannah’s prayer, it refers exclusively to her words in chapter one of I Samuel, where she prays to God to give her a child. While this prayer may be impassioned, it is nonetheless prosaic; it is only in chapter two, once Hannah is granted her beloved son, that her spirit bursts forth in poetry. Hannah’s petitionary prayers are far outmatched by her prayers of thanksgiving. In fact, when we think of  תפילת חנה, it is generally not her bitter wailing in chapter one that comes to mind, but rather her lyrical exultation in chapter two:

עלץ לבי בה’ \ רמה קרני בה’ \ רחב פי על אוביי \ כי שמחתי בישועתך.

Hannah does not just pray out of sadness and need, but out of joy and gratitude – and it is this latter prayer that is quoted in full, in ten verses of poetic text. Once her heart is no longer hardened, she can compose herself and compose her thoughts in more measured form. Once she is no longer overflowing with tears, she can hold back from line to line, which is what poetry demands of us; poetry is written with line breaks, unlike prose, where one line simply spills into the next. אין צור כאלוהינו, Hannah declares in her poetic prayer – there is no rock like God. For all that she was hardened, she knows that God is the true rock and the true redeemer. In Midrash Shmuel, a collection of midrashim on the book of Samuel, the rabbis read this line as אין צייר כאלוהינו, there is no artist like God. There is no one who can create and craft and shape a human being like God. Only God can create life and give it form. וכל מאמינים שהוא יוצרם בבטן, as we say in the piyut of Musaf. God shapes us while still in the womb, and we are like clay in the hands of the divine potter.

Not all of us can merit to pray like Hannah. Our bitterness may turn us off from prayer, or our pain may prevent us from being able to express ourselves as poetically as we might like. Perhaps the closing words of the sugya we studied above, which are also the closing words of the psalm recited throughout Elul and Tishrei, can serve as a guide and an inspiration as we navigate this season of intense and intensive prayer: Hope in the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, hope in the Lord. May our hearts be strengthened rather than hardened by our pain; and may we follow Hannah’s example and learn, in spite of our sorrow, to continue to engage and to hope in God. Shana tovah.

SOURCESHEET: BERAKHOT 30B-33A, ABRIDGED
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:

1a. What is a “reverent frame of mind”?

2a. Does the proof text from I Samuel support the Mishnah’s claim? Why do you think this verse is chosen?

3a. Eli, as priest, represents those who worship God through ritual. Hannah, as a petitioner, represents those who worship God through prayer. How might this distinction account for the tension between them?

4a. What are the connotations of the name for God that Hannah is crediting with inventing, “Lord of hosts” (literally: Lord of armies)? Who are the armies who serve God? How is this concept of God different from that of Eli and the other priests?

4b. Hannah’s prayer is not without hutzpah. Is she entitled to speak this way to God, and if so, why?

4c. Why do you think Hannah invokes a parable in her prayer? Does the parable enable her to say anything that she otherwise might not? Are there any problems with this parable?

5a. Why does Hannah threaten to incriminate herself as a Sotah? How would you describe Hannah’s strategy here?

6a. The verse quoted here is spoken by Eli to Hannah, and so it is from Eli that we learn this particular law of prayer. According to Rashi, even though Eli was a very distinguished, elderly priest, he stood rather than sat by Hannah because it is forbidden to sit so close to one who is praying. What might be the problem with sitting next to someone who is engaged in fervent prayer? Have you ever stood next to someone who was praying with tremendous kavana and devotion? How did it affect you?

7a. How does the Talmud interpret the words “spoke in her heart”? Is this a literal reading?

7b. How would you describe Hannah’s argument here?

8a. Are we supposed to expect that our prayers will be answered? If not, why do we bother praying?

8b. Do you ever find yourself praying on Rosh Hashana for the very same things you prayed for the previous year? What would R. Hana son of R. Hanina say about this?

8c. What is the significance of the final verse quoted? Where does it appear in our liturgy, and how does it take on new meaning in the context above?

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.