I am searching for that primordial Torah, the one the mystics speak of, the one written with black fire on white fire that rested on God’s knee. I imagine God consulting it, just before Creation, as a woman might consult a cookbook, her index finger moving along from line to line, adding in stars and trees and mountains to the recipe of the world.
The problem is, I have only just begun to see God this way, and she—this kitchen God at home in clouds of flour and the stinging smell of yeast—has not yet made it into the Torah of paper and ink that I hold in my hands.
Her voice and spirit have trailed me, though, especially in the past ten years, when I have made my way back to a traditional Judaism my parents rejected. Raised on Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, I could not help noticing the gaps in the biblical tales, the small role women played within the Torah and within the life of my Orthodox shul.
One year, just after Simchat Torah, when our rabbi at Young Israel told us once again that we women could not have a Torah to dance with, I began to read the non-prescribed books—those by Judith Plaskow, Susannah Heschel, E. M. Broner, Ellen Umansky, to name but a few. At the same time, one of my best friends, Sharon, fed up with the rigidity of our shul and the increasing talk there of kol isha, quit and joined another Orthodox shul. [Kol isha is the tenet that women’s voices are inherently seductive, and therefore are forbidden for men to hear.]
I followed Sharon to this new shul, Bais Abraham. One year and many hushed conversations later, through the work of myself and a handful of other women, the Bais Abraham Women’s Tefillah [prayer] Group was born.
Although a network of women’s tefillah groups had formed across the country in response to the desire of traditional women to take part in communal prayer, the formation of our group set off many brush fires in the St. Louis Orthodox community. We endured a tension-filled meeting with the Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox community, in the dark, wood-paneled study of his home. The Rabbinical Council met and debated our existence, and threatened to kick Bais Abraham out of the Council, though they never took any formal action. We were even the subject of a Purim skit at Agudas Israel (the ultra-Orthodox shul), referred to in their ridiculous script as the “Bais Babes.”
None of this mattered, though, as I stood outside my house on the morning of the first tefillah group service, waiting for the two women who would make the 45-minute trek to Bais Abraham with me. Walking east towards the shul, we felt so giddy and exultant we were sure that—if only we wanted—our path could take us all the way to Jerusalem.
At Bais Abraham, my Israeli friend Semadar was waiting for me in the last row of folding chairs, making me think of a school child hiding out at the back of a bus. Semadar had told me she had “no need” of a women’s tefillah group, and was only there to support the rest of us. Interestingly, my non-Orthodox friends had also been skeptical about the need for such a group. Why be content with basement davening, they asked me, when you could find Reform and Conservative egalitarian services with equal access for all? But I had been involved in such services years ago, I told them, and now I wanted something more. I sensed female spirituality was fundamentally different from either male or coed spirituality—and a women’s tefillah service was the one place I could begin to explore this.
I wanted to pray in the company of women. That seemed to be the only way to begin healing the damage, dispersing the anger, setting aright the imbalance of the past 5000 years.
Semadar, unwilling participant that she was, still flashed me a radiant smile as I took my seat beside her. Twelve of us had made it to shul by 9:00 a.m. for this first service. We listened as woman after woman approached the bimah, and was given an aliyah, or chanted a portion of the Torah. A student from the local university had joined us, and she sang in a surprisingly beautiful soprano that even Semadar couldn’t fail to be moved by.
Ronni, one of the founders of our group, who came to us via Berkeley, Israel, and Canada, sang in a deep, Sephardic voice. She chanted the longest portion without a hint of struggle, instantly declaring herself our leader.
Sharon, serving as gabbai, wore a maroon dress strewn with tiny flowers that flowed all the way to the floor. A mass of curls tumbled beneath her floppy hat as she moved around the bimah, making certain that people stood in the correct places, whispering to let them know when to begin the blessings. What a difference from the suits and ties, the stiff posturings of the male gabbaim at my old shul.
Each woman who approached the Torah scroll was introduced by Sharon. I kept hearing Ronni bat…Shoshana 0bat…Esther bat….The names floated off into the dusty air, but the “bat“—”daughter of”—resounded again and again, a layering of invisible daughters forming around us, as if all the generations of women who had not been called to the Torah were standing here, at our sides.
We had never rehearsed the service, so there was a good deal of stopping and starting, corrections made as we went along. It was not smooth, this first service, but it was ours. There had only been a dozen of us gathered when we began, but by mid-service we numbered over thirty and the room was alive with color and movement. Little girls skipped up and down the aisle across the gray-tiled floor, their patent leather shoes clopping out a cadence at odds with our lilting sopranos.
