An “Easy” Fast?

“Tzom Kal = “Have an easy fast.”

On fast days, this is one of the greetings our Jewish vocabulary prescribes for us. We wish each other an “easy fast,” hoping, perhaps, that the day in which we show our devotion by refraining from eating, drinking, wearing leather, sex, and anointing ourselves with oils or perfumes, is “easy.”

I have never felt comfortable with this greeting.”Easy”? Is it supposed to be “easy”, particularly regarding Yom Kippur, the only biblically-mandated full-day fast?

Leviticus 16:29-31 —

“בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ. שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם, וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם–חֻקַּת, עוֹלָם.”

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must afflict yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”

The command is reiterated in Leviticus 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7.

ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem” – “You must afflict your souls.” R

ענוה – humility.
לענות – to answer, to respond.

So “ta’anu” – perhaps, creatively, “make your soul humble”? Or even, “answer to your soul”?

If the commandment on this day is “ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem,” and the essence of that is affliction, denial, humility, and response, we don’t fulfill our obligation if it’s “easy”. Let the fast not be so overwhelming that we cannot do our duty in worship, but let it not be easy. Let it be meaningful, spiritual, difficult. Let it be powerful, worthwhile. Let it facilitate stark reflection and self-evaluation.

I don’t know the etiology of the prescribed phrase “tzom kal”. This year, instead of wishing each other an “easy fast,” let us wish each other a “G’mar Chatimah Tovah,” – a wish for being sealed for good in the Book of Life. Let us be comforted, in the presence of community, as we all struggle for meaning and self-reflection this Yom Kippur.

Gimru Chatimah Tovah!

ADDENDUM: According to Tali A., a different Israeli greeting for fast days is tsom mo’il (צום מועיל), wishing for an “effective fast.” Interesting stuff!

The Full Moon of Elul

WordPress’s Daily Post reminded me that today is the full moon — which means tonight will begin the fifteenth of Elul. As my last High Holy Day season (God willing) as a cantorial student approaches and the first of Tishrei skulks around the corner, I am torn between gleeful excitement and terrifying anxiety.

Elul, the last month of the Jewish year if you count from Rosh Ha-Shanah (in Tishrei) and the sixth month of the year if you count biblically (from Nisan), is meant to be a season of repentance, reflection, and soul-searching. We customarily recite Psalm 27 twice every day: once in the morning, once in the evening. In the morning, our recitation is preceded by a loud and often startling shofar blast, followed by these words: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” … “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord.”

The words of Psalm 27 linger with the ringing echo of the ram’s horn. The first and last verses of this poem, which I quoted above, are not the whole story. The Psalmist begins whole, with full confidence in his God, but then his reality begins to unravel. “When evil-doers come close to me, to eat my flesh,” (Ps. 27:2) all “adversaries and foes” fall when the Lord protects our poet. The reiteration of this confidence in the subsequent verses feel a bit like the lady doth protest too much. When all of these atrocities happen to the Psalmist in verses 2-6, despite everything, he continues to have faith in the Lord. It’s cocky on one hand, and feels almost sarcastic on the other. The celebration in spite of atrocities seems rote, forced.

Confidence fails the poet in verse 7. “Hear God, my voice calling; be gracious to me, and answer me.” Where is the surety? Where did God go? Where has the poet misplaced his faith? The Psalmist in the subsequent verses begins searching for God, whose face is hidden from him; he begs for God’s attention and support. The insecurity is palpable, relatable. Not every day can one be as confident as the Psalmist was in verse 1 of this text.

The hope — not security — in God’s protection at the end of Psalm 27 shows the maturity res of surviving a struggle. It is the larger story of the biblical Israelites, who first knew God face-to-face at Sinai but then needed to rediscover Him for themselves in subsequent generations.

It is with this meditation that I see the full moon of Elul.

Repentance is not about the security of forgiveness, it is about hope. The angst of anticipating an apology is worth the growth, and worth the potential repair of relationships even if not in the short-term. My heart races with thrill and fear equally as I look forward to my station as shelichat tsibbur this Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur knowing that I am so blessed to be the catalyst for the prayer experiences of my congregation while, as always, feeling the weight of carrying the congregation on my shoulders – musically, textually, spiritually. Then again, they carry me also: with their collective energy, song, and spirit. I have learned to trust my congregation for their positivity, their attentiveness, their faith.

