In the “Shema”, a prayer repeated twice a day, the Torah tells us to serve G-d “with all your heart “(Deuterotomy 6:5). This phrase is the source of every Jew’s obligation to pray. Essentially, prayer is the tool through which a Jew performs his or her service of the heart and, while the nature of this performance differs somewhat between men and women, it is incumbent upon a Jew to pray every day.
Today’s Jewish woman may have difficulty relating to the difference in obligations between men and women in prayer. The fact is, however, that while the participation of women in prayer appears to be far more understated compared to the public ritual assigned men, the Jewish Nation relies equally on both sexes for spiritual sustenance. In fact, prayer as we know it today reflects contributions throughout Jewish history by both men and women based on their specific Torah-defined roles. In many areas of Jewish observance, including prayer, men and women are assigned separate duties. The whole of these duties forms a sum that is far greater than any one part. As regards prayer, women are often incorrectly assumed to be a lesser part, when in fact, they have always been as involved as men in maintaining a deep connection between G-d and the Jewish people.
This essay will explore the unique role of women in prayer and the profound impact women have had in shaping a relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. In order to explore how women contribute to this bond it is necessary to understand that their work has always proceeded alongside and in partnership with men, whose responsibilities and obligations are of a slightly different nature. To portray Jewish prayer as the domain of either men or women is to deny the essence of the other’s spiritual core. Thus, we gain the most by looking at women’s prayer from the broader perspective of prayer in general. In this way, we will continue to view this central Jewish experience in its rightful place, as a tool for spiritual growth belonging to each Jew as well as to an entire Nation.
What then is prayer? Essentially, prayer can be defined as communication with G-d. Prayer can be experienced in many ways – as a dialogue, a request, an expression of thanks or a query. Prayer might also become a forum for sharing feelings. Inasmuch as we talk to G-d about our relationship with Him or with others, how we feel at a particular moment or what we hope to accomplish in life, prayer remains one of the broadest and most flexible ways to stay in touch with G-d and with ourselves. It is a connection unlike any other, transcending even the most advanced communication technologies and putting us in touch with the Divine.
We communicate with G-d on two main levels, which often intersect. On one level, we approach Him alternately as either Father or King. On another level, we address Him alternately as individuals or as members of a community, the Jewish Nation. In general, when we speak to G-d as a Father, we approach Him as individuals – one on one – as child to Parent. When we speak to G-d as King, on the other hand, we often address Him from a communal perspective. In other words, with some exception, our prayers fall into two major categories: individual prayers addressed to G-d as a Father and communal prayers addressed to G-d as King.
When speaking to G-d as a Father, we relate to Him as somebody who stands next to us, who listens to us and who treats us with loving kindness. In approaching G-d as a King, our bearing is radically different. We prepare for our encounter, as one would before appearing in court, in the presence of royalty. In this more formal prayer, we acknowledge that G-d is awesome, pervasive and beyond our control. As opposed to the feeling of closeness at the heart of our communication with G-d as a parent, we are overwhelmed and remain at a respectful distance when praying to G-d as King.
The two manifestations of G-d as Father and King lead to two very different prayer experiences. In approaching G-d as a parent, we speak to Him in our own words, at any time, in any place and in our own personal style. Our prayer in this sense is spontaneous and even unpolished, but always unique to our individual perception of life. Prayer in this most intimate mode helps us to stay in touch with our deepest hopes and fears.
In communicating with G-d as King when we pray as a community, we prepare ourselves by dressing properly, by praying in a suitable environment and by choosing words that have already been composed and set forth in the “siddur”, the Jewish prayer book. In addressing G-d through codified prayer, we acknowledge that each word of our speech to Him as King is critical and that standing in His presence merits the utmost respect. In this scenario, even our movements are proscribed, as in the “Amidah”, or standing prayer when our steps forwards and backwards as well as our posture and our bows are performed the same way, each time, by every Jew – man and woman alike.
The two ways to approach G-d – as an individual or as a member of a Nation – reflect relationships established with Him by our forefathers and by the Jewish Nation as a whole, throughout the era when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Our forefathers, Avraham, Isaac and Jacob developed a parent-child bond to the Almighty. On the other hand, the aspect of G-d as King was expressed more in the Temple service, which was highly regimented and is represented today through public prayer, in a minyan or in a community.
Many of the daily prayers reflect a communal consciousness, asking blessings of health, wisdom and success in business for an entire People, and educating us to consider the needs of others. Beyond this aspect of mutual care taking, group prayer enables the Jewish Nation to transcend the sum of its parts. Kabbalistic sources speak of a general soul that belongs to all of Israel – a spiritual entity that must be acknowledged and nurtured through prayer. In the Temple era, the Kohanim brought special communal offerings that fulfilled this need. Today, in spite of the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem no longer stands, we face Jerusalem when we pray, as if to create a circle around one common spiritual center.
To summarize, prayer is a vehicle through which a Jew develops both as an individual in front of G-d and as a member of the Jewish Nation in the service of its Creator. It is incumbent upon each of us to cultivate both aspects of this spiritual service, and to look to G-d, as well as to each other for inspiration and strength in this awesome task. In general, women are charged with guiding our individual efforts to bond with G-d as Father, while men are responsible for leading our communal service to G-d as King of the Jewish Nation. Neither duty is of lesser value. Rather they function together as two halves of a whole.
Having set forth several basic concepts behind our communication with G-d in general, we are better prepared to explore the aspect of prayer that belongs to women. In order to address many of the misperceptions about the role of women in this area, our next class will proceed as a question and answer session, based on actual student comments and inquiries. Please feel free to respond to this and any future classes by sending email to [email protected]
Lecture by Mrs. Leah Kohn, Director of the Jewish Renaissance Center in New York City, an institute of study for women. For further information about course offerings and events please call 1 (888) CLASSES.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 1999 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.