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Prayer at Panim

Probably the most remarkable part of the Panim rabbinic student retreat, for me, was the davenen (a.k.a. tefilah -- loosely, if inadequately, translatable as "prayer.")

A tefilah committee, comprised of one student from each of the participating seminaries, met several times over the phone before the retreat to determine how we would pray together. They tackled major issues, including the length and style of our Torah readings and whether we would have any kind of mechitza. (Short answer: no, although the reality was...complicated.) Each service was led by two or more students, each from a different seminary.

It's hard for me to describe our davenen, in part because it drew on so many different styles of prayer and leadership. We davened mostly in Hebrew, though there was also some English; we davened mostly in song (chant, nusach, niggun, and individual melodies) though there was also some spoken-word. We davened using a range of siddurim, and a range of styles (ranging from the relatively decorous service on Friday morning, which featured a responsive reading or two, to the chaotic wall-of-sound on Sunday morning in which we were instructed to create a sonic tapestry while moving through the psalms, blessings, and songs of psukei d'zimrah at our own pace.)

For me, most of the davenen felt familiar. Almost every service featured at least one choice which wasn't my usual custom in some way, but I'm a pretty flexible pray-er, especially within the context of the broad umbrella of liberal Judaism. (More on that in a moment.) There was a lot of singing and chant, we sang a bunch of niggunim which were familiar to me, and all in all this wasn't entirely dissimilar from the kinds of prayer we do at DLTI. Over the course of the weekend, though, even I was called-upon to stretch and to experience kinds of Jewish prayer which were new to me.

On Shabbat afternoon, after we had experienced three very different services, we had a conversation about the davenen. Response varied pretty widely. Many people were delighted, and felt right at home. Others felt like fish out of water -- some of the Reform students felt the davenen was skewed toward Orthodoxy, while the Orthodox students felt the davenen was weirdly liberal and unfamiliar. One person asked whether we were collectively settling on a kind of Reconstructionist middle ground, and suggested that it would be interesting to see instead how each seminary group would lead a service -- one Reform service, one Conservative, and so on. (Of course, the challenge there might be choosing which kind of service to do -- within each of the movements, there's a pretty wide variety of prayer styles.)

One student noted that Isabella Freedman / Elat Chayyim has a library of siddurim for communal use -- plenty of Artscroll (Orthodox), Sim Shalom (Conservative), Kol HaNeshamah (Reconstructionist), and the Pnai Or Siddur (a Renewal siddur for Shabbat) -- but that list doesn't include any Reform prayerbooks, old or new. I hope that when Mishkan Tefilah is published, someone will donate copies to the retreat center, so that those who want to use it can do so. (One of the HUC students had brought a bound draft of MT, like the one I got at the Biennial, which she made available as a loaner copy over the remainder of the weekend.)

We talked, too, about the choices we'd made to try to meet various people's needs. Torah reading, for instance; for some of us, the triennial cycle Torah reading and full haftarah was much longer than what we're used to, while for others that Torah reading felt truncated. And, of course, there's the question of gendered seating. Some students were not comfortable praying in a mixed-seating setting, while others were not comfortable with the existence of any kind of mechitza. (If you're interested in these issues and in how various indie minyanim have handled them, don't miss BZ's terrific series Hilchot Pluralism -- I know I've linked to it before, but I figured it was worth offering again.)

While many of us were slightly out of our element one way or another, I think the students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah were the furthest out of their comfort zone. So many things were strange for them -- the very fact of denominational pluralism, mixed-gender prayer, female rabbinic students, women wearing tallitot and laying tefillin, unfamiliar melodies, unfamiliar ways of praying (in English or in spoken-word or using abbreviated/condensed versions of prayers), even things like sitting in a circle or having the shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) facing the congregation.

During our conversation on Shabbat afternoon, we asked the Chovevei guys to share their experience. They reiterated that they were glad to have the experience of pushing their own personal envelopes, though acknowledged that it wasn't easy. We talked some about why we hadn't opted for a trichitza (a mechitza separating the room into 3 sections -- men's, women's, and mixed) as apparently the previous retreat groups had done, and the Chovevei guys talked about how they'd consulted their rosh yeshiva to get permission to come in the absence of that practice. In the end, they  had made a makeshift barrier out of a row of empty folding chairs and used that as their minimalist mechitza -- which I admit I hadn't even noticed, until they brought it to our attention, since I'd been in the middle of the yurt and hadn't cast my eyes in that direction!

