Given the facts on the ground, it is hard not to sympathize with Jewish feminists who claim that the traditional forms of Jewish prayer relegate women to the back of the bus. In Orthodox synagogues, women do not count in a minyan (prayer quorum), they do not participate in the Torah reading service, and, as if to add insult to injury, they have to sit behind a wall that cuts them off from the action on the men’s side.
Not surprisingly, some Jewish women have manned the barricades, or in this case the mechitzot, and simply torn them down, changing the prayer service in an attempt to make it a more meaningful experience. The real mystery, then, is why there are so many Orthodox women who are willing to live with arrangements that would seem to treat them like second-class citizens.
Rabbi Menachem Nissel’s important new book, Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah, turns this question on its head. In a powerful essay that precedes the main part of the book, a thoroughly researched and accessible summary of the laws of women’s prayer, Rabbi Nissel defines prayer as the intimate moment when a person admits that they are dependent on something outside of themselves. Women, because of their desire to have children, are more naturally open to feelings of connection and interdependence. While the modern world sees any admission of dependency as a sign of weakness, Judaism, in fact, views it as a tremendous strength, the engine that drives our most intimate connection with God.
Like all real intimacy, it is best done in private. Rabbi Nissel quotes the great chasidic leader, the Sefas Emes: "The real chasidim know that the only davening (prayer) is davening alone." When Jewish women pray alone at home, without a minyan, they are not sitting in the back of the bus. They are actually driving it.
The system of organized communal prayer in the synagogue reflects the particular spiritual needs of men. If men were not obligated to pray three times a day, they could become so intoxicated by their apparent mastery of the world as to imagine that they are self-sufficient. Synagogue gives men the opportunity to connect with God in the way that women do naturally.
Rabbi Nissel writes: "It would seem that those who are trying to ‘modernize’ the way women daven and who tend to stress the synagogue as the centerpiece of prayer (often with true sincerity) have missed this crucial point. Communal prayer is the outer shell of devotion."
Rabbi Nissel concludes by noting a sad irony. The push to give women a greater role in the synagogue has actually distanced them from the inner experience of prayer itself. "By stressing the lack of women’s involvement in the synagogue," Rabbi Nissel writes, "women have been robbed of their birthright. They have been made to feel inadequate in exactly the area where they excel." Perhaps those women behind the mechitza are the true Jewish feminists after all.