Women's Tefilah Groups

Hassman, Natalie (HassmanN@email.marshall.adsn.int)
Wed, 20 Nov 96 15:37:00 PST

On 25 Oct Adam Szpiro wrote:
<<It seems best to trust that the women who choose to participate in these
prayer groups, along with their personal friends and teachers, are best
qualified to judge the spiritual value of the practice... it is possible
that women's tefilah groups, in addition to providing religious meaning for
their participants, will serve to remind all Jewish prayer communities of
the multiple depths of meaning available in communal prayer.>>

Let me share my limited personal experience with setting up a women's
tefila group in a remote US Army post in Germany. We've decided to give it
a try after long soul-searching, reflection on Avi Weiss' book and study of
pertinent halakhot for one simple reason. We don't have a shul or a minyan
or enough men over here who would be interested in any kind of Jewish
observance, and this sadly includes our Jewish lay leader. We're a small
group of five women who observe Shabbat and can't travel about 70 miles in
snowy and slushy Alpine weather to one of the shuls located in Munich. So
we celebrate Rosh Hodesh together by having seuda shniya with our families
and then adjourning to another room to pray with the Siddur. We don't have
a Sefer Torah-- we just read and discuss the Parasha in an informal
setting. We all felt it was an important spiritual experience and felt
elevated thereafter under our very special circumstances of living outside
the mainstream Jewish community. Moreover, as I was praying with the
ladies, I was mentally picturing myself in my regular shul in Caesarea,
Israel. There is simply no way that you can duplicate this experience in
an artifical female-only setting. What I treasure about my shul experience
in Israel is being with and part of klal Israel -- men and kids and women,
old and young. So, Tefila Group for me is indeed a pale substitute.

Women's Tefila groups, in my understanding, are a social American
phenomenon, not a religious one. American Jewish women feel the need to
express their idenitites -- and this includes their religious ones -- on a
par with men. Orthodox Judaism does not offer them this opportunity in a
shul - - so they search for it outside the synagogue. Tefila Groups are
an expression not of a religious but rather of a social need for sex
equality. Orthodox women with strong Orthodox backgrounds obviously can't
relate to this expression of Judaism. Jewish spirituality for women can be
experienced on many levels, and segregated Tefila Groups are at the bottom
of my list. Candle-lighting, hala- baking, mikva, kashruth, Shabbat and
personal prayer for me are definitely more meaningful and spiritually
elevating. I am not in any way suggesting a traditional role model for a
Jewish woman. Simply, as a national security studies expert, I express my
need for sex equality in a professional, but not in a religious setting.
Mitzvoth in personal every day life and not in the synagogue is the core
of Jewish experience for me. Our ladies in the group - - because they come
from Israel or Germany and do not share the American social value system -
- tend to agree. But you can't ignore that women everywhere are seeking
ways to reaffirm their spiritual committment to Judaism. In the heart of
Mea Shearim, ultra-Orthodox women meet every week to study Chofetz Haim's
Taharat Halashon. Lots of Mishnah and even Talmud study groups for women
have sprung up in Jerusalem during the past couple of years. I believe that
this new dimension of women's Jewish observance has far greater importance
both for Jewish women and perhaps for the otherwise bleak future of Jewish
continuity in Western democracies.

As for "Women of the Wall " (they are associated with the Women's Tefila
Group Organiization) who demonstrate their social rights in front of the
Kotel, I have a hard time understanding either their motives or their
ethics. Kotel is not a place to fight for social your rights by showing
tremendous disrespect in public for Israel's traditional Orthodox
community. It would have been far more productive for the cause of Jewish
achduth ( unity) to pray together with the rest of the women on the right
side of the wall. What Judaism teaches us is to sacrifice our modern
feminist egos to serve Hashem.