Lilith Feature

Into the Future with the Rituals From Our Past

Women’s rituals have significantly matured over the last few years.

Suddenly it feels different. It’s as if Jewish women, hobbled for millennia, are coming of age spiritually, beginning to march in unison into a promised land of our own.

The following two rituals are representative. Confident, centered, they radiate (generally unconsciously, which is an index of having entered a new paradigm) a quiet certainty — a belief in their own normativeness. Of the many signs of developmental maturity, this is the most striking. No longer angry, apologetic or awash in Otherness, these rituals proceed on some interesting fronts.

First, the ritual-makers feel entitled, as individuals and as women, to take their own pulses. As Diane Solomon frequently commented, “I did what felt rights” or, in Vicki Hollander’s words, “I heeded my own voice and it ultimately felt very full, very satisfying!’ They have, in this way, created something that is simultaneously fresh and ancient.

Second, these women locate themselves in a decidedly Jewish place — not Buddhist, not Wiccan, not syncretistic. (Granted, it’s re-sifted Judaism.) They’ve come to terms not only with their right to actively play Judaism, but also with their desire to be Jews.

Research in gender psychology has pointed out that women generally have a higher tolerance for change, flexibility, innovation and rule-breaking than do men. Vicki and Diane, in the ways they roll with the punches, seem to support this finding.

Vicki, for example, has only the barest idea of what her divorce ceremony will be. True, she invites her women friends over ahead of time, but potluck is as much a metaphor as a meal. Her “mourner’s minyan” has hardly any agenda, but Vicki trusts that the essential bases will get covered. And they do. Following the rhythmic, sensuous imperatives of dusk and candles, she writes her document of release only hours before she needs it. Still, it is staunch and stunningly dignified.

As for Diane, when the spirit moves her, she takes her prayerbook out to the cemetery. If it’s raining, the book gets wet. That’s okay. In constructing her grief rituals, Diane consults no books or rabbis for the Letter of the Law; she finds and adapts her own little burial box (no phone calls to the funeral parlor). Perhaps fresh air — the oxygen of change and freedom — is, after all, women’s territory of grace.

Particularly given the larger framework of Jewish life cycle industrialization (mega-Bat Mitzvahs, etc.), the quality of “making do” here — of unmediated, small-scale praxis — is extraordinary.

Another subversive overhaul in these ceremonies (as in many others we have seen) has to do with the idea of community. For Jews, community is the basic coin of religious experience. For women, too, relationship has been said to be at the core of our very lives. But these rituals confound both of these constructs. Perhaps it is as the poet Marianne Moore has said: “The best’cure for loneliness is solitude.”

Though both Diane’s husband and Vicki’s women-friends are central to these women’s religious, healing experiences, both Vicki and Diane spend marked, formal time alone.

Vicki chants the viddui by herself, wrapped in her tallis. Diane ritually gathers yarrow by herself in a field; she explicitly asks her community of friends and family not to phone.

Community here includes: the rhythms of nature and of the birthing body; the chain of generations that have come before; women in dyads; a Wordsworthian “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused….”

Is, perhaps, our very definition of community — in this contemporary age — patriarchal, speciesist, lacking in imagination?

Finally, women’s relationship to Judaism hinges on a certain dialectic: we claim Jewish traditions as important to us, but we also recognize how these traditions have antagonized, forgotten and even disfigured us.

For many women, this split has been paralyzing. Some women, however, like Vicki Hollander, are beginning to recover, to feel their way along the fissure. Increasingly, we are able to interpret the dichotomy as a rich, double source, a smorgasbord of possibility, an authentic High Holiday ticket to that larger, zygotic whole.

Interestingly, as new rituals discover their durable voices, they seem more and more homespun. Enfranchised women, after centuries of exclusion, may be quietly revolutionizing Judaism in a way not unlike the tectonic shift that occurred after the destruction of the Second Temple when animal sacrifice ceded to prayer.

Mark these words: the homespun is indeed subversive. Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur. [With the name changed, this story could be about you.]

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