- Taking Up the Timbrel: The Challenge of Creating Ritual for Jewish Women Today
Are women "natural" ritual-makers, while men are "natural" theologians? This was the first question that came to my mind as I read through Taking Up the Timbrel, edited by two British women rabbis, Sylvia Rothschild and Sybil Sheridan. It seems that of the new religious horizons that have opened up to Jewish women as a result of the feminist revival, the most appealing to many of us is the creation of new rituals. The reason for this may lie in an urge to correct the "liturgical dumbness" described by the editors in their preface (p. 1). "The prayer book," they claim, "a creation of men for specific formal and public worship—only occasionally casts a nod in the direction of women." There may also be a deeper, more ancient and universal reason for modern Jewish women's attraction to the composition of new rituals. Women's intense biological preoccupation with various aspects of fertility, child-rearing, and nurturing leads them to regard life-cycle and healing rituals as their natural channel to God. That is the thesis suggested by anthropologist Susan Starr-Sered in her germinal study of women's religions, Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 120). Even in the modern "enlightened" world, women have very limited time free of immediate physical responsibilities for other family members. The creation of ritual is not as time-consuming as writing lengthy, detailed theological studies and treatises, and rituals suit women's "relational" predisposition. Hence, rituals created by modern women serve as a mirror of their theology and their interpretations of traditional, originally patriarchal texts and liturgies. I wish, moreover, to propose a third reason for the immense creativity of modern Jewish feminists in developing new rituals. It has to do [End Page 236] with the Jewish inclination towards "halachic thinking," or, more accurately, towards religious praxis as opposed to dogma. In this sense, contemporary women rabbis continue the legacy of their predecessors, the Rabbis, in shaping through prayer and ritual a religious reality that reflects their understanding of the Divine and His/Her encounters with humanity.
The rituals collected in this anthology were mostly invented by women rabbis in England, inspired by various milestones in their personal or family lives. Often they were shaped by challenges that emerged in their congregations. The book covers an impressive spectrum of subjects: meditations and prayers for wrapping oneself in a tallit and laying tefillin (phylacteries); prayers for times of depression, illness, and healing; and rituals to mark significant milestones in women's physical fertility, such as menarche, the public announcement of a pregnancy, the moment following the delivery of a baby, and welcoming a baby daughter into the covenant. Other moving liturgies mark female infertility, including an interesting—for some, also controversial—ritual for the termination of a pregnancy. Lastly, as in other anthologies of Jewish feminist rituals, the most famous of which is Lifecycles,I (Debra Orenstein [ed.], Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 1994), there are rituals to mark the beginning and ending of relationships: acknowledging connection (marriage, both heterosexual and single-sex) and grief over the loss of one's partner, baby, health, or ... pet. The impressive selection of rituals will, no doubt, enrich Jewish life tremendously and bring more and more voices into the music of Jewish prayer.
Despite the variety of subjects and life transitions addressed by these rituals, many of them share a similar theology. The God to whom the writers turn is very immanent (for this reason, prayers written by Marcia Falk [The Book Of Blessings, San Francisco: Harper, 1996] are often invoked), yet this God often emerges as quite impersonal. As I searched for a ritual or prayer to recite while waiting for my daughter to come out safely from the operating room, I found myself troubled by the overly rational theology behind the healing rituals. It is true that illnesses are not always cured (p. 186...