Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 11, 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.

Restore our judges as in the earliest times and our counselors as at first, remove from us sorrow and groan; and reign over us - You, God, alone - with kindness and compassion, and justify us through judgment. Blessed are You, God, the Ruler Who loves righteousness and judgment.

הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְטֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה, וְהָסֵר מִמֶּֽנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה, וּמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ מְהֵרָה אַתָּה, יְיָ, לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים, וְצַדְּקֵֽנוּ בְּצֶֽדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, מֶֽלֶךְ אוֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

This brakha (blessing), called Din, asks God to reinstate the Jewish justice system. In the times of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), the Sanhedrin was the official Jewish court. Nowadays, we have batei din (religious courts) to preside over Jewish issues. The only way we can have a true Jewish rulership is to have the Sanhedrin ruling, and we ask God to give us the justice that the Sanhedrin will provide.

Agunah is one of the harshest issues that Jewish women have to deal with. Agunah, literally meaning “chained,” refers to the situation where a husband refuses to give his wife a get (divorce papers). In Jewish law, a divorce is only granted when a get is given from husband to wife. This law was originally intended to protect women from the quickie divorce procedures of the ancient world. While its intentions are good, its ramifications are not. Men use the fact that a woman cannot get remarried without a get against them, often to extort money, but often just to be coldhearted. Batei din can’t technically force a man to give a get, but they have much more power than what they currently exert. Savta Bikorta videos bring some of these painful agunah stories to light. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) is extremely active in agunah aid.

At the 2010 JOFA conference, Blu Greenberg (the creator of JOFA and author of the Jewish feminist bible On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition) led the session about agunah and proposed several ways to remedy the issue. The easiest way to avoid agunah is for couples to have a prenuptial agreement made with a clause that the husband must give a get. Since it’s difficult for secular courts to get involved in cases of agunah, a prenup makes it easier for them to intervene.

Among several other suggestions, the one I feel would be the most effective was to have the divorce laws amended. Judaism is a fluid religion, and has redefined so much of what it says in the Torah. The Talmud expounded all the laws of divorce from one verse! The rabbis understand that a husband must give his wife a get by his own free will from the part of the verse that says, “And he wrote her a bill of divorce and presented it into her hand” (Deut 24:1). There are so many ways rabbis can interpret this short phrase; they have chosen to interpret it in a way that benefits men and leaves women in the dust. Why can’t husbands be forced to give a get? Why can’t there be a time limit allotted from when a couple is separated to when a get is given? Why can’t a shaliah (messenger) be appointed when a husband is absent?

During the brakha asking God for justice, we must pray that agunot are given the justice they deserve. While many things are being done to help lift the plight of agunot, nothing can be done without the will of God. In order to ensure that agunot are redeemed, we must keep them in mind and do everything we can to unchain them from the bleak situation they are in. There is a specific prayer for agunot, but in the brakha dedicated to obtaining justice and a Jewish justice system, we should keep our chained sisters close to our hearts.

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