The Power of Woman’s Folk Judaism

As women, we sometimes view Judaism through the lens of “Otherness”. That is, the institutional Judaism that has been handed down to us through the ages mostly reflects the thoughts and interests of men. Additionally, what synagogue practice we’ve inherited from our foremothers is often filtered through the distance of a balcony looking down or from behind a curtain looking out.

Subconsciously (though we generally deny it), we tend to look over our shoulders for a male. Orthodox rabbinic authority to tell us what is really Jewish. But this wasn’t always the case with women. Historically, our foremothers were often bolder, more autonomous and more religiously imaginative than we Jewish women are today. Prior to the 18th-century innovation of mixed seating in liberal congregations, and all the egalitarian reforms (women minyan members, aliyot, b’not mitzvah, rabbis, cantors) that it presaged, generations of Jewish women lived their spiritual lives if not exactly out of bounds, then at least beneath the notice of rabbinic authority.

What do I mean by this?

Two examples:

Anthropologist Barbara Johnson of Goddard tells the story of the women of Jewtown in Cochin, India in the 1970’s as it became evident that the community was dying as most of its young people moved to Israel and other places. The women could not find anyone in the Jewish community strong enough to operate the Passover wheat grinder.

The only other mill in town was owned by Hindus, and, according to Jewish law, there was absolutely no way to make this mill kosher for Pesach. Still, the Jewish community needed matzah flour, so the women created their own private ritual and decided that was good enough. They arrived at the mill first thing in the morning, ahead of any other customers, and cleaned the grinder with a pure, totally white cloth (reminiscent of the bedikah clothes observant women use to check for their menstrual flow); they said prayers for purity (adapted from mikveh prayers) and then did their own grinding. Wisely, they refrained from checking out their process with any rabbinic authorities.

From the sixteenth century to the present, Ashkenazi Jewish women have used folk prayers (called techinas) which were recited in plain, homey Yiddish, rather than in Hebrew, and concerned down-to-earth subjects to express their spiritual sensibilities. One of my favorites is, “Oh God on high, please let my kugel rise.” Another techina seems to have been recited when women lied to their husbands about whether or not they had gone to the mikveh. The women gave themselves religious permission, by speaking directly to God, to circumvent rabbinic law. The very existence of these rituals and techinas attests to the fact that here is, in Jewish life, a female tradition allowing women’s self-created folk practices to supercede rabbinic dicta.

Jewish folklore is full of references to women herbalists, healers, and purveyors of spells and charms. The Talmud goes so far as to say, ‘Hakshayra shebanashim ba ‘alat kishafim “ (“Even the most kosher of women is really an accomplished witch.”) From the rabbis’ perspective his is a derogatory statement—but a feminist scholar might view this characterization as a tribute to women’s prayer and ritual. Rabbinic authorities repeatedly condemn various women’s religious practices such as throwing stones into boiling water, setting egg-laying hens in particular locations, and biting the stem off the etrog at the conclusion of Sukkot (to spur conception for the infertile), but such cryptic practices would not have required prohibition, of course, had women not been actively engaged in these singularly female folk ceremonies.

Rabbi Julie Greenberg tells of a ritual she enacted during her child’s birth that she borrowed from an 1805 text, Sefer Ha Tishbi. In this text, a male authority writing for other males), scolds medieval Jewish women for performing a superstitious childbirth ritual. “I don’t believe in these things,” the author writes, but then, interestingly, he goes :m to describe the ritual in detail:

“It is widespread among Ashkenazim to draw a circle with carbonate of soda or with black coal around the walls of the room in which the birthgiver lies. Then on each wall one writes, “Adam and Eve without Lilith”, and on the inside of the door one writes the names of three angels: Sanoy, Sansonoy and Samangalof.” [These angels are also known as Sanvi, Sansanvi and Samen galef.]

Greenberg used this ritual (with modifications) when she herself gave birth. “I was in active labor in the hospital birthing suite, and four of my women friends were with me. First we made Shabbas with homemade candles, and then we followed the ritual described in Sefer Ha Tishbi which was intended, of course, to keep danger away. It felt really exciting to reconstruct the ritual, but I was too far along in my labor to concentrate very well. Next time—which is in two weeks—I intend to do the ritual in early, not active, labor, while I’m still at home.”

How does Greenberg explain, living as she does in the 20th century, her use of sympathetic magic, charms, incantations or amulets?

“In Judaism,” she says, “Our practices may stay the same, but our attitudes towards them change. For example, we no longer believe that the mezuzah wards off demons; today we value mezuzahs as the mark of a Jewish home. Similarly with this ritual. In the past, we can imagine that women conceptualized three actual angels who flew from heaven to earth to intercede at a birth. But when / use the ritual with my friends, we have in mind the abstract value of protection—a sort of symbolic way of expressing the same desire.” In some communities, the power of “primitive” rituals continues undiminished. In Ethiopia, Jewish women retired to special dwellings when they were menstruating. There they did not work, and were brought food. Israeli rabbinic authorities have had difficulty understanding why Ethiopian women in Israel today still want to build community menstrual dwellings [see LILITH, Winter 1988].

