Tuesday, August 03, 2004

My Life as a Misfit

I have this problem—I’m an egalitarian, tallit-and-tefillin-wearing female Jew davvening (praying) in a traditional congregation. I sometimes think that half the members of the local Conservative shul still find it hard to believe that the Conservative movement has been ordaining women for something like 20 years. There are still members of the shul—many of them women, oddly enough—who resent my attitude and/or think I’m divisive. I guess the best I can say is that, now that I've been a member of the shul for over 20 years, at least I’m considered an inside agitator. But I can still see the steam coming out of some people’s ears every time the subject of women’s participation in the service comes up. The simple fact of the matter is that I’ll never feel completely at home in this synagogue.

Recently, I realized that I have another problem with the shul, as well. It’s finally dawned on me that all my years of membership in an egalitarian Conservative synagogue and in a now-defunct local chavurah have had an influence on my attitude of which I was not aware, and that this attitude also contributes to making me feel like an outsider at our synagogue. Several years ago, a former rabbi heard through the grapevine that I’d led havdalah (with the cantor’s permission) in his absence, and told me that I wasn’t allowed to do that. I was quite taken aback, since I’m specifically asked him, several weeks prior to that, whether women could lead havdalah for men, and he’d said that we could. The problem, he explained, was that leading havdalah in synagogue was the cantor’s “chazakah,” meaning, I gather, an honor reserved for a specific individual. In other words, the public performance of most rituals was reserved for the professionals.

This attitude is exactly the opposite of that encouraged by our former synagogue and the Chavurah movement. In our chavurah, as in most chavurot, whatever happened only happened because we did it all ourselves. At our former synagogue, there were roughly twice as many members who could chant a haftarah as there are at our current synagogue, and there were about half a dozen people who leined (chanted) Torah on a regular basis. In my opinion, based on my own experience, an insistence on the clergy’s chazakah actively discourages congregants from participating in the service. But there, again, I’m in the minority. The members of our current synagogue are perfectly content to treat the Torah reading and the chanting of the haftarah as spectator sports.


Blogger Colleen said...

I completely understand what you are talking about. I go to a traditional conservative shul where a majority of the members are retirement age. I ,as well as 2 or 3 other women are the only women that wear tallitot. Women do have aliyot. The shul used to be one of the most ortho conservative synagogues in the state of CA and people started coming to this synagogue when the reform shul was created. I feel like the reason why some of the men don't come to the Torah group meetings is because a woman leads the group.

Thu Dec 03, 01:24:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Colleen, you might find this series of mine interesting. Between me and the commenters, we discussed the issue of women's sometimes-increasing participation and men's sometimes-decreasing participation in synagogue life pretty thoroughly.

Sun Dec 06, 08:19:00 PM 2009  

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