Tova Warburg Sinensky
Editors’ Introduction: The past year has been full of conversations, statements, and publications surrounding the topic of women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism. Among the many issues underlying this important and continued dialogue is how women experience their religious lives, and what will enable them to foster and sustain a relationship with God. The Lehrhaus therefore presents this three-part symposium. We thank Tova Warburg Sinensky for spearheading and serving as guest editor for this project.
“Lost in Structureless Spirituality.”
This eloquent formulation is both the title of Adina Kastner’s article and an apt description of her feelings, and those of many women. She refers to her involvement in communal tefillah and Talmud Torah bi-havruta during middle school and high school as “structured spirituality,” through which she feels “I also had my closest relationship with God.” But that relationship has changed. “I have never felt further from Hashem than I do right now. My break from davening and learning because of my busy life as a working mother has hurt my relationship with God.”
While the proliferation of serious learning opportunities for women has profoundly enriched and enhanced the spiritual lives of thousands worldwide by engaging women’s minds in Avodat Hashem, it is accompanied by its own difficulties.
Women for whom intensive Talmud Torah is, or was, a prime access point to Hashem face a serious challenge.[i] What happens when one’s time is not her own, and life becomes busy with family and work? If she has cultivated her religious identity and spiritual life through religious structures, how is she to feel anchored and remain committed and connected in a new state of “structureless spirituality?”
A fish does not survive for long out of water. Women are thirsting for ways to be and feel religiously connected, and our communities are not adequately quenching the thirst. While much ink has been spilled bemoaning the difficulties, the response often seems like an amalgam of spiritual band aids, not solutions that address the core issues. Drawing on my personal experiences as well as sentiments I have heard in my work as an educator and Yoetzet Halacha, I suggest four ways we can shift the paradigm regarding how we understand the obstacles women face, in order to facilitate sustained and vibrant Avodat Hashem across the female lifespan.
Avodat Hashem is Equally Important for Men and Women
This conversation can only take place if we all, men and women alike, truly believe that every human being is required and entitled to live lives of meaningful engagement with God.
I want to talk about expectations. Or rather, how low expectations affect our religious lives. In the Orthodox community, Jewish women are not expected to wake up at 8am every morning and strap phylacteries on their foreheads … to attend prayer services three times a day … and dedicate a couple minutes to Torah-study every day. Within our community, much less is expected of women with regards to communal and religious obligations than of men.
Details aside, the author exposes a misconception that wreaks havoc with the spiritual lives and aspirations of women, young and old. The exemption of women from a number of time-bound positive mitzvot, many of which are “structured” and require the presence of women in communal spaces, is sometimes interpreted to mean that God expects less of women than of men. Too often, women mistakenly believe that God does not ask of them to invest time and energy to achieve rich spiritual lives.
I wonder if women’s Avodat Hashem has not been a top priority on our communal agenda because we as a community mistakenly believe this, as well.
Every human being, regardless of gender, has the obligation and potential to have a real, deep, and meaningful relationship with God. As Rambam writes in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah (4:13) on the attainment of ultimate knowledge of God, it is “accessible to all, little and great, men and women.” We must understand and communicate that technical obligation in degree or type of a certain mitzvah is not sine qua non for God’s high expectations; many roads can lead to the same place.
From a young age, let’s talk to females, especially, about striving for excellence not just in academics, but in all aspects of Avodat Hashem. Let’s help our daughters explore and discuss different ways to serve God. Let’s continually reflect on where we are, where we would like to be, and how we can get there. Not just around Rosh Hashanah time, but year-round. Finally, let’s celebrate those achievements.
Let’s communicate that women can and must be ambitious regarding their religious lives, and set the bar high.
Communicating the Spiritual “Facts of Life”
Frustration emerges from the gap between reality and expectations. If we aspire for our students and children to have a lifelong connection with God that includes structured spiritual activities, it behooves us to be transparent about the realities of engagement in these activities over the lifespan. We must do a better job at communicating that the “Beit Midrash life” does not last forever and prepare our young women for that reality.
Verbally acknowledging to our students and children that like any relationship, a deep bond with God is dynamic and can take on different forms at different times, is key to the development of a healthy understanding of spirituality. At the same time as we continue to encourage women to reach great spiritual heights through structured spiritual pursuits, it is critical that we articulate and normalize inevitable shifts in how one connects to God, and discuss the experience of navigating those changes.
Questions that we can ask to proactively address the spiritual “facts of life” include: Do I (teacher, parent, role model) personally have the opportunity to learn Torah every day, as I suggest others do? When is the last time I davened with a minyan, or davened all of Shaharit from start to finish (as I encourage my children to sit in shul for the entirety of Yamim Noraim tefillah)?
How is it postpartum to garner all my strength to learn, only for the baby to cry minutes later? What does it feel like to have a newborn and forget to say minhah? And, what is it like to feel okay about missing that minhah? To feel content with sitting in a rocking chair every two hours, for an hour, nursing? Is it valid to feel satisfied with a spiritual existence that feels different than it may have in the past?
