Commentary Magazine

On Being a Woman in Shul

“It is better to pray at home, for in the synagogue it is impossible to escape envy and the hearing of idle talk.” Thus, the advice of Elijah ben Solomon, the Gaon of Vilna, in a letter to his wife. “The more so,” he added, “on Sabbaths and festivals, when people assemble in order to talk; on such days it would be better not to pray at all.” The Vilna Gaon even advised his wife to keep their daughter away from the synagogue, “for there she would see garments of embroidery and similar finery.” Consequently she “would grow envious and speak of it at home, and out of this would come scandal and other ills.”

Since the Vilna Gaon wrote this letter about two hundred years ago, surprisingly little has changed, Reform Judaism notwithstanding. Indeed, people who are nowadays lax in such matters are even more likely to agree with his judgment of the synagogue than those who are themselves strict in Jewish observance. To be sure, the synagogue does not generate envy and gossip; it merely happens to be one of the sites, particularly on Sabbaths and festivals, where they are commonly found. Pirke Aboth counsels, “The more flesh, the more worms,” and this is to the point: the more affluence, the more finery; the more finery, the more envy; the more envy, the more gossip.

My shul is better than most, I think, partly because it has only a modest share in the affluence which many American Jews enjoy. It is an Orthodox shul in a middle middle-class community of Queens which I once called Garfield Hills, when I was writing about another synagogue.1 Most of its congregants are native Europeans who fled to the United States from Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, some by way of Auschwitz and displaced-persons camps. Neither rich nor poor, they are small businessmen, retailers, accountants, salesmen, a few professionals.

The women, for the most part, are not prosperous enough to own the embroidered garments that the Vilna Gaon warned against or the mink habiliments that are de rigueur for bar-mitzvahs. Their mode of dress and adornment would hardly necessitate any such sumptuary legislation as that enacted by Jewish communal officials in Poznan (for example) in 1629, forbidding tailors, under penalty of a fine, to accept orders “for a garment of satin or damask even from the leading families of the province.” Besides, being Orthodox (more or less), the women in my shul are by nature, as it were, decorous in their dress: the vagaries or vulgarities of individual taste are curbed by the insistence of tradition on modesty and propriety.

I like this shul. The male congregants themselves conduct the services, and once you have heard them, no cantor will do. Florid phrases and fluttering quavers are a poor substitute for the spontaneity, inwardness, and genuineness with which these men pray. When I arrive, Saturday mornings, a little late, I can almost palpably feel the ascent of their urgent voices, their exaltation of God.

This shul is, above all, a place where people come to pray. When there is a bar-mitzvah ceremony, it does not usurp the service. The boy reads maftir; the rabbi acknowledges the occasion in his sermon and bestows upon the celebrant the sisterhood's gift of a siddur; then the service goes on as usual. The women, too, come to pray. Whenever they arrive—no matter how late—they recite the Shemoneh Esreh. Then they catch up with the rest of the congregation. Even behind the partition of lattice and scrollwork, the women of this shul can find their place in the prayerbook, without assistance from their menfolk.

To my astonishment—for I thought myself modern—I find I like the partition. Because of it, men are more intent on the liturgy (and, for that matter, women are, too) than they might otherwise be. The original reason for separating the sexes, a practice which dates all the way back to the Temple, when women were assigned to the ezrat nashim, was, presumably, to discourage amorous thoughts. Later, to ensure the same purpose, rabbinic leaders prescribed special galleries for women in the synagogue so that they “should look down from above and men look from below.” (This was not a uniquely Jewish problem. Some English churches in the Middle Ages separated the sexes to discourage philanderers, as John Gower put it, “in churches and in minstres eke,/That gon the women for to seke.” The Duke of Mantua, a notorious operatic seducer second only to Don Giovanni, used to go to church to find girls when things got dull at his court.)

Separation by partition or gallery does, as a matter of fact, help the congregants concentrate on prayer. Separation also ensures that the service remains a men's service, that women do not usurp it. Judaism has always depended on its males to maintain the congregation. That is their prime responsibility. Because women do not share this responsibility, we are told again and again that Judaism regards women as inferior creatures. Every Jewish male, on arising, recites these benedictions:

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a heathen.

