Friday, April 17, 2009

Biblical Woman and Creative Ritual

We read the Song of the Sea on the Seventh of Pesach. It is followed by one of the few quotations of women's prayer found in the Bible. From Chanah's prayer we learn the elements of the Shemoneh Esreh, the fundamental daily prayer. What do we learn from Miriam's Song, which follows Moshe's Song?

The usual reading, following Rashi and Mechilta, is that Moshe sang the Song Az Yashir with the men, and then Miriam led the women in a separate recital of the same song. It serves as a precedent for the segregation by sex in traditional public prayer. But the Netziv (the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin) carefully picks apart the verses (Ex 15:20-21) to find what my old study partner called the "maximum chiddush" - way more is implicit in the verses than simple sex-segregated repetition.

First off, Moshe says "Ashirah laH' ki ga'oh ga'ah," while Miriam says "Shiru laH' ki ga'oh ga'ah." Next, Miriam is called "the Prophetess," and also styled "sister of Aaron." Third, only one line of Miriam's song with the women is quoted. Fourth, Miriam takes up an instrument, and encourages the women to do so as well. All of these provide clues as to the difference in the male and female experience of celebratory liturgy.

Moshe is the one who spoke with God face to face. He wore the mask to protect people from his glowing skin. As such, he was always close to God, the highest of prophets, detached from the hamon am, living in a high-level trance of constant experience of the Divine closeness, as it were. So Moshe, lost in his own experience of God, says "I will sing to God for He has excelled." It was all Moshe's own reaction, fed by the Divine Inspiration, and as such, ws written down in the Torah word for Divinely inspired word.

Miriam, on the other hand, is a prophet of the people, much as Aaron is. She is on the same level as Aaron, so she is described as his sister. Moshe sang because he became the conduit for Divine flow, but Miriam actively took up the tambourine and sang, and actively involved other women in the song. However, since her song was her own creation, other than the refrain of Shiru laShem which she received prophetically, it was not recorded in the Torah, the record of Divine revelation. But her act of creative liturgy, of involving the masses in her prayer, is recorded approvingly.

Thus far the Netziv, as explained by R' Sokol in his 7th day pesach drasha. But what can this tell us today? R' Richard Wolpoe has said that he doesn't understand why women's tefillah groups feel so bound by the traditional forms of public prayer. Since they are not actually commanded in daily public prayer, they have the freedom to compose their own liturgy, to say prayers that are meaningful to them, as women in the past have done through their own compositions called techinot, personal prayers, which were often collected and published for other women to use.

The obligation in prayer is either daily or "in time of need", which R' Soloveitchik reads as obligating women in daily prayer, even though the rabbis created a timebound structure for prayer - that does not override the underlying non-timebound nature of prayer, as recorded in the recent book "Thinking Aloud". Techinot are one example of women creating their own prayers to answer their own needs, Yiddish and Hebrew prayers from Eastern Europe, in collections such as "Shas Techines"..

R'n Shoshana Boublil has often challenged women to come up with ways to sanctify their daily activities, through prayers, through declarations of intent for holiness, etc. Men have a long recorded tradition of attempts to sanctify their daily ritual and workaday activities, through prayers, declarations of intent to perform mitzvot, etc. Women have just as long a tradition, going back to Miriam creating a women's ritual for the same event as that for which God gave a ritual to the men - and that creative ritual was approved by God. The resulting rituals are not as well recorded, which gives each generation the opportunity to construct prayers that speak to them.

Let this post renew R'n Boublil's challenge - just as Miriam took the active public role in creating public women's ritual, so too today's women should take an active role in creating equally important, albeit sex-segregated, rituals for today's women. Don't let the heterodox take away your power to create meaningful rituals.


micha said...

OTOH, RYBS saw people pushing their way down the slippery slope, and thought WPGs were a bad idea.

So while I agree with your fundamental call (and would agree more if you didn't make it gender specific), one does have to have an eye to the heterodox when crafting such ritual. They followed zeitgeist over Torah values, and the move just led to more heterodoxy. Learn from their mistakes, and thereby craft more wisely.

One thing techines buchs differ from WPGs is that the latter includes elements of public display. Why is congregational prayer a big issue? Is it a need to blur roles as an end in itself? Is it egotism? Is it simply to feel the same berov am hadras melekh? These things require thought.

IOW, I think the biggest problem with WPGs, or with RAWeiss's one step beyond yo'etzet, is the existence of JOFA who are pushing for the next step and the next step. Who have an end in mind, and are pushing halakhah to conform to expectation. And that kind of making halakhah fit something non-mesoretic would be not learning from their mistakes.


thanbo said...

The idea from RRW, AFAIU, is that they should have WPGs, sure, but not be limited to a faint copy of the standard prayer service. Get together and pray, but create your own forms. I've heard the argument that "this is the form that has been sanctified by tradition, so we want to copy it", but Miriam's example provides support for going off in a different direction.

IIUC, RYBS' and others' opposition to WTGs is because it is a push towards egalitarianism. But the same issue is not raised about women davening together in Bais Yaakovs or Shluchim conventions. WHy? Because the egalitarian impulse, that is seen as leading to heterodoxy, is absent.

So WTGs are a problem because a) the egalitarian impulse leads to b) copying the shul service. Eliminate either element (Bais Yaakovs eliminate the first, RRW's ideas for WTGs would eliminate the second), and it should be more acceptable to The Dead Gedolim (tm).

Michael Kopinsky said...

I would take this challenge one step further. If the orthodox feminist crowd are truly interested in spiritual opportunities for women, and not just egalitarianism for its own sake, let them prove it by heeding the example of Miriam and creating spiritual opportunities aimed at doing the most meaningful thing, rather than just echoing what the men do.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps having services similar to the usual tefillot are the most meaningful way for women in WTG to daven. Just because they are women doesn't mean that they necessarily are going to find meaning in creating a Jewish version of khumbaya(sic?). My wife's WTG adheres to pretty standard davening, but they do have a whole lot more communal singing, including (gasp) repeating words.

Noam Stadlan