In 1971 feminism was a brand new, hot issue on campus. Those present at my first Women’s Liberation meetings included an editor of the original Our Bodies, Ourselves and a woman who later wound up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for bank robbery and murder, committed for the sake of “the revolution.” I belonged to a women’s literary circle and I studied poetry and received personal advice from feminist poet Adrienne Rich. I came to find radical feminism frightening and distasteful because it bespoke such hatred of men. I didn’t hate men: I was simply resentful whenever they seemed to get a better deal than women. One day a friend said, “You’re interested in Judaism and also in feminism -- why not explore the two together?”
My desire to establish a women’s minyan arose from intense spiritual frustration and doubts about the status of the Jewish
woman, based largely on my synagogue experience. I yearned for good concentration, warmth and openness during prayer, from myself and others. Instead I was confronted with furtive whispering or mouthing of the words of prayers. The idea to establish the first women’s minyan in America (to my knowledge) took root in my mind late in 1971 during a lecture at Harvard Hillel by a Conservative rabbi. However, I never found spiritual satisfaction in our “minyan” or any of the other women’s davening groups I attended sporadically over the course of the next six years. While I toyed with the idea of becoming a rabbi, I had to reject it, because I knew that the truth I was seeking had to lie somewhere within traditional Judaism. Instinct told me that finding it would involve a search -- and I was prepared for a lengthy one if necessary.
Concerned over missing out on important spiritual experiences, I did other kinds of Jewish feminist experimentation at the same time. I made my own tallit, in beautiful pastel colors, learning from a man how to tie the tzitzit. I also created a very feminine headband which I wore for about two years. I thought that wearing the tallit would help me shut out the external distractions, and sometimes this was the case. However, the tallit induced other, greater inner distractions: the fact that I knew many pairs of eyes were on me, and the fact that deep down I sometimes enjoyed the attention and notoriety my behavior was bringing me. My initial basic motives were quite sincere. But whatever spiritual highs I experienced started to be clouded by the awareness of such falseness at the root of motivation. In retrospect, I believe that my stiff feminist principles became burdensome at a certain point, preventing me from trying out new mitzvot or delving deeper into already familiar ones.
They also kept me from meeting the kinds of people I needed to encounter in order to gain the knowledge I craved.
A key transitional experience between feminism and Chasidism occurred in 1974. I spent that school year after college graduation in Jerusalem, studying Torah -- mainly Talmud -- in Hebrew in an effort to gain the skills for independent text study. A group of Americans would study Chasidic philosophy one evening a week with a rabbi in Meah Shearim. If he had an address, we didn’t know it; we knew only which alleys to go down, which courtyards to cross. He spoke no English and taught quietly and patiently in the simplest Hebrew. One warm evening a friend and I stayed after class to ask questions. His wife appeared with a glass of water which she handed me with a smile. Suddenly I was riveted to the floor. There was something intensely spiritual about the way that woman gave me the glass of water. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to grab her and shake her and beg her to tell me what the secret was, to say that
I had been waiting for this moment for years and had to understand. But I couldn’t. It seemed to me that the gaps in language and culture were too vast to even attempt it. So I went home that night and, without understanding why, carefully packed away my tallit in an old footlocker.
Perhaps the woman was a mystic. Or perhaps she changed my life with very strong kavanah (positive intention and concentration) in performing the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim, serving guests. Had I never put away the tallit, it is hard to imagine ever having learned of the latter explanation.
Perhaps the real inner process of my transition happened on the eve of Yom Kippur, around 1980.
Men and women alike were packed into Lubavitch international headquarters for Kol Nidre, somewhat like passengers on a Jerusalem bus during rush hour. The cantor took his place to begin the service. I was anticipating an inspiring voice, a poignant melody to sweep me into the mood of the holiday. Instead, a man with an ordinary voice began the prayers with an atonal melody and then broke down in what appeared to be sincere sobs.
He sounded ridiculous. I was annoyed. An instant later, I was forced in all honesty to redefine my emotion as terror. I had no inspiration, no melody to hide behind. The cantor was not about to lift me to any spiritual heights. Here was
a man leading the prayers for thousands of Jews, including no less a personage than the Lubavitcher Rebbe, yet he was on anything but an ego trip. This meant that I was missing absolutely nothing on the other side of the mechitzah. At that moment, the mechitzah figuratively came crashing down once and for all, hitting me with what the issue had been in the first place. There were contradictory feelings involved: on one hand, a concern that somehow G-d was present only on the other side of that divider curtain, and on the other, a fear that if He weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to cope with the confrontation. In a way, it had been easy to hide behind my anger. Now that the reality was clear, it would just have to be me and G-d -- me facing up to my real self in front of G-d.
I was not able to cast off the women’s minyan, tallit, and the rest -- nor was I interested in doing so -- until there were other spiritual resources to take their places. A crucial factor in the change process was the study of Chasidus. Part of what helped me trust the system was finding that Chasidus is replete with feminine imagery. The subject would be interesting and inspiring in itself, but it is beyond the scope of this article.
I did not find Chabad Chasidus accessible until I was living in Crown Heights and attended classes, local synagogues where I had role models for proper concentration during prayer, and the Rebbe’s Farbrengens (Chasidic gatherings). With a deepening of study and mitzvah observance has come a heightened awareness of what was superficial in the past and natural wish to reject it. Hence, the change has mainly come gradually, like casting off clothes which neither fit any longer nor are needed.
I suppose I entered into my feminist Jewish experiments with the soul of an innocent child. On one hand there were wide-eyed openness, beauty and wonder, which remain a refreshing source of inspiration when I recall the early days of observance. On the other hand, there was a passivity, as if important spiritual experiences should be conferred upon me from Above simply by virtue of, say, wearing certain accoutrements. I used to assume that G-d was providing all kinds of lovely merry-go-round rides for men as they performed their particular mitzvot. Hands-on experience, Torah study and discussions with men led me to the conclusion that the men were unlikely to be getting free goodies any more than I ever had. With time came a gradual shift away from initial unrealistic, and hence unfulfilling, expectations.
There was an acceptance of my responsibility not only to fulfill my requirements in mitzvah observance, but to infuse energy and enthusiasm into each mitzvah. Originally I had demanded that my role models -- including all those women behind the mechitzah -- be perfect. When I stopped
expecting so much from my fellow Jewish women and had gained enough self-confidence to realize that perhaps I was meant to try to set an example for them, prayers and other mitzvot flowed more easily.
It is impossible to minimize the significance of tremendous female role models… Even more, when I married and started a family I began to appreciate that the spiritual fortitude, the mesirat nefesh -- the total giving of one’s best -- with which the Torah challenges a Jewish woman is no less than the highest form of mystical practice I could ever have imagined, as different in form as it might at times appear to be on the surface. I seem to have come around full circle to trying to live up to models like the the Meah Shearim woman and the relative who first inspired me with her joie de vivre in mitzvot. I am grateful to be connected to a community where, spiritually speaking, the streets are paved with gold. In fact, who knows? Had my eyes been open all those years ago to see that gold, performing the first mitzvah might not have been paralyzing at all.
Chana Shloush (*nee* Forse) is a graduate of Brandies University. She studied at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, and worked for various Jewish organizations. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. (Read Chana’s full story in *Feeding Among the Lilies*, published by Wellsprings, available online at www.kehot.com)