These conversations need to take place with our men and boys too; we must also help them understand the female spiritual experience. Some men will be on the boards of institutions who make decisions that affect female members or will be spiritual leaders themselves; all of them can be the supporters and advocates of their wives and daughters as they navigate different phases of life.
As uncomfortable as it can feel to make oneself vulnerable, the benefits of being transparent about the reality of our spiritual lives outweigh the costs.
Providing the Full Toolbox
Our community seems to downplay the importance of mitzvot that are more “unstructured” forms of Avodat Hashem. This exacerbates women’s feelings of disconnect, ungroundedness, and disenchantment at life stages when connecting to God through tefillah and Talmud Torah is less accessible because they feel that they are left with no genuine avenues of religious engagement
In a provocative article, Noah Greenfield analyzes our hagiography of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He writes:
The legends of the Rav paint a man who was a genius, a brilliant proponent of Brisk, a passionate though tough educator, an excellent philosopher, a stirring speaker; an austere, rigorously pious, intensely devoted, intellectual – but not a tsaddik … The image of any religious leader … is developed largely by the community that reveres him … In the Modern Orthodox community, I do not think we value the tsaddik.
Greenfield astutely notes that we devalue other mitzvot as compared to tefillah and Talmud Torah, broadcasting the unspoken message that other forms of Avodat Hashem are not valid forms of spirituality. Granted, Modern Orthodox institutions spearhead hesed initiatives, have hesed committees, awards, and middot programs. Camps and programs for adults and youth with special needs and unique backgrounds abound, and it seems that everyone has run a race to raise money for an important cause. The list goes on.
Yet, I wonder if we truly believe that there are many ways to serve God.
The message that Talmud Torah is the ultimate goal, and that other spiritual pursuits are subpar is implicit in the structure of our day school classes, with the “Beit Midrash Track” presented as the pride and joy of many schools; it is embedded in the communications from day schools touting which Yeshivot and Midrashot their students attend, and how many of their students won the YU High School Bekiut Program award; it is in our Facebook feeds, with community institutions trying to “one-up” each other by bringing in the best and brightest scholars.
For many of us, performance of other mitzvot may not naturally result in the same feelings of connection with God as learning night seder and davening at the 10 PM Maariv that follows. But perhaps they could and should. We may mock others who share that making kugels or playing with Magnatiles is part of their Avodat Hashem.
We may write them off as “the other.” However, if we take an honest look at the texts that underscore the importance of raising families and its primacy in the arena of Avodat Hashem, perhaps we will find that our responses function as a cover for our own feelings of inadequacy that we struggle to view and experience these activities through the prism of religious observance.
Our mindset must shift, as must the conversations that take place in our homes and communities. Let’s start by saying the words Avodat Hashem and discuss what the phrase “relationship with God” means. Instead of asking, “How many pesukim did you learn?” and “What number siyum is this?” let’s inquire, “What did you do to serve God today?” Let’s have conversations about the mitzvot that we have found to infuse us with religious passion and meaning. And if we are not finding that we are feeling connected, let’s together unpack why that is and discuss how we can change it.
Creating Communal Infrastructures for Women, by Women
Even as we educate about the realities of a relationship with God and broaden the definition of Avodat Hashem, it is critical to provide structured spiritual opportunities that are predicated on an understanding of the unique needs of our female population. As women best understand this, it is time for communities to empower females to be at the forefront of these conversations, and to be leaders in creating the infrastructures that will support their spiritual engagement.
“Town hall” meetings could be convened in shuls for women to share their needs and requests with male and female shul leadership. Spiritual growth committees, for men and women, respectively—an explicit acknowledgment of the different needs of each population—can take shape in order to solicit input and create the appropriate infrastructure. A network of such committees could be created so that institutions can share ideas and best practices with one another.
Women sharing their experiences and hearing from one another is important in itself. Opportunities to hear from women who are already beyond some of the most trying phases can be created. Live and online forums can be facilitated by women so that those in similar stages can share ideas, and provide support and inspiration. It is time for our community to elicit information about its member’s spiritual needs and address challenges proactively.
There is much discourse surrounding the importance of female role models, often understood to mean women with training and background teaching Torah or spiritually advising other women. To most effectively address the core educational issues delineated above, I suggest we think more broadly about this concept.
By virtue of being committed religious women, we are all potential role models, regardless of background in Jewish texts, irrespective of profession. As women, we most intimately understand what engaging in a relationship with God across the female lifespan entails. We are the ones who can, from our unique perch, utter the words in Tehillim 42:3, “My soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God.”
Let’s share our experiences,challenges and successes so that every member of our community can help mold the female spiritual landscape by communicating the spiritual facts of life, broadening the toolbox of Avodat Hashem, supporting structured spiritual opportunities that meet the needs of women, and most fundamentally, believing and expressing that we are all meant to have rich spiritual lives.
[i] It would be worthwhile to examine the male experience as well, which is parallel in many ways. However, I write this piece drawing on my personal experience as a woman and those of my peers. The female challenge has unique elements, particularly given that women often find themselves in the role of caretaker, and do not have the same halakhic obligations as men in Talmud Torah and Tefillah b-tzibbur.