How Do Women Define the Sacred?

Several issues ago, Lilith put out a call asking women who wore tallesim*—traditionally men’s prayer shawls—to tell us about them, and the response was overwhelming. Sifting through scores of photos and stories, we began to realize that the contemporary woman’s tallit extends the legacy of two historical threads. First, the bold tallesim we wear today—whimsical, hemp-virtuous, showy, girly or deeply personal—announce the end of the era of self-conscious awkwardness and politicization that challenged the pioneer tallit-wearers of the ’70s and ’80s. Second, the tallesim arise out of thousands of years of domestic female rites that flourished entirely independent of men’s.

The appearance of our technicolor dreamcoats in synagogues is electrifying. Though women have become increasingly enfranchised over the past several decades in many areas of Jewish life, our gains in the world of liturgy and worship arc nominal, and prayer remains a legacy almost entirely composed and transmitted by and for men. Handmade women’s tallitot offer the beginnings of a serious challenge to that. They are not, it turns out, just aesthetic tweaks on men’s unchanging- through-the-millennia wool or rayon prayer shawls, but rather communiques from a distinctly gendered spiritual front. Females in their hand-made tallitot are Trojan horses in the pews: the beginnings of what will be, over time, a recasting of the patriarchal davennen that has been Jews’ inheritance.

These tallesim also reveal how gendered one’s experience of the sacred actually is. Century after century, men have largely been completely happy to don the identical sacerdotal rectangles as one another. Women’s tallitot, however, almost immediately morphed into individualized and exuberantly self-expressive garments, providing Jews with a wonderful window into how women experience the sacred. Opening the synagogue doors to females also opened the doors onto female sensibilities, and so the tallit, as one woman told us, reflects “everything that was left out; everything that women find holy that doesn’t yet have a place in conventional Jewish worship.”

Jewish women have historically been excluded, until late, from formal synagogue worship, but the received cant that “women stayed at home while men went to shul to pray” is patently false. It exposes a narrow and tendentious framing— and a deep misunderstanding—of prayer and the spiritual. Women’s homes, indeed, are and have always been “shuls,” and we—our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, our friends’ mothers—have reigned supreme there as autonomous “priests,” freed from clerical supervision.

Unfortunately, Western tradition (through thinkers like Plato, Durkheim, Eliade, Weber and others) has made normative the rigid binary}’ notion that “spirit” is sacred and “matter” irredeemably profane. (In the story of the Golden Calf, for example, the wayward, unenlightened Hebrews need a material crutch to access the divine, while the pious Moses experiences God directly without the intercession of “matter.”) In this dichotomous formulation, females, along with illiterates, children, the elderly and the infirm, are associated with “things”—which are intrinsically devalued. Our spiritual attachment to Grandma’s table linens that we use on Shabbat, to our grown child’s ancient tattered “blanky,” to our bodies as mediators of religious experience—classically speaking, these all warrant a giant feh! As Colleen McDannell, a religion scholar, writes, “While awe…and a sense of the foreign mark the sacred, the profane is commonplace, frequently boring, and familiar. The space of the church or temple is sacred; the home and workplace are profane. The clergy are sacred; women and children are profane.”

This polarization disfigures everyone’s understanding of how religion and a sense of the sacred “works in the real world,” as McDannell puts it. Women’s perception of the spiritual is inclusive, embracing William Blake’s well-known pronouncement that “Everything that lives is holy.” A religion of the senses—seeing, hearing, and touching God—is as valid as a religion of the intellect. There are many doors to the sacred, both shared and unique; women celebrate the heterogeneity of religious experience. Indeed, as opposed to the classic hierarchical sensibility that prescribes “top down” social expression and change, and that posits “illiterate, undifferentiated masses,” women have always championed “bottom up” social expression and change, relying on the authenticity of subjective experience.

Kay Turner, a scholar of folklore, recognizes that “one need go no further for the holy than home.” And historically, the home is where women have been free to practice their own brand of faith. Here, in our domestic lives, we acknowledge the “holiness of the ordinary,” as feminist theologian Christine Downing calls it. Our ner tamid [eternal light] is the “shrine” on our mantle piece consisting of Jewish artifacts and family photographs; our beautifully curated Sabbath and holiday dining tables are “altars” set with infinite liturgical care; our mothers’ and grandmothers’ holy “Bible” was The Settlement Cookbook—ours, perhaps, is Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen, as well as recipes on dog-eared index cards that became, at some point, sacred replacements for a receding past. Certainly, then, we “davenned” at home, practicing what scholars call “affective faith”—engaging our emotions and our senses in ways that are not text-centered. The particular smells that emanate from our kitchens on holy days, for i instance—chulent or fassoulia, roast chicken or meat sambusak, apple cake, ma’amoul or sufganiyot—what could be more central to sacred experience, what could better define religion of the heart?

What, then, is holy to women, and what do our “prayers” encompass? Women describing their tallitot to us answered these questions in ways that revealed themselves to be universal.

“Ordinary objects are religious to me,” wrote Leslie Dolin of Portland, Oregon, who used her deceased father’s neckties to create delicate wavy stripes on her elegant white raw-silk tallit, “and so are relationships, and memory, and beauty.” (Women have always been the sacerdotal keepers of memory: a yellowed songster of Hebrew melodies that we take out on Chanukah, a wooden bowl in which our great-grandmother chopped liver, a cracked china platter on which our partner’s mother arranged her fish.)

“For me, the sacred has to be embodied,” Ruth Meyers, from San Diego, said. “Wrapped in my tallit, I experience a kind of quiet centeredness, and even rapture. I connect with the natural world, with the miracle of my being here, with the eternal, with a recovered understanding of the beauty of my own aging flesh, and with gratitude.”

