Our Spirits Rising

By Blu Greenberg

In recent years, there has been a great deal of conversation about women’s spirituality. I have often wondered what this new term means, finding little discussion of it in the sources. Traditional definitions of women as interior and men as communal seem to reflect neither innate truth nor current reality. So what is women’s spirituality and what does it mean for Orthodox Jewish women?

Spirituality is feeling connected — a sense of nearness to God, sensations of identity with community, awareness of the moment as something beyond the moment, the self beyond itself. Halakha formalizes and engenders these connections through prayer, ritual and learning. The Rabbis instituted blessings that transform the piece of fruit in your hand to a miraculous creation of God that grew from a tiny seed, nurtured by soil and rain. The words of the berakha open your eyes to sacred distinctiveness of the fruit and help you taste its special flavor and texture. Classic Judaism found incredible ways to elevate the mundane and the physical, to put the Wow! of life on our lips and in our hearts.

Are women different from men spiritually? Though social scientists have not yet turned their attention to spiritual matters, intuitively, the answer seems to be both yes and no. The “yes” imposes on Orthodox feminists a great task of creativity, the “no” the task of expanding access.

A woman’s biology is different from a man’s. Though some rituals already exist, there ought to be more that reflect a woman’s unique life experiences. We also now know that women have different cognitive ways of relating to the world, and our liturgies should reflect such. Women have long benefited from men’s religious experiences; so now should men be uplifted by women’s expressions.

Yet, we also understand that women have similar existential needs and gifts of the soul. This calls for all Orthodox Jews to seek to win women greater direct access to the rich spiritual storehouse of Judaism. Proof that expanded access will benefit all of us lies in the explosion of women’s learning. As every woman involved knows, Jewish learning is a spiritual exercise, even more than an intellectual one. Similarly, rituals and prayers that women have added to their lives have energized their Jewish souls.

Of course, serious issues arise in relation to both tasks. Creating new spiritual forms is difficult, even tricky. Good ritual must feel authentic, be seamless with tradition and balance individual needs with community sensibilities. Good liturgy must make connections between historical experience and personal expression. Some new forms will not last. But in the spirit of tradition we ought take up the challenge. Not intimidated by the claim that the book of avodah is closed, we should plan for an expansive religious life for women in a deeply spiritual world of the emerging future.

As women have increasing access to inherited ritual, the question of distinctive gender roles must be added to that of halakhic permissibility for innovation. I believe that there can be spiritual equality for men and women without identical roles, and not every differentiation deserves a cry of sexism. Yet, I am also learning — from Orthodox women bolder than I, from women in other denominations, and from younger Orthodox women who have grown up with different conditioning and are examining everything — that there is still more leeway, halakhic and psychic, for women to access spiritual experiences heretofore reserved for men. I also know that there is really no way of feeling something in your heart until you do it yourself. Women who take on daily prayer or annual rituals such as arba minin (the lulav and etrog of Sukkot) testify that regularity and discipline deepen their lives. Performance engages our spirit and connects us to God and community.

That is the theory on which mitzvot are predicated; that is what has long distinguished Judaism from other religions.

JOFA was created as a forum for wrestling with these matters, which need to be addressed within a community. We are in the throes of a profound revolution in human history, expressed not only in our self-perceptions and interpersonal relationships, but in our faith and spirituality. We are all privileged to be at the cutting edge, as we prepare for the next 4000 years of Jewish life. Leshana tova tikateivu vetehatemu!

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