As I stare at the full moon tonight, knowing that when it disappears for the very next time a new year will dawn, I will think about how I am different. Not different just by virtue of the full moon as the Daily Post suggests, but different by virtue of a full year of growth and change. With a full year since the last time I stood at my High Holy Day pulpit, I am quite aware of my personal development. In some ways, for worse; in other ways, for better.

We are all different than we were a year ago at this time. We all improve in the future from reflecting upon what is past, both failures and successes. No guarantees, except that hope in ourselves, in our future successes, and in God, is always worth our energy. “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).

Light Breaks Through (HTzE)

Light breaks through.
It was night just minutes ago.

I am not a poet,
Yet here I am, inspired to verse.
Change happens so rapidly,
Unexpectedly,
Quietly.
Set in my ways,
Or so I think,
I suddenly realize I am different today
Than yesterday.
Happier?
More alive?
Different.

Light breaks through;
It was night just moments ago.
A calm inspiration seized me.
I have succumbed to it.

The Poet’s Handwriting

This morning I received a compliment: “Your voice is beautiful.” Generally, I welcome these kinds of compliments (who wouldn’t?). Today, however, I’m frustrated.

The comment was in response to my chanting of an El Malei, a memorial prayer, in remembrance of those brave soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces who have died in combat – today is Yom HaZikkaronIt felt, to me, like a prayer that came directly from the bottom of my heart. I poured all of myself into the text, and tried to communicate its meaning to those with whom I was davening.

“Your voice is beautiful.” The compliment, while well-intentioned, frustrated me. It’s like having read a poem and then having complimented the poet on his handwriting.

Perhaps I should be grateful that the t’filah connected with this person on any level. Perhaps this morning, this person was not mentally or spiritually ready to accept the t’filah for its words or its true sentiment. Perhaps this person simply didn’t have the vocabulary or wherewithal to express deeper connection with this prayer. Perhaps what this person doesn’t generally appreciate cantorial music, or that the cantors this person had heard had left a negative impression, so this was high praise. Perhaps there was no baggage, and the compliment was meant simply for the words it contained. Perhaps I should not judge.

I won’t speak for all who endeavor to lead prayer. However, speaking just for myself, leading prayer is not about the music; it is about using the music as a vehicle for spiritual connection and awareness. I never thought in preparation for this morning’s El Malei, “How can I make this sound beautiful?” I asked myself, “How do I communicate these words so my entire being will understand them? How do I, in the framework I’ve internalized, send these words from the page, through the hearts of my community, straight to the Kisei HaKavod (God’s throne in Heaven)?”

The voice of the cantor is oft-disparaged in our modern Judaism. Cantors are accused of “performing,” of extending services too long, of not engaging the congregation appropriately, of “liking the sound of his/her own voice.” Yes, there are those. After all, there was a period not long ago when cantorial music was almost exclusively a high performance art. When it comes to the most meaningful of t’fillot, the deepest in the heart, though, I have never met a cantor who wasn’t filling the words with every fiber of his or her being and trying his or her best to take a prayer and send it as directly to the Heavenly Throne as possible.

The lesson, then, to any congregant listening to any prayer leader: please do not compliment our voices after a worship experience. Tell us you find meaning in what we do. Express the deeper implications of what you say. Engage us in conversation. Tell us why you found something spiritual, and tell us also why you didn’t. We, in turn, will talk about our preparation, our intentionality, and our experiences, and we will not judge.

Sacred Trash

Handwritten inscription to an English copy of the Holy Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1939, given as a gift to the author of this poem by his friend in 1944:

The Old Prayer Book by Jacob Cahan

This book of prayers, old and
stained with tears,
I take into my hand
And to the God of my fathers,
Who from ages past has been
their Rock and Refuge,
I call in my distress
In ancient words, peace,
With the pain of generations,
I pour out my woe
May these words that know
the heavenly path,
ascend aloft unto God on
high
To covey to Him that
which my tongue cannot
express. All that lies
deep hidden
within my heart,
may these words,
simple and true,
speak for me before God
Entreating His mercy
Perchance the Heavenly
God who hearkened to my
fathers prayers,
Who gave them courage
and strength
To bear all of their sorrow
and degradation
Yet ever to hope for
redemption —
Perchance He will also
hear my prayer and
hearken to my cry,
and be to me a protecting
shield,
For there is none to
help or sustain me,
But God in Heaven.

