Reconciling a Woman’s Role in Tefillah
By Jemima Schoen
Written for the December 22, 2022 Issue
No one wants to be in a place where they feel unwanted. Each morning as we enter the Beit Midrash, the girls know that they are entering a male-centered service. That is an understood piece of the school’s religious observance. The only part of the school’s tefillah where a female voice is leading is during the Mi Sheberach l’Chayalei Tzahal, which I volunteer to read. For a while, there was a disconnect between the two sides of the mechitza during this tefillah. Now, I have never been told that I am soft-spoken, yet, for this prayer, I have noticed and been told by peers and teachers that my voice is subsumed, and the pacing is in discord.
In order to offer a better opportunity to feel active in prayer, a logical solution would be instituting an all-female tefillah group option. We could all daven together, out loud. We could have female leaders and read Torah ourselves. But does the all-female tefillah option really work when we don’t have an obligation to pray? And if it’s not considered as serious/important because it’s not a “real” minyan (a quorum of ten men), will anyone respect it? Will it turn into a joke?
I would like to think that it would be taken seriously. I would like to think that we could join together in a female community and daven in our own way. But, at the same time, I would still have this nagging thought in my mind— were we forced to do this? Would we still want an all-female space even if we felt accepted in the main minyan? Maybe this all-girls tefillah option is really a sign of surrender, throwing in the towel because we are fed up with being interrupted, overpowered, and disregarded.
For the sake of women’s confidence to vocally participate in tefillah, it might be easier to have an all-girls tefillah group, but we would be depriving the boys in the main minyan of our voices. We make up half of K’lal Yisrael, and our spirituality and intentionality in tefilla should be embraced. Even if we think someone might not want to hear us, they need to. Retreating from the main minyan may seem to signify that women are not important in tefillah, when in reality, we are vital. Leaving might just reinforce the notion that girls really are not necessary for tefillah, that they do not add anything to the tzibur, community, and that the minyan can manage just as well without us.
That being said, it should not have to be a woman’s responsibility to teach others that we are important. We should all automatically treat one another with mutual respect and regard every individual and every group as vital, an essential unifying piece in forming a functional and uplifting community. Certainly, any girl who feels this way should stay in the main minyan if they wish to do so; that is their prerogative. Yet, sometimes there is a learning period, and not everyone is comfortable being in a place where there is a promise that they are wanted, but they do not yet feel that in the environment. We need to give the girls a tefillah option that they are comfortable with, and for some girls, that is an all-female option. These girls are not doing a disservice to the community; they simply yearn for an environment to daven comfortably. So what if going to girls’ tefillah is a retreat? That does not have to be negative. Rather than a military-style retreat— that of withdrawal when overpowered— it can be a spiritual retreat, in the solitude of an all-female space where girls can truly take time to focus on their own prayer.