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'With humility, my God, I approach you'

By Prof. Avigdor Shinan, Haaretz, 2006

"Tefilat nashim: psifas nashi shel tefilot vesipurim ("Jewish Women's Prayers Throughout the Ages"), edited by Aliza Lavie, Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing, Hemed Books, 310 pages, NIS 98

Once there was a Jewish woman, Fanny Neuda, who lived in Central Europe (1819-1894) and left behind a book of prayers in German: "Prayers and Supplications: Hours of Devotion, A Book of Prayer and Morality for the Women and Girls of Israel, for Public and Private Prayer and for Every Occasion in the Woman's Life" (first printed in Prague, 1855). Written by a woman, for women, the book strives to give voice to female needs and predicaments experienced during the cycle of the year and in the course of the individual life.

The words at the head of this review are taken from a prayer Neuda wrote for "the young girl," who gives thanks for the youthful years she has passed in joy and abundance and, at the same time, asks to continue in the path of honesty and modesty, observing religious duties and avoiding the pursuit of worldly vanities, and especially "that I never abandon the duty of respecting my father and mother."

Neuda, it seems, puts this prayer in the mouth of a girl who, poised on the threshold of adulthood, asks her God for help and support as she ventures outside the protective embrace of her parents. The prayer is included in the section of the book devoted to the coming-of-age process and the bat-mitzvah rites. It is preceded by the famous "Song of Deborah" (Judges 5), which was part of a group bat-mitzvah ritual for girls in various Italian communities, and followed by "A Supplication for a Girl with the Beginning of Her Menstrual Cycle" by Ruth Lazar of Kvutzat Saad, which says, among other things, "Blessed are you God for making me a woman, for making my body wisely, so that every organ knows its season and you gather these organs together and bring maturity and fertility to ripeness in me."

There are three texts: the first from the Bible (albeit in its later usage), the second written by a Moravian rabbi's wife in the 19th century, and the third composed by a modern-day woman from the religious kibbutz movement. All three are female creations that function as liturgical expressions of an important transitional moment in the life of an adolescent girl.

Diverse expression

These texts, along with more than 100 others, were gathered into this splendid and illuminating book by Dr. Aliza Lavie, a lecturer in communications at Bar-Ilan University and an active proponent of various social initiatives intended to advance women's standing in Israel. The book includes prayers, supplications and poetry for everyday life - a request to find the right spouse, as well as words for the bride on her wedding day, for the woman who cannot conceive or is going through a difficult labor, for a mother leading her son to his military service, for the one who goes to bathe in the mikveh (ritual bath), and for a woman who is grieving, in her own way, for the destruction of the Temple or who is mourning the death of her child. Also included are laments for women murdered by their husbands, poetry for women yearning for national redemption and for Zion, a prayer for the successful outcome of sexual relations and words to be spoken at Rachel's Tomb.

I have listed here only a few of the subjects to which the book gives very diverse liturgical expression, in different literary forms and in the many languages of the Jewish Diaspora (what was originally written in other languages, such as Yiddish, Ladino or Arabic, has here been translated lucidly into Hebrew).

Some of the writers are anonymous, others are women whose identities are known. And so, alongside Fanny Neuda and Ruth Lazar, we find works by the 19th-century Moroccan poet Friha, daughter of Rabbi Avraham; a certain rabbi's wife from Lvov in the 19th century; as well as Dr. Yael Levine, Leah Shakdiel or Hava Pincas-Cohen, who are all writers of poetry and prayer in contemporary Israel.

In addition to them and to the many female writers I have not mentioned, the book also surprisingly offers a great many prayers and supplications written by men for the use of women. Among these are "A Prayer for a New Mother Rising from Her Bed after Childbirth," by Dr. M. Leteris (Prague, 1845); "A Tikkun for a Woman Who Was the Reason of her Child's Death," by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (known as "Ben Ish Chay"); or "The Cry of a Woman Suffering from a Failed Marriage Bond," by Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, head of a yeshiva in the religious kibbutz movement.

The praying woman, it seems, was unable to find in the siddur (the traditional Jewish prayer book) an appropriate and satisfactory answer for her life events and unique experiences. The siddur, as we know, was created by men and evolved over many centuries in masculine contexts, especially the synagogue and the beit midrash (house of religious learning); female existence is hardly its foremost priority. It should be mentioned that one of the first prayers spoken by the Orthodox Jewish man every morning is an expression of thanks to the creator "who did not make me a woman."

