I recently completed eleven months of saying kaddish for my father. The primary reason I chose to say kaddish was to honor a man whom I loved dearly, and to do the only thing I could still do for a father who did everything a parent could—and more–for his daughters. But in truth, there was no element of choice: after a lifetime of railing against the exclusion of women from t’filla b’tzibur, I did not even consider passing up the opportunity to participate.
It is certainly not easy to get to minyan three times a day, seven days a week. I am fortunate that my children are grown, my work hours flexible and my family extremely supportive. Of course, it is not easy for men to say kaddish either. But it is far more challenging for women, given the much smaller numbers of batei knesset where we can say kaddish out loud without experiencing unpleafsant (to say the least!) reactions.
Saying kaddish was a lonely business for me. On most days, I was the only woman in the ezrat nashim. Despite the fact that I attended the third Shacharit minyan in the shul each day, it was up to me to unlock the door (making sure to arrive a few minutes early so I wouldn’t still be fiddling with the ornery lock when it was time to recite the first kaddish) and turn on the lights. Occasionally another woman would come-an idealistic midrasha student, one of three women in the neighborhood who were saying kaddish once a day for a parent, or a friend who likes to daven in the beit knesset when she can. But for the most part, I davened alone. Between Mincha and Maariv I listened to the rabbi’s halacha shiur or learned…alone in the ezrat nashim.
The men in my community are mostly wonderful: supportive, encouraging and helpful. But more days than not, I came and went without saying more than an occasional “hello” to someone that I passed on the way out.
The year was a hard one, in numerous ways. At many points, I was angry when a man who had a chiyuv but could barely read Hebrew led the t’fillot, while I was stuck behind a shmatta in the back of the beit knesset. I was angry at men who closed every bit of the mehitza even where all the other women’s seats were empty, as if something contagious could escape from the ezrat nashim. I was angry at the men who, on an almost daily basis, walked into the ezrat nashim, expecting it to be empty, and then beat a surprised and hasty retreat when they saw me. I was angry at the men who left children in the ezrat nashim to play during t’fillot. But at the end, I was also angry at us – my religious feminist sisters – for expecting to take an active role when for the most part, the ezrat nashim is empty for 19 out of 21 weekly t’fillot.
There is something wonderful about daily t’filla b’tzibur that I think most women only experience, at best, at school or summer camp but which, I imagine, is totally obvious to torah-observant men. Saying kaddish forced me to structure my day with t’filla at its very core. It made the beit knesset mine in a way that it never was before. In a totally organic way, it allowed me to learn every day between Mincha and Maariv, to start reviewing parshat hashavua early in the week, to be aware of minor holidays and the rhythm of the year in a way that I never was before. And from my viewpoint, behind the mehitza, it seemed like the men in the minyan were touching base with their community at the start and the end of each day.
After eleven months of attending t’fillot, I am still digesting the experience. I have no solid conclusions but am ready to share some thoughts and, I hope, start some discussion.
Conclusion One: Sit at the Table
In Parshat Miketz and the parshiot that lead up to it, Yosef provides an excellent game plan for a person of lower status who wishes to penetrate an unwelcoming society: provide a valuable, unmatched service that no one can turn down. After going through an awful episode of sexual harassment, Yosef rises through God’s help and his own skills, and provides valuable insights and interpretations to the sar hamashkim and the sar haofim, and ultimately to Paroah.
Yosef gains legitimacy in the minds of those with whom he interacts by associating himself with a respected higher authority (in fact, the highest authority!) and crediting Hashem with enabling him to interpret the dreams. He allows Paroah to draw the conclusion that Yosef is the best person for the job by exhibiting excellence, without making the ruler feel that the choice was forced on him. Yosef takes on great responsibility and by “travelling throughout the land of Egypt,” makes it clear that he is in charge of the food storage program.
The Mitsrim respect Yosef, maybe even fear him, and accept him in their midst…to a point. When the famine starts, they cry out to Paroah, not to Yosef, even though he has been the visible face of pre-famine preparations.
Dati feminists have done a good job of emulating many of Yosef’s tactics: We have become learned and can cite respected halachic authorities to justify our positions. We very visibly take on responsibility in the community as teachers, business people, community organizers, members of va’adei beit knesset and schools. We are careful not to undermine the system that we (for the most part) accept by demanding wholesale change and have gradually gained at least grudging respect and some changes through sheer excellence, hard work, and insistence that we be recognized as capable, integral community leaders and members.
But there are other important things that Yosef did that we – for the most part – too often don’t do. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of FaceBook, gave a wonderful TED talk about why there are too few women leaders in business, politics and not-for-profit organizations. (If you have not heard this talk, listen as soon as you can. http://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html) While she does not discount discrimination, she focuses on what she describes as “not coming to the table”. She cites examples where women relinquish the spotlight and relegate themselves to the edges of the room at important meetings, rather than sitting at the table. Studies have shown that women tend to underestimate their abilities, accomplishments and right to be heard and taken seriously. Too often, we censor ourselves, while men overestimate their capabilities and knowledge, and operate from the assumption that their positions will prevail.
Yosef did not say, “I am not sure I am up to it” when Pharoah offered him great responsibility. He did not say, “I’ll do the back office work, but am not comfortable telling farmers that they must give their grain to me during the seven good years.” And he did not say, “I do not need to live at court – I can do my work from any office.” In short, Yosef sat at the table.
