A group of schoolgirls are sitting on the floor in the “Women create prayers” room. They listen to the teacher while she reads aloud from the prayer book, and each girl models a lump of clay to see “what prayer does to us unconsciously.” In an adjacent room, a “women’s circle” is underway. Here, the girls sit on chairs and embroider pieces of cloth with mottoes such as “Woman of valor” while listening to midrashim and prayers, including ancient women’s prayers. In the prayers for the new Hebrew month of Shevat, they read homilies in the “circle” that compare the renewal of the moon to menstruation.
In the largest hall, where girls are learning prayers from the Mizrahi liturgy (i.e., from Jewish communities that originated in the Middle East and North Africa), the teacher hands out cups of tea with lemon verbena and teaches a religious poem (piyyut). As it’s the first day of the new month, which is considered “propitious,” the students are invited to light candles.
“Education to prayer” is the essence of religious education, but every boy and girl in religious school becomes aware of its difficulty at an early age. The prayers are lengthy, fixed, often obscure and involve strange mutterings, especially if he or she is a child of the 21st century.
Every now and then, an educator, rabbi or functionary in the religious education system believes he’s succeeded in finding a way to make prayer “accessible” to youngsters, and to make them love the ritual.
But it’s doubtful any of them have gone as far as the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Midrashiya High School for Girls in Jerusalem.
This is a liberal religious high school, and its latest move proves that it’s a lot more liberal than the households of its students, most of whom are Orthodox. Every Monday, the school splits up into rooms assigned to various types of prayer – all of them innovative, all of them in the feminist spirit. Each of the four types follows a different stream: liberal feminism; Mizrahi feminism; cultural feminism; and radical feminism. Each of the 350 students – from grades seven through 12 – chooses a style of prayer, to which she is committed once a week throughout the year.
For the rest of the week, a more traditional style is the norm. But what they call “traditional prayer” here is also innovative: women’s prayer in public with reading from the Torah. “Traditional worship is in the spirit of liberal feminism, of equal rights,” explains Avital Cohen-Brenner, the school’s spiritual adviser (an equivalent position to school rabbi).
“The assumption is that women have been excluded from many areas, including reading from the Torah. Our approach is that reading from the Torah is not an exclusively male preserve. And once the world has changed, we cannot leave Judaism behind as the only place that’s passive,” she adds.
Women’s prayer, egalitarian prayer and joint worship are nothing new. To a certain extent, they’ve already become part of the landscape on the liberal religious margins. Synagogues that adopt these standards are places where most Orthodox Jews will not set foot, not in any weather. But they are out there.
The Midrashiya High School for Girls is one of the few Orthodox Jewish schools – in Israel or overseas – that has integrated innovative prayers into its official schedule, which in itself is no small feat. At regular religious girls’ schools, it’s customary for the girls to assemble in an auditorium or classroom and for each girl to pray individually in silence. Here, though, the norm is public worship with girls serving as cantors and reading from the Torah. Every student is obligated to take part, even if she doesn’t want to.
The school’s administration recently rejected the request of a number of girls, who asked to be excused from prayers since it is not customary or acceptable for women to read from the Torah in their own communities. The school insists, however, that its practice of allowing women to pray in public is a fundamental principle, and granting any exemptions would be detrimental to that.
Principal Merav Badichi spells it out. “From the outset, we make it very clear that we have this kind of prayer, so there’s no such thing as saying, ‘I’m not participating.’ We’ve said, ‘Anyone who has any difficulty with this can go to another school, no problem.’ But anyone who comes to this school knows what she’s getting into – it’s an unwritten contract.”
A truly radical approach
Now the school has taken another step, one even “more dramatic and radical in the feminist context,” as Cohen-Brenner puts it. “We asked ourselves if the model of women’s prayer that seems to imitate men’s prayer is the only model of feminist women’s worship with strong gender consciousness. When we open this up – for the students as well as the staff – the demands are quite different. There is no single model and no single feminism.”
And what precisely is radical? How about the option that is given – in one of the prayer groups, at least – to modify the actual prayer’s text? Until now, one sweeping characteristic of innovative Orthodox prayers has been to adhere to the wording from the traditional prayer book (the one every boy and girl receives in first grade). Even if there are additions, the core always remains unaltered – the text parts that were written in the days of the Second Temple era.
Generally at Midrashiya, they do stick to the prayer book. But in the “Women create prayers” room, the girls occasionally are invited to set it aside and write prayers themselves, which can include addressing God in the feminine, and more.
“What we are doing with prayer is not for fun,” explains Cohen-Brenner. “This is a commitment to questions that arise from prayer, about the way it is right and proper to worship. There are places where they vary the worship by all kinds of methods, but that’s not what this is.”
Renana Ravitzky-Pilzer is head of the school’s Beit Midrash (religious study center). “We’re not removing ourselves from the community,” she says, “but we are playing with this and going to the fringes of religious intent.”
But interestingly, many of the students seem to find it hard to keep up with their teachers’ feminist approach. For example, Mizrahi liturgy was chosen by the largest group of students – 70 girls, across all the grades – because it’s the most traditional. The problem facing the group now is coping with their minimal knowledge of the piyyutim and melodies, since most of the Mizrahi students (and the Mizrahi teachers, too) actually grew up in an Ashkenazi environment.
A number of the students who chose the Mizrahi liturgy say that, to them, the school’s innovative prayers are “weird,” because they find it difficult to identify with the radical messages that interest the teachers.
There are 15 students in the most radical group, “Women create prayers,” and its leader, Ravitzky-Pilzer, admits that the teachers are more engaged with the message than their students. “It’s clear the teachers are into religious feminism more than the students are,” she says. “In general among the girls, there’s an attempt to reject and resist all kinds of things we’re introducing.”
She believes that since the school establishment is subversive and rebellious, the girls’ revolt has to be conservative in nature. “But,” she adds, “as they grow older, they understand the value of this. And on the outside, even today, when they’re at Bnei Akiva [the Orthodox youth movement], they quote us.
“One of the things we’re doing here is arousing their discomfort to both racism and inequality. They’re a bit like lab rats. When they leave here, they’ll either live with the frustration or they’ll establish the institutions that will change the world.”