I have no words to supplement Cahan’s beautiful, heartfelt, incredibly personal prayer. This text, in the author’s own handwriting, was found inscribed in the front pages of a copy of an English Bible just saved from the geniza. I wonder – what other prayers, written and dreamed, have been buried among our sacred trash?

A Prayer for Beginning an Endeavor

וְעָל כֵּן אֲנִי מִתְחַנֵּן לְשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא בָּֽעַל הַיְּכוֹלֶת הַגָּמוּר וְהָאֱמֶת הַגָּמוּר שְׁיִתֵּן לִי עֹז וְתַעֲצוּמוֹת לְהַשְׁלִים כַּוָּנָתִי וְיַנָחֵנִי בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶמֶת וִילָמְדֵנִי ארָחוֹת יוֹשֵׁר, כִּי בוֹ בַטָחְתִי וְאֵלָיו קִוִּיתִי, כְּמָאֲמַר הַמְּשׁוֹרֵר, “הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַֽאֲמִתֶּךָ ׀ וְלַמְּדֵנִי כִּי־אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם: וְזֶה הֶחֱלִי בְּעֶזְרַת שָׁדַּי:

Therefore I pray to God who has absolute power and truth that He may grant me courage and strength to accomplish my purpose, that He may lead me in the way of truth, and teach me the paths of uprightness, for in Him I trust and for Him I wait, as the Psalmist says (Psalms 25:5): “Guide me in Your truth, and teach me; for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all day.” Now I begin with the help of the Almighty.

This t’filah is an excerpt from Ikkarim: Book of Principles, a four-volume beautiful theological statement and explication of Torah by Joseph Albo, completed in 1454. Albo closes the preamble to his work with this prayer.

What a beautiful sentiment with which to begin a journey.

Fighting Fire with Fire: A Reflection for 9/11

American Flag Today is September 11, 2011. Ten years ago today, at 7:41 AM, the time it is right now as I write these words, I was getting ready for my fifth day of ninth grade at James Caldwell High School. And it was any other day. For many families, at 7:41 AM on September 11th, 2001, it was still just any other day.

My mother reminded me yesterday that part of my high school principal’s opening remarks for our graduation told us that we were the class that would forever remember that just a few days after we began our high school lives, the world would change entirely and eternally.

As evident in the essay I wrote for Tish’a B’Av just over a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about fire recently. We all remember that fateful day ten years ago, when we watched as the flames burst uncompassionately into the sky from the top floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched as both towers crumbled as hundreds and thousands of individuals said their final words. We were glued to the news, unsure of what the small black dots falling from the buildings’ sides were, until the newsman sickeningly told us those were people jumping from the high windows to their demises, thinking it was the only way not to be burned alive in the melting structures.

When my father and I crossed the lower level of the George Washington Bridge the following Sunday, on our way into the Upper West Side for the second week of Prozdor (Hebrew High School), I remember not being able to see the Hudson River or Lower Manhattan; the air was still too thick with ashes. We could smell them. And I remember in the Sundays that followed, when we made the same drive, we could see as the ashen curtain to our right gradually revealed a potently empty landscape.

This Friday night, I lit candles for Shabbat. I felt the nauseating parallel I felt ten years ago, between the image of the tame, inviting twin flames of my Shabbat candles and the raging twin flames bursting from the towers.

Last night, I watched as the community celebrated Waterfire, when bonfires are lit along the Woonasquatucket River in downtown Providence, Rhode Island — a beautiful sight. As the flames licked the night sky last night, along a backdrop of the towering but quaint offices for which Downtown Providence is known, all I could see was the distance between the fire and those buildings. And how amazing it is that they can coexist safely so long as they never touch.

My composition of this essay was paused here by minyan this morning. We recited everything as usual, except we didn’t recite Tachanun, asking God to forgive our sins. As proscribed by our Sages, Jews always omit Tachanun at times of joy and times of mourning. I told the story of what I remember of ten years ago, my most potent memory of learning Cantor Joel Caplan’s El Malei, which he composed that day, for our choir, in memory of those deceased. The piece was to be sung antiphonally in Hebrew by the Cantor and English by the choir. I remember sitting on the floor in the chapel at Congregation Agudath Israel as no one made any noise except for this music. I remember it was raining.