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a slave.

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.

Christians who like to argue the relative merits of religions often adduce Paul's annulment of these discriminatory distinctions as evidence of Christianity's greater tolerance for women: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). To propagandize his new religion, Paul promised equality both here and in the hereafter to heathens, slaves, and women. But on those women who were already committed to Christianity, he imposed total subservience. “Mulieres in ecclesiis taceant,” he wrote: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law” (I Cor. 14: 34). And he commanded them also to dress and act modestly, pray in silence and subjection. For their sins, and Eve's original sin, they could be saved only by childbearing and “faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (I Tim. 2:9-15). What an easy argument for a Jewish polemicist to rebut: Compare the honor accorded the woman of valor in the book of Proverbs.

Judaism is a man's religion not only in substance and in practice, but also in its symbolic theology. God is male. Israel in relation to God is female: the Bridegroom God and the Virgin Israel. The Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, represents the feminine potency within God. The Torah is female, Sabbath is female. In relation to them, Israel is male. In the books of the Prophets and, of course, in the Song of Songs, marriage and sexual relations symbolize the ties between God and Israel, Israel and the Sabbath, Israel and Torah. The Torah, according to the Talmud, is betrothed to Israel, and, therefore, forbidden to every other nation. When a Jewish boy comes of age, his assumption of the responsibilities of manhood is solemnized by his being called up to the Torah.

Professor Gershom Scholem has illuminated and explicated the mystic-mythic conceptions of masculine and feminine—begetting and receiving—which the Kabbalists derived and amplified from the traditional sources and in which the symbolism of the sacred marriage between God and Israel occupies a central place.2 The ritual of the Sabbath in particular, Scholem tells us, became associated with the myth of the sacred marriage. On the basis of Talmudic passages about a rabbi who, on the eve of the Sabbath, used to put on his best clothes and say, “Come, let us go and meet the Queen Sabbath,” and another who cried out, “Come, O bride, come, O bride,” the Kabbalists personified the Sabbath as a celestial bride with whom Israel entered into a mystical union.

On the festival of Simhat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), the marriage symbolism is patent and exposed, even in the most exoteric, austere, rationalistic style of worship. At the morning service the men called up to the reading of the last and first portions of the Pentateuch are designated, respectively, as Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereshith—Bridegroom of the Law and Bridegroom of Genesis. Throughout the service they hold the sacred scrolls in their arms. The ceremony is obviously a representation of the symbolic marriage between Israel and the Torah. The festival begins on the previous evening when the Torah scrolls, dressed in their richly embroidered silk and velvet coverings and adorned with elaborately chased silver crowns and shields, are removed from the Ark and paraded in processions (hakafot) seven times around the reading desk. (At an Orthodox wedding, the bride is led seven times around the groom.) In my shul the hakafot summon forth the congregants' normally inhibited hasidic heritage. Dancing and singing, shouting and stamping their feet, downy-cheeked yeshiva students and gaunt patriarchs embrace the Torah scrolls. After each hakafa their dancing becomes more frenzied, their faces flushed, their voices more rapturous as they sing “Ve-nosan lonu Torasernes” (“And He has given us the Torah of truth”).3 Little boys ride upon their fathers' shoulders, merrily waving Torah flags; the old men raise the Torah scrolls high above their heads, in exaltation. The women stand be hind the latticed partition, watching, beating out the rhythm, clapping and stamping, singing too—but still only spectators. They are envious—more likely, jealous. The Torah has seduced the men and earthly women are forgotten. The men are dramatizing Israel's marriage to the Torah.


