In a recent article in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought entitled "Where Are All the Women?," Dr. Erica Brown relates the following:
“When I was 18 and in seminary in Jerusalem, I went to morning minyan in a large local Israeli yeshiva. Having attended a co-ed Jewish day school with a daily minyan requirement, this seemed normative enough. The few men populating the cavernous women’s section in this yeshiva, however, huffed when I appeared. My presence was an obvious inconvenience to their communal prayer experience. After a few weeks, I was called into the Rosh Yeshiva’s office, where he asked me in Hebrew if I had my eye on a yeshiva bochur. “No,” I replied. “I come here to daven.”
Lazar Krestin, Portrait of a Jewish woman holding a prayer book, before 28 February 1938
The insensitivity of the men to Erica’s spiritual interests is upsetting; the Rosh Yeshiva’s condescension is disturbing. But at the same time, her presence at minyan was an anomaly. Women have no obligation to pray with a minyan, and in many synagogues, women generally don’t attend daily services.
But women everywhere do come to synagogue on Shabbat. And throughout history, there were many communities where groups of women came to daily services. They did so, despite being exempt from communal prayer. And the question is: Why did women choose to come to the synagogue?
The answer begins with a passage in the Talmud. Our Torah reading discusses the ritual of semikhah of laying one's hands on the sacrifice that is being offered. Semikhah is a meaningful ritual that conveys how this sacrifice stands as a proxy for the owner, who is symbolically offering themself to God. Women were exempted from doing semikhah on their sacrifices. The Talmud records a debate whether women can voluntarily choose to perform semikhah. Rav Yosi and Rav Shimon ruled that they may do so, and Rav Yosi recounts that "Abba Elazar related to me the following incident: On one occasion, we had a calf for a peace-offering, and we brought it to the Women’s Courtyard, and women placed their hands on it… in order to give contentment to the women.” This ruling goes beyond semikhah; it is stands as a precedent, one that authorizes women to take part in time-bound commandments such as Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav, as well as other commandments from which they are exempt, such as Torah study and praying with a minyan.
Women embraced the opportunity to perform these mitzvot. Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan, or the Raavan, an early 12th century rabbi from Germany, writes that “one should not protest” when women perform commandments from which they are exempt and make a blessing. The implication of his words is clear: without even asking, women took the initiative to do these mitzvot on their own.
Women have always had a particular devotion to the synagogue. The Torah tells us that in the first sanctuary in the desert, the Mishkan, a large group of women would assemble daily at the entrance. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that they came to pray and study. The prayer of Chanah at the Mishkan in Shiloh is studied carefully by the Talmud and is the foundation of many of the rules of prayer. In medieval Europe, women were very committed to synagogue life. Avraham Grossman cites multiple references of women attending services. Yemima Hovav, in her analysis of the epitaphs on Jewish tombstones, found that women were praised for their regular synagogue attendance as often as men. In addition, there are multiple records of medieval women leaving money in their wills to the upkeep of the local synagogue.
All this involvement in synagogue life took place against the background of a medieval custom that women did not enter a synagogue while they were menstruating. Despite this obstacle, their passion for synagogue attendance remained undiminished. As Elisheva Baumgarten points out, “On the contrary, the imposition of physical distance may have elevated women's awareness of synagogue activities and their longing to return."
A moving example of women’s devotion is found in the eulogy offered by the Rokeach, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, for his wife Dulcea, who, along with her two young daughters was murdered during a home invasion. In a eulogy of heartbroken poetry, based on the words of “Eshet Chayil,” the Rokeach says:
Her lamp will not go out in the night,
because she makes wicks for the miniature Temple (synagogue) and the house of study,
and she says Psalms,
She sings hymns and prayers, she recites petitions,
Daily (she says) the viduy confession …
She says pittum haktoret and the Ten Commandments,
In all the towns she taught women (so that they) can chant songs
She knows the order of the morning and evening prayers
And she comes early to synagogue and stays late,
She stands throughout Yom Kippur, and sings…
Dulcea was a woman of prayer.
Despite being exempt from praying with a minyan, women were dedicated to synagogue life. One passage in the Talmud sums it up best: “There was a widow in whose neighborhood there was a synagogue, yet every day went to pray in the study hall of Rabbi Yoḥanan. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her: My daughter, is there not a synagogue in your neighborhood? She said to him: My teacher, don’t I attain a reward for all the steps I take while walking to pray in the distant study hall?” This widow literally went the extra mile to find an inspiring synagogue. It is from her example that we learn the importance of sechar pesiyot, the value of making an extra effort to go to the synagogue. And this passage is a metaphor for women’s devotion to synagogue life; they have always been ready to go the extra mile, no matter what the obstacles were.
But recently, things have changed.
Dr. Brown begins her article with a recent conversation she had in synagogue.
“One recent Shabbat in shul, a friend ….whispered in my ear, “Where are all the women?” The men’s side was brimming with religious activity. The women’s side looked as if we were still practicing rigorous social distancing… even in our wonderful synagogue with a generally high female turnout.”
For some reason, in many modern Orthodox congregations, women have not returned since the coronavirus. Brown explains:
“Let’s be honest. Not every woman who is not going to shul on Shabbat is raising a young family or caring for someone elderly. Not every woman who has stopped attending minyan is struggling with feminism’s discomfort with Orthodox prayer space and gender disparity.” One could, and should, discuss issues related to feminism and Judaism. However, that isn’t the reason why women haven’t returned to synagogue since Covid.
At the conclusion of the article, she makes an impassioned case for women to return to synagogue, offering 10 different arguments. (The article it is available here)
But this is not just a women’s issue. Whether or not women return to the synagogue matters to the entire community; what’s at stake is a unique spiritual legacy. When reading about the history of women and prayer this past week, I was struck by how generations of women were absolutely determined to pray in synagogue no matter what the impediments were. In the women’s section, the knowledgeable women would teach the others the prayers and parsha; there would be books of tkhines, prayers in Yiddish, so that even those with limited educational backgrounds could find the words with which to approach God. In the corners of synagogues, women came to pray, to speak to God, and pour out their hearts. They had many reasons to stay home, many barriers to overcome. But they still went to the synagogue to pray.
Without a doubt, these women influenced their communities, their friends, their husbands, their children. Many rabbis learned the beauty of prayer on their mothers’ laps, and would say so to their students. Women’s prayer is the foundation of Jewish prayer.
What will happen if women don’t come back to synagogue?