Closer to God . . .

 By Heather Munro - 

‘Regal’ is how I describe many of the Chasidic women I met, especially the older ones. The first night of Sukkos in a rebbe’s sukkah, the rebbetzin sat at the head of the women’s table. Her make-up was subtle and understated, highlighting her fine bone structure. Her posture was erect, proud, and her turban ringed her head like a crown. Years of focusing on carrying herself with refinement and behaving regally manifested into a woman who was clearly queen in her own sukkah.

In Chasidic thought, women are believed innately closer to God. The most common of the many explanations I heard while on fieldwork is the idea that God became better at making humans with practice. Because God created man first, he did not do quite as good a job as when he tried the second time. When women were created, God had already practiced, and women therefore came out a bit more ‘refined.’ This folk wisdom of women’s spiritual superiority offered by men and women is not part of any sort of oral Torah or law.

Because of Chasidic women’s perceived religious strength, they are the ones considered disciplined enough to engage with the secular world.  Essentially, women become the members of Chasidic society who are associated with the secular precisely because of their innate sacredness. Working in the secular world, taking family members to doctor appointments; all these activities are normal for the Chasidic woman. Women, essentially, become the guardians of the men in a self-sacrificing way. When removed from the political rhetoric of the modern Israeli state, elements that are perceived as tools of subjugation are actually testaments within the society to the recognised spiritual strength of women.

Women have specific responsibilities in Jewish ritual, and these are fundamental to the community being able to fulfil its responsibility to God. The importance of women’s roles in Judaism is a contributing part of why women feel valued in the Chasidic community without inclusion in learning or minyanim (group required for prayer). A woman makes challah; at all three meals on the Sabbath, her husband will bless two loaves at the beginning of each meal. Burning a bit of the challah is called ‘taking challah’, a ritual that has become the modern-day equivalent of the burnt sacrifices women used to make in the Temple. Chasidic wives light candles at the beginning of the Sabbath.   In candle lighting, women, not men, are the ones who mark the beginning of God’s day. Shabbat offers other opportunities for understanding the importance of femininity to Chasidic society.

At the start of Shabbos (the Sabbath), women light candles before sunset. Candle lighting is of utmost importance; it officially marks the beginning of the Sabbath. Candles are lit early to avoid missing the start of Shabbos by lighting too late and breaking Shabbos by lighting flame, and also to literally light the family as daylight lingers and then dies. It is a liminal time: the sun has not yet set, so it is not yet actually Shabbos, but it is no longer the week, the secular time. The moment the sun dips below the horizon is the moment the new day actually starts, but that moment is easy to miss, so candles are lit early to be safe. Men are not at home for candle lighting, but safely ensconced in prayer in the synagogue. It is purely the domain of wives in the home, and it is one of the most important and enduring Jewish rituals.

Women told me that lighting Shabbos candles is a woman’s right, and by doing so, as well as by baking challah and other preparations, women actually make the Sabbath. Women’s duty to make the transition, and fill the transitional space between secular and holy, is a source of empowerment for them.

It would be quite easy to make the mistake that Chasidic people perceive God as male, as many modern Christian ideologies do. However, both men and women were swift to tell me that God is referred to by a feminine word just as often as a male word in the Torah. On a daily basis, when referring to God, Chasidic women simply use the Hebrew word Hashem, literally meaning ‘the name.’ The words used to name Hashem in Torah and other sources indicate the aspect of Hashem that is being manifested at that time and in that place. However, Hashem is considered a constant male and female presence in the world, and both aspects are therefore also present in all people.

On Friday night, as Shabbos begins, Hashem is referred to as the shechinah. Shechinah comes from the Hebrew root ‘shechin’, meaning ‘to dwell,’ and the letter hay at the end, which makes the word feminine. Therefore, on Friday night, God is referred to as the female indwelling. God is also referred to as ‘the Shabbos Queen.’ The importance of Hashem as shechinah is twofold: it is a recognition of feminine power on Friday night, and it is recognised as the presence of God within all women. The idea in chasidus (Chasidic thought) that the feminine is more of an internal power is very much connected to the indwelling of God being a feminine presence. Just as females, as internal beings, fill males, so Hashem fills humans as the shechinah on Shabbos night.