On Simhat Torah morning recently, I attended services at a Re-constructionist synagogue, where I had been urged to come because the Torah reading was said to be beautiful. It was indeed, but Re-constructionists are much too rationalistic to observe Simhat Torah as it ought to be observed, and Simhat Torah is too transcendental, too supernatural for the Reconstructionists to assimilate. (Norman Podhoretz once observed that Reconstructionism is the East European equivalent of Reform Judaism.) But I did not mind the dry-as-dust service so much as I did the feminist spirit which informed it. Women have equal rights in this synagogue all year 'round and Simhat Torah was no exception. Not only were women called up to the Torah for aliyot (that is an ordinary Sabbath routine here), but they were also given the privilege of Hatan Torah, which, Reconstructionists being strict rationalists, was renamed Kallat Torah. Watching these women embrace the Torah, I found myself seized by wicked and perverse thoughts. Wicked: How insensible was this movement to the festival's symbolism, to its music and poetry. Perverse: Only here could transvestitism appear as innocent farce.

If ever men abdicate their synagogual responsibilities to women, the synagogue will, I fear, succumb either to Italianization or to Hadassah-ization. Women, when passive, can turn the synagogue into something like a provincial Italian Catholic church. The rabbi assumes all sacerdotal functions: the women become his dutiful parishioners, whose religion is part devotion, part ignorance, and part superstition. Religion, then, becomes a womanish thing. Men stay away out of contempt. I have seen signs of this in several small Reform congregations in New York. But even more forbidding—to me at least—is the threat of female power, female supremacy in the synagogue. Women are efficient: they can organize, raise funds, bring order out of chaos. They can turn the shul into a Hadassah chapter. Not that I disapprove of Hadassah, its activities, or its ladies. But I do not like the idea of their taking over the synagogue. (I have seen signs of this, too, in some of the larger Conservative congregations.) I prefer my secular world to be a man's world. As a matter of fact, so, for generations, have most Jewish women, notwithstanding the caricatures of man- and manchild-eating Jewish women depicted in the fiction now much in vogue.


In Judaism, women are assigned primacy at home, not in shul, and, despite the reformers, this traditional religious role of women seems appropriate also biologically and sociologically. The Talmud exempted women from the performance of “positive commandments which depend on stated times,” and the rabbis said women acquire merit “by sending their children to learn [Torah] in the synagogue, and their husbands to study in the schools of the rabbis, and by waiting for their husbands until they return from the schools of the rabbis.”

But women were not exempt from praying: they were expected to recite the Shemoneh Esreh, affix the mezuzah, and say the benediction after meals. (The Vilna Gaon, maximalist that he was, ruled that women were also obligated to recite the Shema.) Nor were women discouraged from attending services in the synagogue. But women's obligations at home seldom permitted them the leisure to go to shul for daily morning prayers. (Dr. Isaac Rivkind recounts an anecdote of a pious East European woman who used to come to shul early each morning and recite a prayer of her own: “Good morning, God! I haven't got much time to spend here; I must go home and feed Abraham my son, so he will have strength to study your holy Torah. Good day, God!”) For the most part, women have gone to shul on Sabbaths and festivals.

Women know less of the liturgy and the Torah than men do, or, if they are modern women, than they ought to. Traditionally, though it was considered improper to teach women the Oral Law, there was no prohibition against learning to read the Torah. Still, most Jewish women used to be what we would today describe as functional illiterates.

One solution to female liturgical illiteracy was a female prayer-leader, known in Yiddish variously as a zogerin, forzogerin, zogerke (all meaning “reciter”) or voylkenevdike (a learned woman). Proficient in Hebrew, with mastery of the liturgy, the zogerke would recite and translate the set prayers for the women in the gallery, simplifying, paraphrasing, enlarging, embellishing, and interpreting in a fashion appropriate for her listeners. They, if they could, repeated the Hebrew after her.