While we demand (or more often, politely request) the right to have more of a voice in our batei knesset, too often we do not “sit at the table.” This reticence is particularly ironic given that many hilchot t’filla are based on the account of Chana’s t’filla in Sefer Shmuel. We often do not come to t’filla (and certainly not daily), many of us are self-conscious about speaking before the kehilla and decline rare opportunities to speak, and we tend to give in on matters of meta-halacha rather than stand our ground for what we know is right. The small number of women who choose to say kaddish often do so at just one t’filla per day, or say it quietly, or only when a man is saying it as well. Because as women who are shomrei mitzvot, we accept that we will not achieve full rights in the beit knesset, we do what Sheryl Sandberg calls “leaning back” rather than “leaning in”—we take ourselves out of the picture too quickly and too easily. But if none of us “sit at the table” for 90% of the t’fillot, how can we ever expect the situation to improve?
Conclusion Two: Can We Get to a Table That We Want to Sit At?
While “being at the table” in the beit midrash has had a tremendously positive impact on the lives and rights of dati women, I am not sure that the same will hold true in the beit knesset. The beit midrash benefitted from a very slow and incremental process that only accelerated and morphed in recent years. It started with Beit Yakov schools that were separate and emphatically unequal, continued to day schools (outside of Israel) and mamlachti dati schools and subsequently to separate and more equal midrashot. And we are only now seeing the beginnings of advanced classes and yeshivot that are open to men and women alike.
The beit midrash, however, is an intellectual sphere that extends beyond the individual physical structures, so we have gained a seat at the table without actually having to enter physical batei midrash that are the exclusive domain of men. We have penetrated this sphere thanks to the leadership of exceptional women and men, and have managed quite well without initial widespread support in individual communities.
T’filla b’tzibur is a different matter entirely. It is likely that little would change in most dati leumi batei knesset even if every ezrat nashim was full for every t’filla, every day of the week. And perhaps more than most women, I have experienced the humiliation of being invisible and totally insignificant, of literally “not counting” for a minyan; being the only member in the room for a full year who did not get an aliya; of being the only child saying kaddish who was not recognized as having a hiyuv to be a ba’al(at) t’filla; and of being deprived of the opportunity to say kaddish alone, even when I was the only mourner, at the whim of any man who felt it was inappropriate and decided to say it along with me. It is not easy to crash a closed club, where you can’t wear the “uniform”, can’t participate in the activities, and are relegated to an antechamber. In truth, I have not been back to beit knesset for a weekday t’filla since I finished saying kaddish, and while I miss many aspects of daily t’filla b’tzibur, the negatives have so far outweighed the positives and I have not returned.
We have tried the beit midrash model by establishing women’s t’filla groups, but for women who are shomrot halacha these groups are a pale imitation that falls in the space between t’filla b’tzibur and davening alone together. The Shira Hadasha model is as good as it gets today, since it is hilchati (according to some opinions, at least) and also enables women to participate, but it has the odd effect of elevating the tafel to ikar, since it celebrates what we can do – which, almost by definition – does not include the most significant elements of the t’filla#. And even these minyanim are strictly a Shabbat-and-chag affair where there is no chance of making women a part of the daily life of the beit knesset.
The midrash explains that despite his great status, Yosef as a foreigner, continued to eat alone.
Maybe that’s why Yosef ultimately recognized that no matter how long he sat at the table, or how respected he was, Egypt was not his home. Yosef settled his family members in a separate district and instructed them to carry his coffin to be buried in Israel, his homeland.
For those of us who are committed to remaining dati, there is nowhere else to go. We are not foreigners in a foreign land and we have no other homeland. Through hard work and commitment we have taken our place at the shtender. But in the beit knesset, with the exception of Orthodox egalitarian(ish) minyanim like Shira Chadasha which are active only on shabbat and chagim, we do not even enter the room. In most neighborhoods and batei knesset, we are nowhere near the table.
The past decade has seen progress as well as regression. While I am fortunate to daven in a beit knesset where men would prompt me to say kaddish if I was wrapped in thought and missed it, the mechitza is a stone wall(!) topped by a curtain, and when the rabbanit addressed the first graders from the bima after the end of t’filla on shabbat, a number of men were aghast and threatened to leave the shul.
Today, when we most of us are fortunate to have many years of healthy and productive life after our children are grown, and young women who have not yet started families are active in learning and t’filla b’tzibur on Shabbat, we need to think what we really want. Halacha gives us a free pass on t’filla just as it gives us a free pass on the hiyuv of talmud torah. Do we want to take the free pass, or do we want to sit at the table? Is it legitimate to demand the right to participate in t’filla b’tzibur on shabbat and chagim and choose to excuse ourselves from the daily grind? And what are we sacrificing by making those choices?
No matter how many weekday t’fillot women attend, our communities’ rabbis and congregants, both men and women will not suddenly see the light and agree that women should be counted for minyanim and call us up to the torah. But for other issues, presence matters: A friend recently remarked that he does not see why we should spend the limited funds of the beit knesset to change the mechitza, when women only attend 10% of the t’fillot. And much as I hated to admit it (and hate the current ezrat nashim) I had to admit that I see his point.
Sheryl Sandberg made one choice, and Yosef and his family ultimately chose a very different path (with some “assistance” from a subsequent Paroah). But whatever we ultimately choose, it should be based on careful thought and analysis of what it means to be a Jew who is shomer/shomeret mitzvoth today, rather than on the free pass we are granted by halacha.#