9:30 AM Shabbos morning. As I hopelessly try to find kavana somewhere between Kriyat Shma and Shmona Esre, my wobbly toddler climbs up on the couch next to me. And then onto my shoulders, from there to the back of the couch, and finally to the window sill where he is finally content gazing at the birds.
My 9-year-old strains to insert an earring and close the back. As she gets more and more frustrated, the back falls to the floor, rolling, and she scurries to find it before her baby brother does.
As I weigh my options (finish davening? help with the earring search? distract the toddler?) I am reminded of the NY Magazine piece I read on Friday:
At one recent Friday Shabbat service … Sara Hurwitz ….chases after her toddler son, Davidi, who is clearly at home careering around the temple. For the standing prayers, she hoists Davidi up in her left arm while holding the prayer book in her right. When seated, she lets her son knead her face. Occasionally, she ambles over to her fellow worshippers sharing the female side of the gender divider—the mechitza—making sure they know which page the cantor is singing from.
Then a thought hits me. Why are we doing this to ourselves? I know the answer. It comes in the voice of my seminary teacher (the progressive, intellectual, feminist seminary), as she admonished us in the beit midrash:
“Davening should take at least 40 minutes!”
“Anything other than a primary source doesn’t count!”
“Books with large typeface and no footnotes are not serious.”
“I wonder at girls from seminaries that are all starry-eyed about Hashem, but do little textual learning.”
With Modern Orthodoxy embracing feminism, women are encouraged to adopt a religious experience that is as close as possible (under halachic limitations) to traditional male observance. Negotiating the divide between feminism and Jewish sources was a constant undercurrent in much of my studies. Yet, ironically, the traditional approach to women’s observance, which is more experiential, is so much more in-tune with women’s everyday lives.
The drive for maximal observance coupled with American Modern Orthodoxy’s penchant for intellectualism, leaves many women facing strong feelings of inadequacy. I know that there are lots of women, who are not burdened by a family or have extraordinary abilities and can devote their time and energy to intensive Torah study. But is it fair to hold ALL women to this standard? Does anyone really think that an average Jewish mom’s day, which looks something like
clean up spilled milk
carpool to daycare/school
commute play date
56 emails in your box grocery shopping
sales meeting Lego
get that report make lunch
the boss wants to see you tantrum
commute clean up
break up a fist fight
mad dinner rush
get back into bed
leaves enough brainpower for an intimate Rambam chevruta or a leisure Mincha/Maariv break? So why should our girls be indoctrinated that this is the right way to be a frum woman and anything less is subpar?
God exempted women from certain mitzvot not because women are somehow inferior, but because He doesn’t expect us to be the superwomen we are pushing ourselves to become! That’s why the traditional approach to women’s observance is so refreshing in our society obsessed with over-achievement. It sets the minimum standard and then validates women’s choices to take on additional mitzvot as an individual spiritual choice based on personal circumstances.
Over the years, I have met outstanding talmidot chachamim among charedi women (yes, the hardline Meah-Shearim types), who can quote freely from Gemara, Rishonim and Acharonim and field questions without blinking an eye. I’ve also met highly-educated frum women, whose current challenge is to make the time for the morning brachot. The beauty is that in a traditional society both types of women feel validated.
Despite the smirks of the progressive, many women do find spiritual fulfillment in personality development and everyday experiences, even when these amount to doing chesed with one’s own family and cleaning one’s own house. It may not be enough to satisfy the intellectual types, but neither should this be a cause for ridicule.
A few months ago, Rav Avraham Yosef (Rav Ovadiya’s son) was asked whether a woman who used to daven twice a day and can no longer manage that due to family obligations is required to do hatarat nedarim. He said no. Since this is a temporary hiatus (even if it lasts 20 years), there is no need for an annulment.
I found that so beautiful. With God’s help, there will be times for us to daven and learn without turning our lives into a balancing act. God is happy with us even if we don’t find the time for a full-blown Shacharit and don’t open a “primary source” for years. There is no reason to subjugate our relationship with Him to feminism’s preconceived notions.
How do you maintain spirituality without going overboard?
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