I love God. I love Torah. I’m endlessly humbled and grateful to be an Orthodox Jew. In my fourth year after aliyah, I still pinch myself when it occurs to me afresh that I’m actually living in Israel.
One of the consequences of living in Israel is that my Hebrew is improving. For the most part, that’s excellent news.
But sometimes it’s not.
As my vocabulary and understanding of Hebrew grammar improved, the feeling of being estranged from traditional prayer has worsened. It’s not that I wasn’t aware that so many traditional Jewish prayers assume that the person praying is male. Of course I knew that. It’s just become harder to ignore.
In the mornings, I want to thank God that my digestive system works properly. The Hebrew text requires me to bless God who created man – ha’adam and created openings within him – u’vara vo.
The grammar of the Priestly Blessing in the Birchat HaTorah assumes that the person being blessed is male. May Hashem bless you – yevar’rechecha. To you – aylecha. For you – l’cha.
The gemara quote from Masechet Shabbat that we read as part of Birchat HaTorah includes a listing of the mitzvot that a person – ha’adam, benefits from in both worlds, including showing up early at the beit midrash in the mornings and in the evenings.
The Shema, that central prayer that serves as an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in the God who is One, opens with masculine language – You shall love – v’ahavta your God – Elokecha with all your heart – l’vavcha. The text itself mentions both tefillin and tzitzit.
These few examples serve to illustrate the pervasiveness of the issue. There’s no way to deny it. The assumption of maleness in the siddur text alienates me.
Years ago, I heard a brilliant lecture by Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler (no relation). Rachel Adler left Orthodoxy and became a Reform Jew and, eventually, a Reform rabbi. There are many theological points about which Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler and I would disagree. But what she said about prayer still resonates, decades later.
She acknowledged that prayer is hard. To truly connect to a Divine Being using human language is a challenging endeavor, requiring a significant mental reorientation to the task at hand. Most anyone who has ever prayed from a canonized text can understand how challenging it can be to find God, to feel God, when reciting words from a standard prayer book.
Now add to that the need to reorient a second time, not just as a mortal human trying to reach God, but as a woman, trying to reach God with words written for men, with words that keep reminding you that you are the wrong gender for these prayers.
Though I understand what motivated Rachel Adler to do so, I’m not abandoning Orthodox Judaism for a liberal Jewish movement. Liberal Jewish prayer may solve this dilemma, but it creates others. It is not my solution.
I don’t have a solution, actually. I can’t pray properly with masculine texts, but neither do I want to alter the ancient prayers that have been with our people for centuries in order to assuage my contemporary sensibilities. Dear God, please bring the Geula, bring the redemption of the Jewish people, so all that wounds us in this world will be set straight.
More than anything else, these words are a sigh – a deep and audible exhalation that expresses a spiritual ache. As a woman, I cannot pray from a siddur with authenticity. Sighing then, is my soul’s wordless prayer.