I remember nine years ago, on the first anniversary, sitting after dark on the football field at James Caldwell High School, with all the stands packed and people standing along the fences for a communal commemoration, as Cantor Caplan instructed the crowd to insert the names, when we paused at the proper time, of those who they knew who had perished that day a year earlier. After about five seconds of complete silence, one invisible person from the back right of the football field, from the dark, yelled a name. From across the field, another. For the next ninety seconds, what felt like an eternity, names of loved ones and friends were announced, shouted. Let us remember all of them. Let us remember all of those who died that day. With tear-filled eyes the Cantor looked at us and said, “For the sake of all those people, we have to finish this piece. We have to.” With a big gulp and a deep breath, we finished:

“Merciful God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the Holy and Pure, the souls of all those we remember today, for blessing… Embrace them under Your sheltering wings forever, and bind their souls in the Bonds of Life. They are with God. May they rest in Peace.”

Today, and every year on this day, let us remember them.
Let us embrace the fire in our hearts and feel the burn, the scar, the imprint, that day left on our souls.
Let us be united in our hatred for those who perpetrated this heinous crime on our nation.
Let us be united in our forgiveness and our vulnerability.
Let us be united in brotherhood, and pledge to help each other through all the times we feel fractured, individually and nationally.
Let us create sacred space together, in which we can worship and praise God while at the same time asking Him why He would allow such a thing to happen.
Let us know Peace, soon, and in our day.

A Meditation for Yom HaShoah

At Temple Emanu-El in Providence, when someone opens the door to our chapel and leaves it to close on its own, one hears a brief and barely audible “click” as the door hits its frame, and then another loud, definitive, often startling, “clack” as the door finally latches. The louder sound happens only after the door has been closed in silence about ten seconds, long enough that the person who came or left through it is long gone.

Today is Yom HaShoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day. The 27th of Nissan, less than a week after the end of Passover, a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom from slavery and oppression. Our celebration of freedom ended with a “click”, but we are jarred back to reality with the “clack” of our commemoration ceremonies and yellow candles. Maybe we were freed  three-thousand years ago. Our oppression barely ended so recently as 1945. It still lingers.

Although it didn’t seem like a day to teach up-beat music to my students in our Religious School as I do each Sunday morning, all students third grade through seventh today sang “Ani Ma’amin”. Each class had different memories about learning about the Holocaust; each class had different feelings about singing the song, hearing its words, and grasping its meaning.

אני מאמין, באמונה שלמה, בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה, עם כל זה אחכה לו בכל יום – שיבוא

I believe, with wholehearted faith, in the coming of the Messiah.
And even if he is delayed, even with everything, I will wait for him, every day – that he will come.

Even in the depths of our despair, we believe. As Jews, we believe. As human beings, we believe in the goodness of people, despite all else, that a better time will come and that peace will prevail.

When we read texts, we have a tradition of not ending on a sad or angry note. Often times we add a verse at the end of a negatively or reproachfully themed haftarah in order to rest on a more hopeful idea. My classes today ended by singing “Oseh Shalom,” Judaism’s universal prayer for peace, and “HaTikvah,” the national anthem of the State of Israel, as we prepare for our celebration of the State of Israel with Yom Ha’Atzma’ut next week.

Although the tragedy feels long gone and far removed, it still lingers. We still feel the jolt back to reality as we put the death tolls into perspective for our students, as we show them what it meant to us, our parents and grandparents, and theirs, to remember those who perished.

When We Have No Words

We learn from an early age how to tell stories and how to express our own needs to others. For the first eight to ten years of life, we develop our use of language for survival. When we become old enough to understand the world around us, when we grow to become metacognitive, we begin to use our language to put our emotions, our ideas, and our experiences in to words. Our ability to produce and process complex language is what differentiates us from all other living creatures. It is an incredibly difficult and incredibly human task.

If I asked you, right now, to compose a completely unique prayer, could you? What if I told you it could be about anything?

Try it. It’s not as easy as it might seem.

Of course, most people are really good at what we call “small talk”. Most of us can spend hours just “chatting” about everything and absolutely nothing. I can sit across a table from someone and commiserate about frustrating classes, talk about childhood memories, and waste away a whole few hours. But when it matters most, most of us are speechless. Positive and negative experiences – if they are intense, chances are, we have no idea what to say.

Luckily for us, Judaism gives us scripted lyrics for times when we find ourselves so caught up that we can’t find our own words. Not only do I find that more often than not these words are much more appropriate for a given situation than I could personally compose, but I also find comfort in the fact that I’m not the first one to say them; that uttering these words and phrases connects me to a whole history of Jewish communities.