Today, some Ethiopian women in Israel who are unhappy with this situation remain secluded in their bedrooms or on a balcony during their periods. About one year ago a group of Ethiopian women near Tel Aviv rented a menstrual seclusion apartment and have been using it unbeknown to the rabbinic authorities. Recently, after a great deal of pressure, the authorities relented, and the women now publically adhere to their traditional practices.

It is important for us to remember that Jewish women throughout the ages and in every land have devised their own Jewish customs to fit their needs. But the issue of source material—of female Jewish precedent—remains a frustration. Even when, as individuals or as a group, we give ourselves permission to remake Jewish practice, how do we find sources for women’s observances in Jewish history?

Generally bubbe meisehs (literally, stories from our grandmothers) as well as ethnographic studies and oral histories are more helpful to us than traditional texts. My Jewish women’s group, for example, interviewed our grandmothers. Among other things, we found out that Jewish women have a custom of biting, not cutting, thread (in order not to “sew up our brains.”) For protection, we tie pieces of red string on babies’ cribs or sickbeds, and we make noises like “pi pi” while sprinkling salt.

Archeology gives us clues, too. When amulets are unearthed, or incantation bowls, small household figurines or pouches of dried seeds, beads or shells, they often clarify cryptic texts for us. For example. Genesis 31:19-35 tells the story of Rachel surreptiously taking the household “teraphim.” Archeology tells us that “teraphim” are most likely female figurines found in great abundance in Israel, even in the priestly households. What these figurines were used for is unclear; modern scholars are (in my opinion) far too hasty in their charges of idolatry. Contemporary Ethiopian women make very similar figurines, which are sacred art, but not idolatrous in its common meaning. Professor Bernadette Brooten has uncovered a number of ancient tomb inscriptions which illuminate Talmudic texts which refer in Hebrrew to kohenot (priestesses) and matrons. These inscriptions describe women in positions of spiritual leadership as elders, priestesses, mothers of synagogues (the term used is “mater synagogue”) and even synagogue presidents.

Scholars like Rabbi Marcia Plumb search ancient Jewish texts for throwaway comments about women’s customs which are sometimes embedded in rabbinic discussions dealing with entirely other matters. For example, the Talmud (Sotah 6:1) says, “If a man warned his wife [not to be alone with another man], and she still went with [the other man], if the husband heard about it even from a flying bird, he could divorce her. But Rabbi Joshua says, [He is not allowed to divorce her] until the women that spin their yarn in the moonlight gossip about her.” It is tempting to imagine a modern Jewish women’s ritual in which we come together to spin yarn (and perhaps yarns) in the moonlight.

The women of “Shabbat Shenit,” a feminist minyan in Los Angeles, created a celebration from this fragmentary reference from Ta’anit, the Talmudic book of festival listings: “There were no happier times for the daughters of Israel than the 15th of Av [the second full moon of summer) and Yom Kippur, for on them the daughters of Jerusalem went forth to dance in white garments, and these were borrowed, so that no one would be ashamed.” On Tu b’Av (the 15th, the full moon of mid-summer, this year July 25th) a group of women came together and traded white garments. They read together two passages in the Bible which describe women’s holidays which might be Tu b’Av. One is the story of the daughter of Jepthah (Judges 11:37-40) and the other the account of the kidnap of the women of Shiloh
(Judges 21:19- 21). After reading these stories they created their own group midrash: When the women heard that Jepthah vowed to sacrifice his daughter, they went with her out to the hills, the forests, and the vineyards to hide her. They wore white, the ancient Jewish color of mourning, and they exchanged their clothes to make it hard to determine which woman was indeed Bat Jepthah. They could not find a hiding place safe enough, so they decided to send her to the moon, where she would certainly be safe. So they called her “levannah”— white one, or “moon”. Once a year the women go out to dance, and on that day (the full moon of mid-summer) Levannah, the daughter of Jepthah, joins them. They wear white and exchange their clothing so that when she visits, no pursuer will find her. The women of this L.A. minyan then went out to dance and sing songs under the full moon, creating a new Jewish women’s holiday celebration from an overlooked fragmentary text.

These efforts to revive women’s folk Judaism are but quilt pieces to which we must add our own imaginations. Besides those of us who are creating new customs and reclaiming the bubbeh meisehs of our foremothers, some Jewish craftswomen are borrowing from the past, too. Ceramic artist Claire Sherman uses traditional Jewish amulets as a model for contemporary feminist ones; potter Li a Rosen borrows images from Jewish Persian incantation bowls when she makes her new-moon bowls. (The old bowls were used to trap demons; you pushed all the demons into a small space and then put a bowl over them. Women asserted religious power in this way.)

The late artist Ruth Hafsadi made a series of prayer-shawls on which she painted the Temple wall in celebration of the “Women at the Wall.” She, and artist Shonna Husbands-Hankin use feminine names for God (like Shechina and Yah) on the crowns of their lavender, pale blue and pink silk prayer shawls. Rose Tamler creates extraordinary prayer shawls out of lace, ribbon, and other traditionally “feminine” items. Fabric artist Ita Aber incorporates into her tallises an “L” shaped design found on women’s clothes from the Bar Kochbah cave excavations.

We must reclaim our bubbeh meisehs, build from the past, experience the present and look always to our futures. True rituals, artifacts, songs, folk prayers and customs arise from the felt needs of ordinary Jewish women. Women like you and me. After all, the tradition needs to be ours, too.