April 27, 2010
Lately I've been wrestling with time-bound mitzvot.
Back up a step: I should define my terms. Although in the American vernacular the Hebrew word מצוה (mitzvah) is often translated as "good deed" (as in: "holding the door open for that guy on crutches was a real mitzvah"), it means "commandment." Jewish tradition speaks in terms of positive and negative mitzvot, things we are commanded to do and not to do. Some of these are considered time-bound, which means that there's a span of time during which we're supposed to do them. And in the most traditional understanding, men are obligated to perform time-bound mitzvot and women are not. (For more, read the Wikipedia page on positive time-bound mitzvot.)
As a feminist and a liberal Jew who is committed to religious egalitarianism, there's much that's problematic for me about this set of ideas. I don't like the gender essentialism implicit in the notion that men do one thing and women do another. I don't believe that women should be exempt from full participation in normative Jewish life. Beyond that, the Orthodox paradigm presumes an understanding of commandedness which is different from what I'm used to. In my experience, both men and women choose Jewish practice not so much because we understand ourselves to be "commanded," but because we trust that taking on these practices will have spiritual benefit or will bring us closer to our community and to God.
Since Drew was born, though, I haven't been able to fulfill some of the positive time-bound mitzvot which had been an important part of my pre-motherhood life. One of these is laying tefillin -- I love laying tefillin, and yet I haven't taken my set out of their velvet bag since the baby was born. Counting the Omer is another one -- I blogged about that a while back. And this pains me, because during my pregnancy I promised myself that I wouldn't let my spiritual practices lapse, and yet here I am doing pretty much just that.
The traditional explanation for why women are exempted from positive time-bound mitzvot is that we are presumed to be too busy with our responsibilities (read: motherhood) to be able to fulfill the obligations. That explanation doesn't work for me. For one thing, not all women are mothers. For another, some women who are mothers may find these practices sustainable -- and I'm guessing that I too will find them sustainable again when my parenting life has shifted a little. Some argue that women are "naturally" more connected with God and therefore we don't need the artifice of the mitzvot as men do, but I don't buy it. I want to be a full participant in my religious tradition. Still, I can't deny that these first months of motherhood have been a time when I haven't been able to manage some of the spiritual practices which used to be a part of my life. And that's hard for me.
I brought this up with my spiritual director recently, and she urged me to find a way to reframe the conversation. Instead of thinking in terms of how my spiritual life has been diminished, she suggested, can I think in terms of how my God-connection has been enriched by this experience of new motherhood? Nursing is the first answer which comes to mind. On a practical level it's how I've spent a lot of time these past five months, and beyond that, it can be a deeply spiritual experience for me. (Not always, but sometimes.) I think of the teaching that God can be understood as the nursing mother who yearns to stream her abundance into creation, and that our prayers are like the cries which stimulate that flow of shefa into the world. I may not be laying tefillin right now, but my body offers me an opportunity for connection with God every time my son opens his mouth in hunger.
Can I focus on the spiritual blessings of this phase of my life, instead of kicking myself for being unable to also hold on to all of the practices which brought me blessing before I became a parent? Can I trust that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and that my relationship with God will remain intact even if I'm not rekindling it daily in the specific ways I used to do -- just as I need to trust that my relationships with the people in my life will remain intact even if I'm not able to tend to them in quite the same ways that I did before?
I think this is a place where I need to let go of my expectations. Before Drew was born, I didn't understand the extent to which my sleep schedule and my time would be ruled by his needs -- which trump pretty much everything else in my life, including my commitment to the kind of luxurious, slow prayer I used to enjoy. The reality of him has been both more challenging, and more wonderful, than I ever imagined! I need to let go of what I thought life would be like, and instead focus on what life actually is.
I think I may also need to adopt a new mantra: "for now." For now, I'm finding that my mornings are too busy for tefillin. For now, I'm finding that I don't have a lot of space in my life for some of the creative work I used to do. For now, I can't count on getting a real night of sleep. But none of these things will be true forever. Change is our new constant. And someday I'll find myself able to pick up my previous practices again. For now, my challenge is to be in this moment. To experience life with a five-month-old baby, and find the holiness in this experience instead of yearning for some other experience I'm not currently having.
Drew can be a great teacher for me in this regard. As Rodger Kamenetz pointed out to me a while back on twitter, Buddha mind is baby mind. Drew is always in the "now." Maybe I need to figure out how to take a page from his (baby) book...for now.
If you've wrestled with this question, or with variations on this theme, I'd love to hear about it. Please drop me a comment or an email and let me know what this was like for you! I can't promise to respond to everything (see above, re: my time being in Drew's sweet little hands) but I read all the comments that people leave here, with joy.