Lost In Structureless Spirituality


This is the second installment in the series, read part-one here.

In middle school and high school, I was a proud thorn in my rabbis’ side. I generated countless eye rolls from my peers as I asked difficult questions to my then religious instructors. Why couldn’t I read from the Torah? Why was the patriarch Jacob not incensed by his daughter Dina’s rape? Why was I responsible for what I looked like; why weren’t men responsible for where they looked? Despite these questions that tormented me far more than they annoyed my teachers, I also had my closest relationship with G-d. I loved being chazanit (prayer leader) every morning in school; the fact that nobody else wanted to did nothing to dampen my enjoyment. I loved going regularly to a youth minyan at my shul, pulling away the mechitza and giving divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) at the end of service. I loved being able to kiss the Torah, and even dance with it on Simchat Torah. Now, I am a lazy feminist; I can barely muster up the energy to raise an eyebrow about issues of women’s leadership in Orthodox synagogues. I’m just so tired of talking about it.

I have never felt further from Hashem than I do right now.

The synagogue was not always a place for women. Traditionally, women stayed home and minded their children. But over the last few decades, a shift occurred. Now, schools teach girls to connect to Hashem through tefillah. Parents proudly attend ceremonies in which all students receive their siddurim. Boys and girls begin each day of school singing songs from davening. Teens, as they grow up, find that their tefillot (prayers) grow with them. Every day of school has time allotted for prayer in a large group, regardless of gender. Once we become adults with busy schedules it becomes much harder to find time to pray. But on Shabbat, our day of rest, the whole community unites in shul.On Shabbat in my shul, people come together to affirm their place in the Jewish community and connect to God. After a week full of commutes and carpools, taxes and text messages, business meetings and homework help, the shul is a sanctuary for the community to find peace and spirituality. While I believe shuls make an effort to improve the experience of attending, they could do more to help women feel welcomed.

I’m happy for him and his wife that their division of “spiritual labor” works for them. But that does not work for all women.

Women’s relationship to communal prayer doesn’t necessarily change when they get married and have kids. After years of scheduled times for tefillah, women, like myself, may feel comfort in knowing that on one day a week, they drop everything to pray with the tzibur. I remember in high school hearing my rebbeim and morrot say how women don’t need time bound mitzvot because of women’s inherent holiness. That may be validating for women to hear, but for me it felt ingenuine. I know myself and I need more structure to work on my religiosity. A male friend of mine once lauded his wife that she likes her role of staying home with the children while he attends services. I’m happy for him and his wife that their division of “spiritual labor” works for them. But that does not work for all women. Certainly some women feel that their spirituality is innately linked to being a wife and mother. But some of us don’t and people shouldn’t make us feel lesser than because we feel we need more to nourish our spirituality.

Personally, I have never felt further from Hashem than I do right now. My break from davening and learning because of my busy life as a working mother has hurt my relationship with God. My neshama (soul) is so starved that I find myself in tears when my four-year-old son sings “We Open One Eye, We Open Two.” I want to find the strong closeness I had back in high school, when I punctually attended teen minyan every Shabbat. I can think of no better place to get reacquainted with the Almighty than at shul.

My shul is a wonderful place that I love going to every week. But I think it, and other shuls like it, can do more to help improve attendance for women so they can reconnect with their Judaism. On a simple level, it would be great if more shuls could have a nursing room for mothers. I love coming for the Shabbat morning Mommy and Me program, but I need to be able to feed my baby. I also still want to daven. I wish there could be a baby and child friendly minyan in which I could wear my baby in my Baby Bjorn while davening with the tzibur (congregation.) And I wonder if there could be more learning opportunities at shul given by women for women in the evenings, after the children go to sleep.

It would be helpful and validating to see women in leadership roles in my shul.

Additionally, it would be helpful and validating to see women in leadership roles in my shul. After going to a single-sex high school and having it hammered into me that there are some topics that should not to be broached with men, it’s a real culture shock to be expected to ask my shul rabbi questions about ritual purity and intimacy. I would be far more comfortable asking a woman my questions. In fact, my first year of marriage, I lived in Lakeview, Chicago and was able to utilize the brilliant Rachel Kohl Finegold as a Taharat Mishpacha (family purity laws) resource. I don’t know how I could have survived that year without her. While women do an incredible job running the youth programming in my shul, I know that women are capable of fulfilling other roles as well, like yoetzet halacha, education director, lecturer, and panelist. It’s hard for me to understand why this is still controversial in year 2017. At my Bais Yaakov-like high school, it was controversial for girls to study Gemara, but in the Modern Orthodox community of Teaneck where I now live, girls studying Gemara is practically ubiquitous. Why would women in positions of power in shul be any different?

I’m driven by a longing for spiritual and religious meaningfulness.

Not all women are the same. There are women who will read this article and shake their heads, unable to relate to my experience. But I know there are women who feel the same as I do. And those women want to connect to Judaism through prayer and learning. It can’t be assumed that they are motivated by jealousy, hubris, or hunger for power. Just like we don’t assume a generous benefactor has ulterior motives for giving tzedakah, we shouldn’t assume a woman who wants to daven, study, or lead has ulterior motives for doing so. I know for myself I’m driven by a longing for spiritual and religious meaningfulness.

Adina Kastner is a mother, teacher, and aspiring author. When not in the classroom, she can be found at her dining room table, grading papers. Her happy places include Carvel, Lazy Bean, and anywhere that sells frosty treats. She currently lives in Teaneck with her husband and two sons.

About The Project
During the High Holiday season, The Jewish Week and “The Layers Project” will be collaborating to bring you the series, “Hidden Reflections, Revealed: A Communal Introspective on the Thresholds of Orthodox Femininity.” This is the second installment in the series that will contain images and essays that serve as a communal cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) on the topic of several women’s issues in Orthodoxy. Read the first piece here, and look out for the next installment next week, and for more personal stories and ‘in-depth insights into the lives of Jewish women,’ check out “The Layers Project” on Facebook. Images created by Shira Lankin Sheps, founder of “The Layers Project.”