Egalitarianism, Gender, and Embodiment
Right-leaning religious communities often put forth the claim that Jewish women don’t need to perform certain mitzvot, “timebound” ones, because the nature of our physicality is such that we are constantly aware of time — how many euphemisms for menstruation have been used to make this argument? — and God’s role in it. We do not need the external reminder of God’s presence provided by time-centered ritual. This is silly for many reasons. Not all women menstruate, and those who do don’t menstruate for their entire lives, and these post-facto explanations of the nature of obligation fail to adequately engage with original texts and their context. The connection of mitzvot that fall under the heading of “timebound,” with embodiment, however, has something to it, at least experientially.
Growing up in Modern Orthodox environments, I learned a set of behaviors around shul and tefillah. Absorbed from years of watching other women pray in the women’s section, my prayer habits were to pray inaudibly, and not move much beyond the required bowing. I swayed little. I didn’t like to hear my own voice in religious contexts — I would only sing softly when others were singing loudly, when I would be drowned out by others. I maintained this set of behaviors even as I became a feminist who raised her voice loudly in other contexts, and even as I began to lay tefillin and prefer egalitarian tefillah spaces.
Until this summer, I had never spent longer than two weeks davening regularly in an egalitarian context. On-and-off, I found egalitarian communities on shabbat and the occasional weekday, but my general tefillah practice was to pray alone. As a student at Yeshivat Hadar these past two months, however, I’ve become accustomed to egalitarian tefillah as a norm in my life, and gradually, I’ve stepped more fully into my own body as a religious actor.
In a prayer space where all adults count equally and are encouraged to take equal roles, I slowly started to accustom myself to hearing my own voice praising God aloud. I began to sway when I daven, to feel finally comfortable with swinging a tallit around my petite shoulders. Leading the community in tefillah, hearing only my voice praying, was and remains anxiety-inducing, but no longer causes me the terror it once did.
These changes were not, at first, conscious. I caught myself by surprise hearing my voice answering kedushah properly, aloud. I jumped a little when I felt myself sway during the amidah. Eventually, my newfound comfort with my body at prayer became natural, unthinking; the same way my tongue was used to muttering the words of the amidah, my body became used to shuckeling. As I answer “amen” to a blessing made aloud reflexively, so too I answer to kedusha.
This process, essentially, was the unlearning of the silence I’d absorbed from years in the women’s section. This summer, I also learned to tie tzitzit — in a knotting process not dissimilar from the friendship bracelets I tied for years at summer camp, I claimed more deeply and physically this mitzvah. This feels parallel to my comfort in tefillah — mitzvot are gradually, regularly, seeping into the physicality of my being. The more I own the mitzvot I do with my body, the more I am a person whose entire identity and life is bound up with avodat hashem.
This feeling of a mitzvah-doing-body, a sense that one’s whole being is part of and integral to relationship with God, is perhaps the sense that is alluded to when it is argued that women don’t need communal tefillah, tzitzit, and other mitzvot. But the sacred body is not and cannot be created by biology; as for men, women too need action and ritual to make our physicality religious.