Thursday, August 19, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 1, 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.

Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob, the great, mighty, and awesome God, exalted God, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for the sake of God’s Name.

O Ruler, Helper, Savior, and Shield. Blessed are You, Lord, the Shield of Abraham.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, הָאֵל הַגָּדוֹל הַגִּבּוֹר וְהַנּוֹרָא, אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים טוֹבִים, וְקֹנֵה הַכֹּל, וְזוֹכֵר חַסְדֵי אָבוֹת, וּמֵבִיא גוֹאֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם, לְמַֽעַן שְׁמוֹ בְּאַהֲבָה

In the first brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, identified as Avot, we are presenting our credentials to God by mentioning our relation to the Avot (Patriarchs), beseeching God to grant our prayers in our ancestors’ merit. After we’ve shown our “qualifications” to approach God, we praise God.

One can tell from a cursory glance that the Avot brakha of Shemoneh Esrei is painfully male-centric, as it only mentions the Avot and totally ignores the Imahot (Matriarchs). I had always chafed at mentioning only Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not mentioning Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah in prayer; I never knew what to do about it, though. I was walking on air after I attended Adena Berkowitz and Rivka Haut’s session, Fixed Prayer, Spirituality and Inclusiveness: Can Creative Liturgy Fit in the World of Halakhic Boundaries?, at the 2010 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. In it, Ms. Berkowitz and Ms. Haut discussed women’s place in prayer and mentioned the Avot’s mention and Imahot’s exclusion. “Have a mental note…you can have in mind as you invoke the Avot [that] you [are] mentally invoking the Imahot,” Ms. Berkowitz said. I follow her suggestion every time I pray and feel closer to God and my foremothers because of it.

It is said that the first three brakhot (blessings) correspond to the three Avot, so this first brakha corresponds to the first Patriarch, Abraham. To the Jewish feminist that will have the Imahot in mind, then this brakha is for Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the first Matriarch. She had two names before she became Sarah: Iscah and Sarai. Iscah is from the same root as sukkah, the temporary hut that Jews live in during the holiday of Sukkot. The purpose of the sukkah is to remind you of God’s presence and control over the world. Just as people remember God when they sit in a sukkah, they remembered God when they saw Sarah. A sukkah is also supposed to be beautiful on the inside, where you will sit. This shows that Sarah had such a sense of inner beauty, people knew that only God could have created such a person. Sarai, on the other hand, means my princess; when Abraham would say, “this is my wife, Sarai, my princess,” it implied that Sarah’s greatness was only because of her connection to Abraham. When God changed her name to Sarah, which means princess to all, it proved that Sarah was amazing in her own right; she did not owe her elevated status to her husband.

Next time you say Shemoneh Esrei, show God why your prayers should be granted: say that you’re related to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the first strong Jewish women who relied on no man.

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