Leading tefillah for the first time is scary. Countless bar mitzvah boys, and increasing numbers of bat mitzvah girls, experience this fear as part of a rite of passage; facilitating a community in prayer marks their coming of age, their full adult membership in this community. Despite my familiarity with traditional Hebrew prayers and innumerable hours spent in shul, however, I did not lead any element of tefillah, nor did I read from the Torah, until I was seventeen — three weeks ago.
Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox day schools, I was given tremendous gifts of Jewish literacy. I can read Biblical texts and accompanying commentaries. I can look up and understand halakhic rulings. With the help of a dictionary or two, I can make my way through a page of Talmud. But these skills did me little good in the synagogue. At prayer, I was a silent observer, able to mutter liturgy quickly and fluently, but never with the knowledge, confidence, or — most importantly — the opportunity to lead.
As I began to move in the world and become active in creating Jewish spaces, especially as I agitated to ensure that egalitarian tefillah was provided in as many contexts as possible, my inability to serve as a shlichat tzibbur or to leyn became a serious hindrance. I could plan a prayer service, but not lead it, coordinate leyners but not read from the Torah myself. This surprised people; I seemed, apparently, to be a person who is comfortable and competent in Jewish leadership positions, so how could I be neither in the synagogue?
I’ve always been a nervous performer. For as long as I can remember, school plays and class presentations were a source of terror. As I have grown older, I’ve become confident presenting about World War I to my history class, happy to announce a club meeting at morning announcements in school; the vestiges of my stage fright, however remain. I still opt out of plays, preferring to applaud my friends from the audience, and when asked to speak in front of large groups, I often demur. This anxiety carries over to tefillah — though I am fluent in the prayers, the thought of leading them alone prompts trepidation.
Ideally, membership in a community requires participation. Investment in a shul or a minyan asks one to step up, to take on a role in facilitating services. But is this a necessary prerequisite for egalitarianism? Should I have to participate in them to ensure that there are services which meet my basic moral standard of treating me like a person? This has been a dilemma of mine for the past year, as I press for egalitarianism but could not act out those principles myself.
On one hand, if I want a certain type of prayer community, it is my responsibility to create it. I cannot simply sit and wait for others to carry out my values in any context, but all the more so religiously. On the other hand, however, my commitment to egalitarianism is as an issue of fundamental equality. Must I be shul-competent to earn the right to a prayer service in which I am counted and treated as an equal adult Jew? By what calculus does one earn accommodation of her moral principles?
Ultimately, my desire to be fully literate in the language of the synagogue won out over my fear of performance, and I’ve now led weekday maariv and mincha. I was spurred to learn to leyn by a friend who simply insisted that I do it; the expectation that I needed the skill to be a full member of my Jewish community was a new one, one that every Orthodox bar mitzvah boy experiences. Every time I do it, it gets easier. I have not resolved my internal conflict — I still don’t believe that I need to earn the right to egalitarian tefillah, but now I am more competent to create it.
The creation of a truly egalitarian community requires the community to internally encourage and expect women, who are often raised without the skill and comfort with liturgy and Torah reading that our male peers have, to learn (and then teach) these abilities. Egalitarian communities must offer women education paired with expectation. One does not need high-level musical skill to lead weekday mincha. Leyning is, for many people, not as hard as it looks. There must be a balance: one should never have to earn her place in the synagogue, to be treated as full member of the community, through liturgical skill. But women are shortchanged when we are not expected to attain the skills and literacy that almost every observant thirteen-year-old boy learns.