In time, the oral tradition of the zogerke became formalized in print. The Korban Minhah prayerbook, containing a Yiddish translation and commentary on the whole liturgy, first published in 1725, became the standard siddur for women and the most widespread in Eastern Europe even until 1939. In my shul several older women still pray from it. Private prayers—tehinnot—or prayers for private occasions also became standardized in print. Composed chiefly by women, these tehinnot provided for all sorts of personal and ritualistic contingencies which Jewish women might confront. The most famous of the tehinnot composers was Sarah, known by her own appellation as Sore bas tovim—Sarah, daughter of pious parents—who lived early in the 18th century. Her tehinnot were so popular that some hundred and fifty years after her death, her name continued to appear on devotional compositions which indigent and somewhat cynical rabbinical students wrote on demand for publishers, imitating her touching and sentimental style. The granddaughter of a rabbi, Sarah was probably a zogerke, traveling from town to town, from one women's gallery to another. Her self-imposed condition of homelessness, she explained in one of her collections of tehinnot, was by way of expiation for the sins of her youth: “I talked in the synagogue while the dear Holy Torah was being read.” She cautioned her readers to benefit from her sad experience: “I do recall those times when I used to come to the dear synagogue in costly jewels, sneering and scoffing . . . but God remembers and does not forgive. Therefore, you should come with reverence, knowing before Whom you have come and to Whom you pray.”


The hour at which the reading from the Torah scrolls takes place is generally conceded to be the best time for conversation in shul; at least that has been the practice from the days of Sarah bas tovim (and surely before) until today. But in the good old days, on the very first occasion the Torah was read before a congregation, there was no talking at all. According to the Bible, when Ezra brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, “the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law” (Neh. 8:3). But thereafter, though the Shulhan Arukh proscribed conversation during Torah reading, even about Torah, the ruling was honored, as they say, more in the breach.

That there is too much talking in shul is a criticism Jewish universalists are prone to make of Jewish particularists, as if idle conversation during services were unique to Jews or to Jewish women. But the complaint is more universal than the universalists may care to concede, because they are so particularist in their criticism of particularism. Bertold of Regensburg, the 13th-century Franciscan preacher, used to grumble at churchgoers who, “while God is being served with singing or reading . . . laugh and chatter as if they were at a fair. . . . And ye women, ye never give your tongues rest from useless talk! One tells the other how glad the maidservant is to sleep and how loth to work; another tells of her husband; a third complains that her children are troublesome and sickly!”

One reason why women gossip in shul is, of course, that they have an innate feminine proclivity for it: “Of ten measures of talk that came down to the world, women took nine.” Another reason is that they simply do not understand what is going on. I have discovered that many women in my shul who can recite the prayers more fluently than I seldom know their meaning, though they can locate them immediately in the siddur. Least of all do they understand the Torah reading. This, too, was not always the case. When Ezra first read the Torah everyone knew what was going on: “And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8).


The hasidim of medieval Germany believed that understanding the liturgy was the key to kawvanah, the mystical meditation on the meaning and words of the prayers, inducing communion with God. The Sefer Hasidim (“Book of the Devout”) counseled God-fearing men who knew no Hebrew and women, “who certainly do not understand Hebrew,” but who wanted to pray with kavvanah, to pray in the language they understood: “For prayer is the heart's pleading. If the heart understands not what the lips utter, what good is such prayer?” Presumably, the Reform movement has solved this problem with the Union Prayer Book. Reform women can understand the prayers; but if they don't gossip, or gossip less, in Reform Temple, it may be because the service is too short for social intercourse. The Shema and the Shemoneh Esreh have been so truncated that there is little left of the original liturgy either to understand or to misunderstand. And since hardly any Torah is read, that problem, too, has been solved by being done away with. I, for one, prefer ignorant piety to literate brevity. Besides, I find decorum more unnerving than talk.

Nevertheless, in my shul the hubbub of conversation during Torah reading often annoys me. But then, too, I can afford to be self-righteous because I have no one to talk to. Though I pay my way, I am an anonymous creature there. Sometimes when I get lonesome I daydream about my ideal ezrat nashim, about shul-going women I would like to talk to. When I come back to reality, I find I like things pretty much as they are. Still, it would be nice to have a friend with me once in a while so that I, too, could talk and be like other women in shul.


1 “Middle-Class Judaism: A Case Study,” COMMENTARY, June 1960.

2 See his On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (Schocken).

3 My shul, like most Orthodox synagogues, retains the Ashkenazic pronunciation in the liturgy.

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