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In fact, no one truly knowledgeable of Jewish history could contend that Judaism throughout the ages has produced more saintly men than saintly women, only that the former have had more publicity. For a religion that maintains that the world is sustained by the merit of thirty-six hidden saints, obviously fame is no measure of spiritual attainment.
It is of great significance that the laws of prayer were developed by the sages of the Talmud by using a woman, Hannah, as the role model. Her prayers, as narrated in the first chapters of the book of Samuel, contain within them the very core of Jewish prayer structure. Specifically, the following practices stem from her methods:
Although according to many major poskim (interpreters of Jewish law) women are obligated to pray the morning and afternoon prayers (men are obligated in these and an additional evening prayer), all rabbinical opinions agree that women are obligated to fulfill the commandment of “service of the heart” by praying every day in some way. The minimal fulfillment of this would be a short prayer of one’s own composition that includes praise of God, a request, and thanks.
The historical reality is that Jewish women throughout the ages have undertaken the saying of the book of Psalms as their specific avenue of prayer. These prayers are particularly suited to women’s lifestyles because one can interrupt their recitation at the end of every line (when the baby cries, when the pot boils over, when a neighbor needs a sympathetic ear, when your lunch break is cut short). The standard prayer service should not be interrupted except at certain points, and it is forbidden to interrupt the silent standing prayer at all.
To this day, women can be seen fervently reciting psalms at the Western Wall in Jerusalem at every hour of the day and night. The seriousness and power of their prayer is evident even to the casual observer. And in religious communities throughout the world, women will invariably respond to news of a drastic illness or other impending catastrophe by getting together to recite these songs of praise and supplication.
In this age of modern women earnestly seeking to find their spiritual path in Judaism, it is a shame that the ancient and powerful practice of saying psalms goes largely ignored. Its power to work wonders is attested to by the old saying “Don’t rely on miracles. Say psalms!”
Rabbi Meir Fund tells the story of his grandmother, Hinda, and her brother, who lived in Europe before World War II. Her brother’s spiritual path was to learn Talmud; he was recognized as one of the greatest scholars in Poland. Hinda’s spiritual practice, like that of most women in her society, consisted principally of the fervent recitation of psalms.
On the day that Hitler marched into Austria, Hinda, who was in her late forties and had seven children, went to one of the great rabbis in her city of Vienna. She told him that she knew she would soon be leaving this world and in Heaven she would pray that her children be protected in the impending cataclysm. Three months later she died.
Her seven children were scattered all over Europe: Belgium, Rome, Treblinka, Auschwitz. All seven of them survived the Holocaust. They each have stories to tell of their miraculous escapes, which they attribute to their mother’s prayers. Rabbi Fund ends the story by asking, “Who can say which was greater, my great-uncle’s Talmud or my grandmother’s psalms?”
Jewish women most often pray at home for several reasons. The first is that, unlike men, they are not obligated to pray at set times or in a group of ten. This gives women the freedom to pray according to their convenience (although the morning prayer must be said sometime before noon and the afternoon prayer before sunset), in solitude, and at their own pace, which most women find more conducive to concentration and devotion. In fact, the single most common complaint from men in their early stages of becoming religiously observant is the difficulty of keeping up with the quorum while at the same time concentrating on the words they are saying.
Praying at home is also more convenient for mothers of small children, which is why the ladies’ sections of Orthodox synagogues are generally occupied by older women and single girls. This, however, should not be misunderstood to mean that younger married women do not pray.
One of my students told me of a pivotal point on her path toward Torah observance. A very spiritual young woman who spent long periods each day in prayer and meditation, she was afraid that the Orthodox lifestyle would leave her no room for her inner life. Then she was invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of a family with thirteen children. During the meal, she asked the mother if she ever prayed and was surprised to hear that she did — twice every day. Seeing her astonishment, the mother added, “That’s nothing. I have a cousin who has sixteen children, and she prays, with concentration, three times a day.”
Another reason most women prefer to pray privately relates to the holiness of the Jewish home. Praying there both partakes of this sanctity and adds to it.
In times and places where a large proportion of Jewish women did go to synagogue, the women’s galleries are grand and spacious. (Witness the magnificent old synagogues of Calcutta and Amsterdam.) In places and periods where they usually did not, the women’s sections were correspondingly paid little attention; some old synagogues have none at all.
A common phenomenon today is for newly religious women, or even tourists, to go to synagogues in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim quarter and complain that the women’s sections are cramped and claustrophobic, as if the Orthodox are trying to discourage women from coming to pray. In fact, the builders of these synagogues a half-century or a century ago never expected that these women would be coming to visit or even that sociological changes would cause more of their own women to attend services. One of the newest chassidic synagogues in that area, the Boyaner shul, boasts a spacious, airy, and well-lit women’s gallery.
Prayer is a serious spiritual practice designed to connect a person to one’s Creator. It is not a spectator sport. That some women complain of their lack of a “view” in synagogue, rather than their lack of prayerful concentration or communion with God, reveals a total misconception about why anyone should be there in the first place.
Once we understand that the purpose of prayer is to develop a connection with God, we gain a new perspective on why men and women sit separately in the synagogue. The ideal state for a person to be in when praying is to envision him or herself as part of the community yet simultaneously alone with God. In order to create an environment conducive to this, distractions are limited. Praying outdoors, for example, is not as desirable in Jewish law as praying indoors. In the synagogue, mirrors are forbidden, and pictures are considered a distraction (which is why there is no true synagogue art parallel to the great cathedral art). A Jew is enjoined not to look out of the windows during prayer. If possible, one should pray facing a wall with one’s eyes either closed or looking at a prayer book. Lack of visibility of the opposite sex at this time is part of the generalized effort to eliminate distractions.
Many of the single men and women who complain about mechitzot (partitions) that block visibility are at times busy surveying the available members of the opposite sex when the partition is more open. All too often, in synagogues that have mixed seating or very low partitions, the ambience of “going to synagogue” is more like a singles’ mixer than a spiritual experience. Partitions were set up to help both men and women accomplish what they came to do: develop a connection with God.