There are many examples of Jewishly-prescribed words for lifecycle events. “Mazal Tov!” literally meaning “Good luck!” but colloquially meaning “Congratulations!” is a well-known example. A bit lesser-known but commonly used in synagogue is the expression of “Yishar Koah” (sometimes “Yishar Kohekha” for males or “Yishar Koheikh” for females) which literally means “May you have unwavering strength.” We use this phrase, perhaps peculiarly, often to congratulate those who have participated in the synagogue service, but also to congratulate someone on a great accomplishment as well. In his article entitled “Yasher Koach: May You Have Strength!”, Eliezer Segal explores the origins of saying “Yishar Koah”. He fascinatingly goes through the explanations of two rituals surrounding Torah reading, and suggests that the term is a remnant of both of those combined, and concludes that “Yishar Koah” actually literally means, “May you have the strength not to cause the Torah to fall.” (Usually I would summarize the article in more detail but it’s so interesting I’d rather you just read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I don’t want to spoil the surprise!)

Judaism also provides us with words in times when we are stunned into silence. When a person is ill, we say tehillim, psalms, by their bedside, and we can recite a “mi shebeirakh” for them in the synagogue. When one hears that someone has died, Jewish practice prescribes the phrase, “Barukh Dayan Emet” – “Blessed is the True Judge”. In the Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 59b states that even upon hearing bad news (this blessing can also be said when one hears other bad news), one recognizes the incomprehensible role that God has in this world. When we are faced with comforting a mourner, Judaism prescribes the traditional words, “haMakom yinahem etkhem betokh she’ar aveilei tziyyon virushalayim” – “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” And, when we ourselves are faced with coping with the loss of a loved one, we are prescribed the Mourner’s Kaddish, which, contrary to some popular belief, is not at all a prayer for the dead but rather a prayer of exultation to God and intended to sustain the living.

And for those times when we simply appreciate the world around us, Judaism also gives us blessings to say. Waking up, we are intended to say “Modeh ani lefanekha,” thanking God for restoring our lives and allowing us to wake up in the morning. The first part of davening that we say when we get to minyan in the morning is “Birkhot HaShahar,” which, if you read them closely, basically enumerate the steps in which we engaged to get ready and out of the house in the morning: (1) I woke up, (2) I opened my eyes, (3) I put on clothes, etc.

Most siddurim (plural of siddur) also contain a section of miscellaneous blessings or “birkhot hanehenin” – blessings of enjoyment, perhaps misnamed a bit. These include all kinds of blessings – blessings over food, over smelling sweet trees (welcome to springtime in New England!), over hearing thunder and seeing lightning, over seeing a rainbow. There are other blessings, also, for engaging in Torah study, for seeing a scholar engaged in Torah study, even for seeing “strange-looking people or animals.” Even in this case, when we might be stumped for words, our ancestors have suggested a response.

Being able to appreciate, produce, and process language makes us human. We consider ourselves the highest form of life because we can communicate with this complex system. But there is something else, I think, that makes us human: institutional and communal memory. We as people, as Jews, can benefit from the wisdom of our predecessors. In times of excessive joy and excessive hardship and sorrow, we lean on the words of those who came before us.

Perhaps our generation will produce words which are useful to the next generation. As we come up to Shavu’ot, I notice that perhaps this is one of those pieces that makes us a nation: not only are we connected horizontally with our contemporaries, but vertically to those who came before us and those who will come after us.

And now for another prescribed, but wonderful phrase:
Shabbat Shalom.

A Woman in T’fillin: Must She Be a Lesbian?

One of the things I love about my classes at Boston University is the time it gives me to think about interesting philosophical issues, many of which have a very personal reality in my life. You’ve seen the fruits of these thoughts in some of my previous posts. This time was one of many times I’ve found myself writing little comments in the margins of my class notes, in “Gender and Judaism” with Professor Deeana Klepper.

In class, we’ve been discussing a fascinating issue: Torah as the “Other Woman”. Contrary to mainstream religious Christian beliefs that chastity is the ideal, Talmudic and Kabbalistic literature indicate that sex is not just a “necessary evil,” but that it is rather a duty that a husband performs for his wife. Sex, when done properly and with the correct intent, of course, brings new life into the world, and is therefore an inherently holy act — one of the holiest in which a layperson can engage. However, Torah is still the “Other Woman”. Or is a man’s wife the “Other Woman,” with whom he cheats on Lady Torah? It’s a fascinating discussion, completely unanswerable. But, once again, fun to think about.

