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.

Learning How to Pray: Further Reflections

About a year ago, I signed up for a yoga class in my neighborhood. Several friends had recommended yoga as a way to help me feel more calm, centered, and connected to my body. But after just a few sessions, it became clear to me that yoga was in fact a lot like davening. As I have always wanted to learn how to be a better davener, I decided that my time was probably better spent in shul rather than in the yoga studio, and promptly dropped out of the class.

How is prayer like yoga? Well, for one, it is a very embodied practice. There are specific motions that need to be followed at particular moments in the service – there are times to stand and times to sit, and like the synchronized movements of the yoga class, everyone gets up and down at more or less the same time. While davening is not quite as physically taxing as yoga, it does require specific poses and positions – bowing, taking three steps back, lifting our bodies up on our tiptoes three times, resting our head in our hands. When I’m davening, I am always aware of my body. If I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, I find it difficult to sit through shul. On days when I wake up hating my body, I know that praying to God is going to be a particular challenge. Likewise, if I feel pain anywhere, that pain is magnified during shul, suggesting that my attention is more focused on my body than at other times. For the past few years, I have davened in a minyan with uncomfortable plastic chairs lined up in rows. Only when I found myself in a proper shul over Sukkot did I realize how valuable it is to have cushioned seats and a shtender, so I could sit comfortably with my hands at my sides and my Siddur at eye level before me. This, I thought, is the right position for davening!

Assuming the proper position is necessary because davening, like yoga, is a spiritual practice achieved through physical movement. In davening we connect with God through repetitive activity – each day we daven more or less the same service in the same order, with the same body motions. In order to be effective, this must be done with tremendous attention and concentration, which is known as Kavana. Prayer requires focus – we must identify what is truly important to us, and articulate those wishes in the context of the liturgy. I know people who swear by prayer’s efficacy; Sara Ivreinu loves to say, “אין כמו כחה של תורה.” My friend Rimona tells the story of how she decided on her 34th birthday that she was determined to get married before she turned 35. Each morning she would walk to the Kotel and pray to God that she would meet the right man. Sure enough, by her 35th birthday, she was married. Is this a testament to the power of prayer? Perhaps. I suspect, though, that it was by clarifying her deepest dream that Rimona was motivated to concentrate all her energies on realizing it. All too often we move passively and blindly through life, without taking the time to question whether we are spending our time and energy properly, and whether we are moving closer to fulfilling our goals. Davening challenges us to think about where we wish to be heading, which in turn makes it easier to get there. In this sense, yes, prayer has tremendous power and efficacy.

And finally, davening, like yoga, is a discipline. I’m sure it is not easy to attend a yoga class several times a week; nor is it easy to get up for minyan every morning. Yet davening must be practiced regularly. A person cannot expect to come to shul once a year and have an all-time spiritual high – at least I don’t think so. Rather, it is the accumulation of many early mornings, afternoons, and evenings spent in prayer that ultimately results in a moment of transcendence.

Is this where the similarities end? I recall that my friends who encouraged me to take yoga insisted that this was something I should do for myself. “You owe it to yourself,” they told me, and “you deserve it!” Davening, on the other hand, is not something I view as being primarily “for myself.” What makes davening most challenging for me is the fact that it requires time that I would generally prefer to spend on other activities. That is, it requires a sacrifice of time, which I consider to be my most valuable and limited resource at this point in my life. In this sense, it makes sense that prayer was historically a replacement for sacrifice in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Instead of the morning offering, we offer God a part of our morning. We sacrifice several minutes of our day, including the time just after we wake up. I like to think that people who daven every morning are more humble, or at least more sensitive to the needs of other people, because they understand what it means to put someOne else first.

Ironically, it was signing up for a yoga class that helped me to realize the value of prayer. It remains a deeply challenging religious obligation, and one that I am sure I will wrestle with my whole life. At present I think about davening far more than I actually daven, but perhaps this is the first step. I take comfort in the fact that our infinitely rich liturgy offers us even a prayer for prayer, setting us off on our journey as we take those small steps forwards: O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall sing your praises.

See also November 16, 2007:
Vateze:  Learning How to Pray