“My tallit has tzitzit tied by four friends,” Joan Vick, of New Hampshire, wrote. “When I bring them together before saying the Sh’ma, it feels like gathering loved ones from all over. To me, that’s comforting and sacred.”

“When I made my first tallit in 1975, I embroidered on the atara, “Brukha Shekhina sh’astani isha—Blessed are you. Shekhina, for making me a woman,” said Geela Rayzel Raphael, of Philadelphia, “and whenever I wear this tallit, it continues to feel empowering and healing.” [Traditionally, a man says a blessing every morning thanking God for “not making me a woman.”]

“When Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” says Rachel Breen, of Minneapolis, “he said he felt as though his legs were praying. When I make art, I feel as though my hands are praying.”

“Hannah in the Bible models personal prayer through having a spontaneous tete-a-tete with God,” commented Sue-Ellen Perl from Fort Lauderdale. “That feels so female. With my tallit over my head, made with fabrics and symbols that are especially meaningful to me, I have a prayer experience that’s both meditative and intimate.”

“When I wrap myself in my tallit,” writes Beth Sirull, of Oakland, California, whose prayer shawl is made out of her wedding dress, “I am enveloped in the central relationship of my life, that which I share with my husband.”

“The tallit defines my body as a natural vessel of spirituality,” says Danielle Marks from Boston. “It helps me experience the sacred within the body and the body within the sacred.” The idea of experiencing the spiritual not by transcending one’s body, but by existing fully in it, is female. We see the “earthy” as compatible with, even essential to, faith.

“With my fiftieth birthday coming up,” wrote Mindy Fastow of Virginia, “I wanted to make a statement that from now on I was going to accept who I was. I considered this ‘wisdom.’ It dawned on me that I could make a tallit that reflected this acceptance of myself. It should say ‘me’, I thought, the way a pair of old jeans does. So I made my tallit out of jeans. Someone in the congregation told me it was sacrilegious, and I thought, ‘That’s right’. The tallit represents an exuberance between God and me.”

“It took me three years to complete the studies that would allow me to become an adult bat mitzvah,” said Joan Richman, of New York. “It also took that long to find the perfect tallit. In the end, I made it myself, and wrote my Hebrew name on the atara. As part of the bat mitzvah ceremony, my husband placed it on my shoulders. For me, it is a powerful statement of my learning and my commitment.

Other recurring themes (many of which appear in sidebars here) include narrative, cultural transmission, the past, motherhood and daughterhood, and the following:

Clothing is many women’s “first language,” connecting us to everything from shopping to the ancient female craft of weaving. For some, it evokes Jewish-American immigrant history—the “shmatte trade”—as well as our activist foremothers who were the first to unionize textile sweatshops. The sensuousness of cloth, its textures and colors, also speaks to women. 1 Thus the choosing or making of a tallit can be an accessible and natural way for women to interact with traditional Judaism.

Women are moved by the physicality of a tallit’s embrace, as well as its talismanic power to protect, as was clear by their manifold descriptions. Women felt; swathed in God’s love, wrapped in a huge hug, embraced in warm and comforting folds. Their tallesim caressed, cloaked, enfolded, hugged, cradled, cushioned, loved, sheltered, swaddled, embosomed, fondled, nestled, shielded, sheltered, protected, comforted, enveloped, and enshrouded them.

Many women who wear handmade tallitot value that their prayer shawls define a private space, discrete and powerful— words used by informants include: tent, membrane, chador, womb, and even, interestingly, “a room of one’s own.”

In some Afro-Cuban religions, “sacred seamstresses” have status equal to priests’. There is an understanding that nonverbal elements of spirituality transcend words, that their sacred garments can produce religious experience. An exceptional seamstress is said to be “speaking without a voice.”

It is a canard to think of women as entering temples and synagogues as religious novitiates, as the gender that has been excluded for over two thousand years from authentic “worship.” Instead it’s that men were in one shul and women in another. And our ever-evolving tallitot reflect our bringing into the public agora, for the first time in history)’, our religious experience, our definition of what we find holy, our “domestic faith,” our sacralizing of stories and relationships, beauty, and the sensorial and embodied.

Thirty years ago, the feminist theologian Mary Daly spoke of the need for women to create a space “where it is possible to be oneself, without the contortions of mind, will, feeling, and imagination demanded of women by sexist society.” For the first time, we can do this in public because the tallit’s expressive and elastic canvas invites each individual to create “a room of her own.” We can sit in synagogue, now, and enjoy the two spheres that are both necessary to our experience of the sacred: one shared and formal, the other intimate and private. Rachel Kanter, of Manhattan, wrote: “My tallitot are no longer just pieces of fabric to hold the four tzitzit. They are a means of connecting my story as a woman with my story as a Jew.” Our tallesim are Trojan horses—the beginnings of what promises to be, over time, the recasting of the patriarchal davennen that has been our (sometimes strangely atavistic) inheritance. It is only a matter of time before conventional worship and prayer will honestly express what both genders experience as “holy.”

Women in tallesim visibly manifest a deeper phenomenon: Jewish women have, in the broadest terms, been overwhelmingly responsible for contemporary Judaism’s remarkable efflorescence and its renewed vigor and funk. Women potently push Judaism to move and change, to stay viable in the 21st century. No symbol has expressed the fact that Judaism is moving and changing, that religion is being conceptualized in entirely new ways, as potently and explosively and visibly as the tallit.

If we pay serious attention to how women interpret and articulate the sacred, we will discover a Judaism that is not unlike some of our tallesim: richer, more personal, more varied, more thoughtful, embracing, beautiful, daring, expressive, complex, “owned.” 

Susan Schnur is Lilith’s Editor at Large. Anna Schnur-Fishman is an undergraduate at Brown.