While the women welcome the Shabbos queen at home, the men sing Lecha Dodi (Hebrew, ‘Come my beloved’) in the synagogue. Lecha Dodi directly addresses the ‘queen’ herself, welcoming the Sabbath. By singing Lecha Dodi, the men are rejoicing in the femininity of God that is manifest on Friday night. In the Chasidic Jerusalem it is not uncommon to see men continuing to sing this as they return home, often dancing to the tune in their joy that Shabbos has come.

Upon entering the home, men continue to rejoice in the female by singing a Eishes Chayil, Hebrew for ‘Woman of Valour,’ Proverbs 31, around the Shabbos table. On Friday night, the time when the shechinah is considered present in Chasidic homes, men publicly rejoice in the feminine, and it is also an opportunity to show appreciation for all women.

In addition to certain times that are auspicious for female prayers, there are also certain types of prayers that have special power when said by women as opposed to men. Principle among these is tehillim (psalms). A group of women in one community with which I work started saying tehillim at the tomb of the prophet Samuel, in order to help unwed young people find their soul mates. Every Friday, these women take a small bus early in the morning to the nearby tomb, and recite the entire book of tehillim, then take the bus back to their homes to continue preparing Shabbos. The first time they did this, a match was successfully made that Shabbos, and so their husbands and the rebbe returned to Samuel’s tomb on Saturday night and made a melave malka to give thanks for the successful match. Now, just as women go every Friday to say tehillim, men go every Saturday evening to make a melave malka. The community attributes the steep improvement in making successful matches to the tehillim group. In this way, and in other ways, the religious establishment attributes a significant amount of power to a feminine arena.

While women may not study Talmud in the beit midrash (study hall), the wealth of knowledge that is available to women is a source of empowerment to them.  This learning and discussion of the feminine in Judaism becomes a discourse of empowerment among Chasidic women. The commandments that men are obligated to perform but women are not are called ‘obligations’ for men, and ‘exemptions’ for women. In this way, the language already frames religious practice as taxing. Women’s exclusion from the synagogue is no longer a manifestation of their inferiority, but rather of their superiority; their innate holiness. Due to my own gender, I was not exposed to the male position on this issue, or what type of discourse they employed.

The discourse of women as superior extended beyond the spiritual realm, and often to many other facets of life. One Shabbos, as the men were at shul (synagogue), I sat with Bubbie Brenner and her daughter-in-law, Perl, as they discussed the current project the girls were studying at school. After expressing their pride that daughter Rochel was already covering such an advanced subject at a young age, Perl Brenner remarked that she thought the girls’ school was better than the boys’ at this point, to which her mother-in-law nodded vigorously in agreement.

One afternoon in Chaya’s kitchen, women had gathered for a meeting. These wives met weekly, and knew each other well. Over cups of coffee, they joked and shared stories of childrearing. The talk soon turned to their husbands, and one woman, Miriam, launched into a cheerful tale of when she had left her husband home with the children the week before. She had returned after the children’s usual dinner time to find her husband at his wit’s end, and the family unfed. Evidently, he had exclaimed, ‘I couldn’t make dinner, I was watching the kids!’ The women laughed and shook their heads at the incompetence of men, and their inability to multitask. Rebbetzin Levine, who had arrived by this time, commented on how very impressive it was that Miriam’s husband was even able to watch the children without her.

Gender-separate spheres can allow women a feeling of empowerment, and that is true of Chasidic communities. Sex-segregated living, rather than limiting Chasidic women, creates a community building network that promotes sharing of resources and power, and creates emotional ties. I heard many tales of community support the week after delivering a baby, or during periods of illness. Furthermore, this all-women space is a place to employ the rhetoric discussed above, and enact other power structures. Women’s space is also one where secrets can be shared; secrets of which men and authority figures may not approve. Because of the prohibition on women not to sing or act theatrically for men, recent years have given birth to a ‘by women, for women’ arts scene, including choirs, theatre, and cinema.

[1] FADER, A. (2009) Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in
Brooklyn. Princeton: University Press.
Heather Munro is an anthropologist who studies Chasidic women and their communities in Jerusalem. She is currently a PhD candidate at Durham University in the United Kingdom. All information in this post is either paraphrased or taken directly from her dissertation written in partial completion of the requirements for the degree of MPhil in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, ‘Chasidic Women in Jerusalem: The Feminine in the Holy and the Mundane’, submitted in 2015. You can keep up with her research on Heather’s blog, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in Durham.’
Heather's website.
You can follow Heather on Twitter @ctyankindurham.


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1 comment:

  1. An interesting and positive article - however life for Chasidic women is surely not always so warm and empowering?


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