JTA via Alma — Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us, and with it brings the age-old Jewish tradition of not feeling good enough, wondering what we’ve done wrong and judging ourselves more harshly than God ever could. Not my favorite tradition, let’s be honest, because isn’t it time we all learned to live freely and lovingly in our female bodies with an optimistic perspective on the world we are here to transform?
Along with honey and self-examination, Rosh Hashanah brings some other traditions less known. One of them, which you might know about if you pay extra careful attention at services, is the story of Hannah. In my tradition of presenting badass women of the Bible, I present to you the lady who wouldn’t be silenced by patriarchy, a woman whose emotional outburst was the catalyst for national transformation through subsequent historic events.
Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel, but her introduction in the first chapter of the book of Samuel, famously read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, is an important story not only of the power of prayer but the dynamics of privilege when the one crying out is a woman.
Hannah, the text tells us, traveled each year with her husband, Elkanah, and her sister-wife Peninah to the sanctuary in Shiloh (a sort of mini-Temple before the formal Jerusalem structure was built) for the annual pilgrimage holidays. While Peninah, her rival, had a posse of kids to share the barbecue that ensued after the ritual sacrifices, Hannah was childless and sat out of the party feeling some epic FOMO, even though, being the favorite wife, she got the pick of the spareribs and her husband’s sweet talk.
When Elkanah’s “Come on honey, aren’t I better than 10 sons?” wheedling got too much for her, Hannah stormed out into the sanctuary, where she fell apart in tears and prayer.
She cried, she trembled, she poured her heart out, and she did it in that terrible silence of a woman so broken she can’t even find her voice. Her whispered prayer was deep and real. The text tells us how she begged for a child, even cutting a deal with God in that way we all try when searching for a parking space, but this one involved offering to dedicate her future child to a life of service in the Temple, if only she could give birth to him.
Feminist critiques on the centrality of the motherhood theme aside (and I would argue it is just as feminist to pray for a child as it is to ask for any other awesome achievement in life — to each their own), Hannah’s prayer was unique because, back then, nobody prayed silently, nobody prayed emotionally and nobody prayed alone. You showed up at the sanctuary with your family, said some blessings over the cow or sheep you intended to sacrifice on the altar and went on your way. Hannah’s agency in setting her own prayer was groundbreaking — and totally against the norms of the time, as the old patriarch Eli the Priest made clear when he came upon her.
While Hannah’s prayer is a benchmark throughout the Jewish tradition for a real live heartfelt cry, it wasn’t good enough for Eli, who demanded she remove her drunken self from the place until she sobered up.
“How much longer are you planning on this spectacle?” he asked her, kinda like that dude at work who wants to know why you can’t just get on with the presentation instead of taking a minute to cry it out in the ladies room. “Go home, lady, you’re drunk.”
Hannah wasn’t having it, and in a dialogue that would pass the biblical version of the Bechdel test — a woman talking back to a man about her fate rather than submitting (see also: Tamar, Esther, Sarah, daughters of Tzelophchad) — she let Eli know.
“I’m a woman of broken spirit, and I’m just here to pray. I haven’t had a drop to drink … I’m just in touch with my emotions in that healthy way that means when my heart is breaking and all I want is one thing, I’m going to damn well show up and pray my guts out to God, ‘cause isn’t that what this place is for, after all?” Hannah said. “Don’t take me for a crazy fool, a Godless woman — I’m here to pray, and you can help here by blessing me that my prayers are answered, actually.” I may be paraphrasing.
Eli does bless her, and (spoiler alert) she does indeed conceive, birthing the prophet Samuel, who is key in restructuring the biblical Israelites from tribal into a monarchy. Hannah is remembered as one of the seven prophetesses (there must’ve been more, but alas, male scribes …) and as a benchmark for true emotional expression, prayer that transcends social norms to get to the heart of the matter.
Hannah’s story is a lesson for silenced women — and the men who need to listen harder without judgment. How often are men standing up claiming allyship, yet smearing their judgments and honking their own voices above the sound of the silent, broken-spirited, deeply prayerful woman? When women rise into their power, how often are even the wokest of woke dudes standing up to shut her up under the guise of accolades because heaven forbid the room be filled with the sound of women for more than a few minutes?
Peoples of all genders, it’s time. It’s time to listen and make space. It’s time to step up and be heard. It’s time for the silenced ones to be honored, and the old paradigms that have chastised them to be put in their place.
For Hannah’s sake, inspired by her prayer, let’s call that in this new year. Around the Rosh Hashanah table, listen for the silenced voices. Invite them to share, to speak, without judgment. Advocate for those who don’t speak. Listen when they struggle to formulate the words. And remember that the silence can be just as telling as prayers that scream and shout. This Rosh Hashanah, it’s time.