But of course, that isn’t my point in this musing, as you may have already noticed in my title.
The dangerous question: Must a woman in t’fillin be a lesbian?

You may be reading this and asking, “What the H–?”. The question is designed to do that, I’ll admit; I mean it to elicit that response because that’s precisely the response I had when I first read our class materials and found this to be a necessary question. You may say to me, “Hinda, what does Torah as the ‘Other Woman’ have to do with women laying t’fillin, and being lesbians?” I’ll tell you.

Check out the series of b’rachot [blessings] and quotes a man traditionally says in the morning when putting on t’fillin:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו להניח תפילין

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us in His mitzvot and has commanded us to lay our t’fillin.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו על מצוות תפילין

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us in His mitzvot and has commanded us in the mitzvah of t’fillin.

ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

Blessed is the name of the honor of His kingship for all time.

The above statements seem self-explanatory. The first occurs while wrapping the shel yad t’fillin on the arm, the second and third while he places the shel rosh t’fillin between his eyes and aligns the knot on the base of his skull. But take a look at the psukim that are said when he wraps the shel yad t’fillin around his middle finger:

וארשתיך לי לעולם

And you are betrothed unto me forever.

וארשתיך לי בחסד וברחמים

And you are betrothed unto me in kindness and in mercy.

וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את י-הוה

And you are betrothed unto me in belief and the knowledge of God.>.

Well that’s interesting! Using the word וארשתיך [ve’erastich], meaning “and you are betrothed,” grammatically must have a woman as the indirect object. Who is being betrothed to whom in this case? It seems that the act of laying t’fillin, and specifically wrapping the leather strap three times around the middle finger, is a “renewal of vows” that occurs daily in the life of a male Jew. Given that the time of prayer is traditionally regarded as a time to push all sexual desire from the male mind, perhaps it is here that the male pushes the thoughts of his wife from his mind and is free to allow and affirm his desire for Lady Torah, his mistress.

Perhaps I’ll develop this thought more at a later date. However, I do wish to explore what the above problem means for those of us women who lay t’fillin every day (or who feel obligated in the mitzvah). What does it mean for us? Clearly we as women have a great commitment to Torah and t’filah [prayer], but the idea that we must be betrothed to Lady Torah in order to fulfill the mitzvah, or as a result of fulfilling the mitzvah, is problematic. On the one hand, I am a proponent of sticking to original liturgy. I do not like the addition of the matriarchs into our Amidah prayer, and I don’t condone a change in the Hineni on the High Holidays when I lead those services, even though it professes that the ideal leader of a congregation has “a pleasant voice,” a “long beard,” and is “learned in the ways of the world.” I don’t like when our lengthy tradition of blessings and prayers is tainted by the ungendering or, worse, the change of gender of God in our prayers from Male to Neuter (the so-called “God tense”) or from Male to Female, respectively.

Calling God “He” does not upset my concept of Him, nor my concept of my own self-image as a woman who believes in God. In fact, I might say that if male and female are made to complete each other, then perhaps I as a woman fulfill a role that completes God. While both versions of the Creation story in our Bible (Genesis 1-2:4, Genesis 2) are significantly different from each other, they both culminate with the creation of Woman; perhaps this is the key support for Woman’s ability to be God’s complement as well as Man’s.

All the ranting in the world won’t solve the problem I’ve posed. Am I, in my own love affair with Torah, proclaiming myself a lesbian? Must Torah be “Lady Torah,” as I have labeled it, my tongue in my cheek? What is our intent as Jews in laying t’fillin? More importanty perhaps, what is our intent as women laying t’fillin? Is it just because men told us in the past that we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, and we use it as a form of rebellion? If that is a woman’s rationale for laying t’fillin, perhaps she should reconsider. If I as a woman, in laying t’fillin, am renewing my vows of betrothal with Torah and/or with God, how do I express that as a woman, without being problematic?

As I have already stated, I am not one to advocate for change in liturgy, most of the time. But perhaps, in this case, if we want to find a way for women to ceremoniously lay t’fillin without needing to step out of some proverbial closet, we need to find a different recitation to replace these inherently heterosexual, masculine vows.