And more: the Jewish man who observes religious duties is required to pray every day, whereas large components of the prayers are not as clearly and unequivocally demanded of women. Therefore, the siddur that coalesced over the generations did not serve women in the same way that it served men, who were obligated to pray. The female life span, from childhood to old age, contains the same transitions and crises that naturally prompt the believer to turn to God for guidance and help - biological maturation, the initiation into religious duty, entering the circle of marriage (with its joys, but also, sadly, its woes - such as separation, the inability to obtain a divorce, wife beating and infertility), the challenges and complexities of child-rearing, fertility (customs surrounding menstrual impurity, visiting the ritual bath, pregnancy, childbirth or barrenness), even menopause and more.

Within the calendar of Jewish life, women were allotted their own unique corners, such as lighting the Sabbath or holiday candles, customs marking the first day of the month (traditionally considered a day of women), or the duty of hafrashat challa (setting aside a portion of the challa dough for ritual purposes). Where these events are concerned, whether they are one-time or repeat themselves in a fixed cycle, the traditional siddur has usually been mute and indifferent.

Vitality and candor

Lavie has diligently collected numerous and diverse texts. In some cases she has included explanatory remarks about the background of their composition, biographical information or comments on the texts' liturgical usage, but without adding a systematic exegesis of the texts themselves. The works collected here have until now remained on the margins of the Jewish people's literary endeavor, and their collection brings them, almost for the first time, to the center of the stage. The book combines very old texts (such as Psalms) and ones that were only just written (such as additions to the "vayehi ba'chatzi halayla" - It happened in the middle of the night - section of the Passover Haggadah, a piece of liturgy that deals exclusively with men). It brings together works from the Ashkenazi world and those originating in the Jewish communities of the East; works of poetry and of prose; works written by women and works written for them. All these create a varied, multifaceted mosaic of an intriguing phenomenon that is often touching in its literary vitality and emotional candor.

The book's title, "Women's Prayer," can be misleading in two ways. First, it is not devoted solely to prayers, but includes a range of different texts that have some use in a religious context; the appeal to God is central only to a large portion of them. Thus the book includes, for example, the song of Miriam the prophet after the parting of the Red Sea, which makes no appeal to God ("Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously"); Psalm 22 ("My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me"), which according to the Midrash, was spoken by Queen Esther before she went to Ahasuerus; or Pincas-Cohen's beautiful poem "Prayer for a Mother Before Dawn," which can only be called a prayer in a very liberal use of the term.

At the same time, the word "women" in the book's title is also problematic, since a considerable number of the texts in the book were written by men. Reading the book raises other fascinating questions that require further discussion: Is there a difference between a work written by a woman for her friends and one produced by a man for women's use? Can men, and especially rabbis, understand the secret stirrings of a woman's heart and express them in an honest, comprehensive way?

Another question raised by the book involves the socio-religious affiliation of the women whose writings have been collected here. As it turns out, the book contains no prayers, supplications, or other liturgical works by women from outside the Orthodox Jewish circle. There was definitely room to include here, alongside Pincas-Cohen's poem, the section of Leah Goldberg's "Poems for the End of the Road," in which the speaker entreats God to teach her how to pray and give thanks; or "Barren" by the poet Rahel (Bluwstein), in which the speaker expresses her yearning for a son and compares herself to Rachel and Hannah, two biblical women who are also anguished by their infertility. Then there are the hundreds of works that were written and are still being written by religious, though not Orthodox, women in Israel and abroad - works that likewise reflect the need to turn heavenward in times of joy or sadness, transition or crisis.

Any publication is entitled, of course, to limit its own scope and range. In this case, however, it seems that excluding non-Orthodox women restricted the collector's ability to present her readers with other wonderful works and thus to enrich further the view of the world the book reflects.

In one of my desk drawers I still have the words to a prayer for a soldier on his way to battle, written for the 1967 Six-Day War. I also know of prayers written for paratroopers or divers. One imagines that men, too, have written and still write prayers in times of opportunity or need. Has a prayer ever been written about a father-in-law wishing to form a good relationship with his son's wife (paralleling the mother-in-law's prayer included in the book)? Has anyone ever composed a prayer of thanks for a boy's emerging awareness of his masculinity (like the girl's prayer mentioned above)? Is there a special supplication for a father to speak on the grave of his child, or a cry for a man suffering in an unsuccessful marriage (like the parallel female cry)?

I believe that the answer to these questions is no, and it demonstrates what a powerful hold prayer exerts within the frameworks of those who believe in it, and how strong the women were who refused to settle for what the siddur had to offer and sought instead to expand and deepen it.

Prof. Avigdor Shinan teaches in the department of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 
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