Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 5, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

Bring us back, our Parent, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our Ruler, to Your service, and influence us to return in perfect repentance before You. Blessed are you, God, Who desires repentance.

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ אָבִֽינוּ לְתוֹרָתֶֽךָ, וְקָרְבֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתֶֽךָ, וְהַחֲזִירֵֽנוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה שְׁלֵמָה לְפָנֶֽיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הָרוֹצֶה בִּתְשׁוּבָה

In the sixth brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, called Teshuva, we are asking to be given the ability to use our knowledge to become closer to God. An angel teaches babies in the womb all of the Torah, but when the babies are born the knowledge is forgotten. We say this brakha to ask for God to return us to that state of knowledge and Torah, to acquire God’s message again, to that state of perfection.

Most religions are infamous for not being good to their women. Judaism is definitely reputed as sexist. Torah Judaism is, however, inherently feminist. God would not create one part of the human species to be the dominator and the other part as the dominated. Talmud Judaism, however, can be honestly described as not-so feminist. At the 2010 JOFA conference, I heard Avital Campbell Hochstein speak at the session titled Women in Midrash: Inclusion and Exclusion of Women. Ms. Campbell Hochstein discussed several examples of women’s exclusion in the Midrash, then explained that the laws’ basis was societal, not religious. The men who wrote the commentaries lived in medieval Jewish communities, a time and place not exactly known for being pro-feminist. When women are excluded from the law, it’s rooted in societal norms; when women are included, it’s because of religious obligations that the rabbis could not deny.

In summation, the Torah is not sexist; the rabbis, however, living in sexist mores, could not help but impose some such attitudes into their writings (Gemara, Mishna, etc.). Because of them, Judaism is wrongly known as a sexist religion. Judaism loves its women, but people misunderstand that. I did, for quite some time. I did not leave Judaism because I was still under my mother’s roof and would never dishonor her religion and the religion of her mothers while living in her home. I am fortunate that I began understanding Judaism’s true stance towards women while still observant. Many women are not as lucky as I am, and leave Judaism because of the inability to take the sexism. I don’t blame these women; I was thinking of being one of them for a while. I am just dismayed that the Jewish community does not educate their children better, and that while so much effort has been made to keep people from going Off the Derekh (aka OTD, off the path), few efforts have been made to fix the reasons why people, especially women, go OTD.

When I say this brakha, I pray that all the people who have left Judaism, especially the women (and men) who left because of the misogynistic attitudes they felt Judaism exhibited, realize how accepting and feminist Judaism really is and come back to the religion. All of us Jewish feminists should pray for our sisters in need.

Tonight is the beginning of Sukkot, the holiday commemorating the sukkot, or temporary huts, that the Jews lived in during the forty years they wandered in the desert after they were freed from Egypt. Have a beautiful Sukkot!

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