A few white-haired women with pinched faces whispered among themselves in one of the last rows. I imagine they had gone up to the first floor, where the sanctuary was, only to find the women’s side nearly deserted. I much preferred this dank basement social hall, where women were singing out loud, to the stained glass and velvet silence upstairs.
Occasionally, as Sharon read, she would forget a woman’s Hebrew name and Fawn would whisper it to her, their heads bending together, hair falling forward. They smiled sympathetically, or squeezed the hand of a reader who had stumbled. There was a nurturing, cooperative spirit here, one I had been hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the Jewish world, for all its talk of “community.”
It was a great contrast to the atmosphere at my old shul, the men’s shul; for I suddenly felt, in a new way, that’s what it was. Although the prayer had been impassioned, there was also a rigid formality, in which correctness of pronunciation was more important than feeling. But here we were free to run and stumble, “mothering” each other’s spirits. In the world outside this room, a world created mostly by men, threads of competition danced between us, barely noticeable. But here I felt the threads dissolve, left behind at the double doors.
It is hard to describe what I felt, as if we have not yet invented the language to name the experience. In that room full of women praying, I thought of wombs and waters, gardens and kitchens, schoolgirls walking home arm-in-arm. I was reminded of that narrow window of girlhood when we just begin to see ourselves as separate from our mothers, just before we discover guys, and somehow, end up losing ourselves.
When it was time for me to do my part, wrapping the Torah, I moved to the front of the room, my legs shaking. Phyllis whispered, telling me how to wrap the scrolls. I placed the velvet cover over the parchment, thinking of the rabbi at Young Israel, the same one who said women cannot touch the Torah, who had taught me that the hiddenness of the cloth-covered writings echoes the hiddenness of God. Rabbi Bienfeld had said the Torah has no punctuation, no vowels because all of the writings are just one long name for God.
Phyllis picked up the Torah, placing it in my arms. It was so heavy! My shoulders cupped against its weight. Phyllis showed me how to lean it against one of my shoulders, letting it rest there, my arms wrapped around it. This feeling was familiar, like holding a child. Why hadn’t any of the dozen rabbis I had studied with in the last decade ever mentioned this to me? This was the untapped gold mine, a well bubbling up beneath us all of us women on the bimah, if only we were willing to enter it. A woman’s place within the tradition, a sacred garden lying in wait, just beyond the wall. I was glowing and exultant; my feet barely touched the ground.
Sharon, Phyllis and Fawn, a circle of hens surrounding the bimah, sat me in a stiff chair with the Torah in my arms. I listened as Esther Klevens, legendary for having taught generations of St. Louis boys and girls their bar and bat mitzvah portions, began to sing the Haftorah. Sitting, facing the crowd, I looked around awkwardly. Then I noticed three young girls sitting in the front row, their legs dangling in white tights and shiny black patent shoes, their eyes glued to Esther and me. This was certainly the first time they had seen women leading prayers. I wondered how this experience would reverberate in their lives; I was glad my own daughter would grow up with images like this before her.
Then Ronni gave the d’var Torah, a haunting, beautiful, and distinctly female fugue of reflections on the saga of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. But before she was finished, Chaim, who had set up the kiddish at Bais Abraham for the past half century, began banging loudly on the back doors.
A hawk-eyed woman in a gray suit poked her head in. “How much longer will you be here?”
“Two minutes,” Ronni said.
“Chaim needs to set up kiddish.‘” She banged the doors closed.
Ronni left off her d’var Torah and launched into the Aleinu, gaining speed with each paragraph. We could hear the men’s footsteps on the stairs, a crowd gathering outside the doors. Chaim entered while we were still singing, stamping past us into the kitchen. He emerged again, carrying bottles of grape juice and whiskey which he began smacking onto the plastic-covered tables, his anger palpable. Another woman, her lips pursed tightly, stormed in and out of the kitchen as noisily as she could, carrying paper plates piled with sponge cakes to the tables.
We, meanwhile, were racing to the finish, giggling, stealing glances at one another. Every now and then the back doors opened and a man peeked in, scoffing loudly and crashing the doors shut again.
“Let’s sing Adon Olam as we collect the chairs,” Sharon suggested, trying to speed us along. We sprang into action, singing and laughing hysterically. All at once the men burst through the doors; all of them—with the exception of our husbands—looking furious.
But we had done it. We had done it!
It felt strange and new and different, but also familiar, standing in that circle of women, praying and singing together. And for the first time I glimpsed it, that ancient, hidden Torah that the mystics speak of, that I had been seeking for so long—the one written with black fire on white fire that rests on God’s knee, that recipe handed down from the original kitchen. Out of that book, I knew now with certainty, worlds unquestionably begin.
Shelly Fredman writes fiction and essays on Jewish themes. She is based in St. Louis, MO.