Rashi’s Daughters: Women and Prayer

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Talis & Tefillin
20 Oct 2010

If the internet and urban-legends had been around when I was a kid, the thing I would’ve researched was the story about Rashi’s daughters. Did they really wear tefillin and how cool is that? It seemed very cool right up until the moment my first child was born. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but reflect on some of my newer experiences. All of us super enlightened, totally modern women (with plenty of higher education and advanced degrees) were so truly liberated that we dutifully schlepped our husbands to pre-birthing classes where they learned all the breathing techniques and relaxation exercises so they could…

breathe and relax while we labored and screamed for drugs!

My “coach” passed out in the delivery room, so I skipped birth-training with the other children and he was consigned to the old fashioned practice of pacing the waiting room floors.

I use the term “old fashioned” because that’s what a lot of people think when it comes to Orthodox Judaism’s attitudes towards women. Actually, they often think far worse and use words like “patriarchal” or “chauvinistic” or “misogynistic” while most Orthodox women themselves beg to differ. The subject is quite timely with all the current press about women’s role as spiritual leaders or conductors of prayer services. “Why is it that women are not allowed to act as the cantor?” my non-Jewish or non-Orthodox Jewish female colleagues frequently ask.

This question takes me back to the 70s when Rabbi Avi Weiss taught classes at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for women. Rabbi Weiss has always been an activist of one sort or another. In the 70s he staged U.N. protests to heighten awareness of Russian Jewish Refuseniks, in the 80s he protested a Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz, more recently he was handcuffed and hauled away from the UN while protesting Iran’s determination to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. He’s been in the news again this year for not-quite ordaining an Orthodox Jewish woman; what he did was “confer” the newly invented title of “Maharat”: Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit (leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah) on Sara Hurwitz.

But back in the 70s he had rock-star status among students at Stern College and there were lottery drawings for coveted spaces in his lectures; there’s no other way to explain how I, a mere freshman, ended up in one of his classes for an entire semester. The title of the class was simply “Women and Tefillah” (prayer). He gave brilliant lectures and most of what he said was a revelation. To date, he’s the only teacher I’ve experienced who addressed the question without apologies and gave a forthright explanation for why Orthodox Judaism does not sustain the notion of women counting in a required quorum (minyan) or recognize a role for them in leading prayer services when men are present.

There is a principle in Jewish Law that women can opt for an exemption on the strict observance of positive commandments dependent on a time factor (mitzvot aseh sheh ha’zman grama). This isn’t a doctrine of supremacy, it’s a doctrine of practicality and prayer falls into this category as well as other time-bound commandments. Of course women should pray, of course they do pray, and of course they are encouraged to. One of the most famous prayers in Tanach is the prayer of Hannah. But since the legal obligation doesn’t exist for women at the same level as men, they can not count amongst nor can they represent men who do have the halachic obligation. Rabbi Weiss gave an analogy which I still remember: if you’re going to vote for someone to represent you in government, are you going to vote for the candidate who has the most in common with your interests or the least? This isn’t a gender-related issue, males under the age of 13 aren’t counted in prayer quorums either, nor can they fulfill the obligations of one who leads the service.

A lot of colleagues go on to ask if Orthodox women are allowed to form female-only prayer groups led by women. In many cities there are such groups gathering on Shabbat, just as there are women who gather regularly to recite tehillim (psalms). It might be considered avant-garde, yet it sidesteps the halachic consideration.

But getting back to Rashi’s daughters: my real moment of clarity came when the male obstetrician graciously forgave my un-lady like conduct in the delivery room and said he’d attended thousands of births and “knew exactly what I was going through”. Oh, really? How could a man ever know something like that? I’ve watched men strap on tefillin and pray thousands of times, how could I possibly presume to “know exactly what they’re going through” with that daily obligation?

I think apologies on either side are unnecessary, but I have switched to a physician who really does know exactly what I was going through and no one considers me a gender-ist. Equality in all things is neither a biological reality, nor is it a practicality, just ask any pediatrician who caters to full-time career women (they statistically remain the first responders and care givers in any situation when a child falls ill). Those of us who are Orthodox recognize that Jewish law is a code of law with rare sensitivity to time-related demands and gender related discrepancies. If other codes of law were as like-minded in their practicality, issues like “maternity leave” wouldn’t involve such extensive legal complications.

So yes, my sons put on tefillin, they are counted in a quorum, they can lead the prayer services if they so desire, but I can not. My envy for Rashi’s daughter ended long ago. In its place, I’ve developed a realistic understanding of the wisdom of Jewish law and an awareness that I’m privileged to live in an age where Orthodox Jewish societies endorse the advanced religious education of women as well as men.

I often wonder what became of Rashi’s daughter’s after they became mothers. Perhaps, like me, they reconsidered their own prayers and obligations. Perhaps, like me, they also developed a whole new outlook which included growing respect for the blessing, “sheh asani kirtzono” and compelling appreciation for the blessing, “she lo asani eisha”.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.