As the conversation went on, a suggestion was floated: since the Orthodox students had stretched themselves so far in order to pray with our mixed group, maybe we should also stretch ourselves to pray once in the way that they're used to. We decided that mincha on Shabbat afternoon would be held in an Orthodox way: the room divided into a women's section and a men's section, and the service led entirely by men. Of course, ten men were required in order for the service to proceed. The women agreed that we would ensure ten women, for the sake of parallelism, even though in the classic Orthodox paradigm there's no halakhic requirement for women to be present at all.

When the Orthodox mincha idea was first suggested, I applauded the idea. It would be fascinating, I thought, to pray in a way that's wildly unlike what I'm used to. It would be a way of showing our Orthodox participants the same courtesy they were showing me. It would be an adventure!

The first thing I noticed was how quiet the women became once we were separated into our own part of the room. I don't know whether that was due to unfamiliarity with the mode of prayer (rapidfire, and relatively non-melodic), or a subconscious concern about kol isha (the injunction against men hearing women's voices during prayer), or what, but finding myself in that position was unsettling.

The afternoon Torah reading was from Tazria, about the varying durations of tum'ah conferred on a woman after giving birth to a boy (33 days) or a girl (66 days.) When they began reading the Torah portion, a few of the women winced noticeably. This is a portion with which most of us continue to wrestle, and hearing it presented without any acknowledgment of its emotional-minefield status highlighted my feelings of distance from the text. When we reached the silent amidah, the standing prayer which follows the Torah reading, I found myself weeping.

After the service was over, one of the Orthodox guys joked that nobody ever said Orthodox davenen was inspiring. We all laughed, and that lightened my mood. I ducked out to get a Kleenex, and when I returned everyone was dancing around the room holding hands, men and women alike. The Orthodox students asked us very earnestly to tell them what the experience had been like for us; it was clear that they really wanted to hear our response. I wasn't able to formulate one then, but I'm working on it now.

Davening on one side of a mechitza, in a context where all of the prayer leaders were men, was uncomfortable for me in a way that verged on painful. I keep returning to how quiet the women's voices became -- and these are women who are all rabbinic students, powerful leaders in our own right! The change in the room's physical setup, and in the assumptions about normative participation, reverberated in ways I hadn't expected. I should note that the women weren't in the back of the bus, so to speak -- each gender occupied half the yurt, the mechitza was not terribly high and allowed for eye contact, and the Torah reading table was visible from both halves of the room. Even so, I felt distanced from my own tradition and the texts I hold dear. I'd never prayed in this kind of gender-segregated space before, but I know what it's like to feel barred from full participation. The service brought my old feelings of exclusion back in a powerful surge.

To be clear: I don't blame the Orthodox seminarians for my discomfort. This was a clash of paradigms, not of people. And I want to stress that they didn't foist this on us. They were willing to spend a weekend in quiet discomfort in order to learn about more liberal forms of Judaism, and I felt we owed them the same courtesy; I still do. So now I'm in conversation with them, trying to explain what it feels like for me to be a woman in their Jewish paradigm, to be relentlessly Other not because of what I think or do but because of my very body. And I'm beginning a deeper conversation with some of my female Orthodox friends, to try to learn how they navigate these matters in their religious lives. But I'm still shaken by how difficult I found the mechitza experience, and I'm desperately thankful to live in a quadrant of the Jewish world where egalitarianism is presumed.

So what did I think of the prayer at the Panim retreat? It was an amazing learning experience. Some of it felt like home to me. Some of it was foreign. But I'm thankful that we were all able to allow ourselves to take the risk of praying together honestly.

At the end of the first Progressive Faith Blog Con last summer, in the closing circle, Reb Arthur remarked that he'd never before been part of an interfaith gathering which aimed to pray together in that way -- Jews alongside Buddhists alongside Muslims alongside Pagans alongside Christians of many stripes -- and that he was awed and delighted by how well it had worked. It worked, I think, because we created community together; because we each respected the others' needs and boundaries; and because we genuinely wanted to share the ways in which we connect with God. It was radical and crazy and I can't believe it worked, but it did, and that made me happier than I can say.

I feel similarly about the transdenominational prayer we did at the Panim retreat. It's one thing for DLTI participants, or Hebrew College or AJR students, to daven together; we all buy in to the project of religious pluralism, including transdenominational prayer. But for Jews across the denominations to daven together...? It's incredibly audacious. (Christian readers, imagine putting Episcopalians and Unitarians and Baptists and Evangelicals and Catholics in a room to worship together, despite their wildly different teachings and liturgies.)

But it worked. And for that, I thank our teachers Sid and Jill and Or -- who created space for us, and made it safe to be vulnerable in this way -- and I thank everyone who was there. We built something remarkable this weekend, and I know it will be percolating in me for a long time to come.

[This is second in a series of posts about the Panim transdenominational rabbinic student retreat; the first one is Panim. Holy wow.]

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