Tonight we had a virtual meeting of our local chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom,
an organization of Muslim and Jewish women whose goal is to know, understand, and respect one another and to defend each other when either group is under attack.
We talked about prayer. It was one of the most moving gatherings I have ever attended. We have so much to learn from each other and so much to share. From my Muslim sisters I gained a deeper understanding of the sustaining power of faith and the healing power of spiritual surrender, of “letting go and letting God.”
My own spiritual path is quite different: more about letting sacredness flow through me and trusting in that.
It especially moved me that we could share so deeply without anyone feeling they had to convince anyone else of the rightness of their path. In that sharing I felt in the presence of the holy.
I was fortunate – blessed – to come of age when American Jews were more free than any generation of Jews before us. We could afford to participate in all the spiritual experimentation of the 60s and 70s—Eastern meditation, feminist theology, intentional communities – and then come together to decide how to integrate what we’d learned with the Jewish identity that was still in our bones. I’m going to speak today about one of these movements: Jewish feminism. I write about other movements such as mysticism and the rebirth of Orthodoxy in my book Taking Judaism Personally; Creating a Meaningful Spiritual Life. I grew up in a Reform synagogue. Until I was in my 30s, I never sat in an upstairs balcony, peering through the grating to see the service below. I never saw the fanfare of a boy’s bar mitzvah while knowing that unless I got married, I would never have a ceremony celebrating my transition to adulthood. So I never felt the frustration experienced by some Jewishly well-educated young women. That is, until my daughter, after eight years of Jewish day school, had to chant her bat mitzvah Torah portion in the high school cafeteria because girls were still not allowed to do so in our Conservative synagogue. (Our synagogue’s policy has since changed.) I was drawn to Jewish feminism when I started to pray. The language of Judge, Father and King was a barrier for me. When I had the privilege of interviewing the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, he gave me a merry smile and said, “You don’t like being commanded, do you?” It’s true. I don’t. But it was depicting God as a man that was the greater barrier for me, having been taught all through my childhood that God was not a person, was not confined by time or space, and could not be defined in any way we humans could imagine. Jewish feminism gave me permission to change the language of prayer in ways that opened me spiritually. The blessing traditional Jews say on waking up in the morning is “Modah ani Melech chai v’kayyam” – "I thank you, living and everlasting King, for returning my soul to me. Great is your faithfulness.” Jewish feminists were experimenting with different language for prayer. I chose to use “m’kor” – source – instead of Melech – King – and found myself opening to a new relationship with the sacred: to a source of life flowing through me, bringing forth universes. Having accepted that my language for approaching the sacred was simply a gate, a vehicle for getting there, I could imagine God in different ways, understanding them all as simply my soul reaching out for what it needed. For awhile, I imagined God as an all-containing Mother. She could feel my pain and longing, because I was part of her. One female rabbi in her Yom Kippur sermon envisioned God as an old grandmother sitting across the kitchen table from us, saying, “What is happening in your life? I want to know the good, the bad, what you’re worried about or frightened of. We haven’t been in touch for awhile. Let’s try to stay in better touch this coming year.” It was much easier to imagine starting fresh with that forgiving God encouraging me. Please note, I did not really tell myself that God is an old lady. I used an image that opened my heart for prayer. Some Jewish feminists experimented with using some of the ritual objects men used, like the prayer shawl, the tallis. Once when I was going through a difficult part of my life, I tried getting up early every morning, praying the traditional prayers from the prayerbook. I didn’t own a tallis, so I used a bath towel. I said a few words from the prayer for putting on the tallis: “You (God) wrap yourself in light as in a garment.” I felt wrapped in light. I had discovered one of the small sacred spaces created by Jewish ritual. Jewish feminists were also experimenting with creating new rituals building on Jewish tradition. Some Jewish sources named Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, the beginning of the lunar month, as a women’s holiday. Jewish women throughout the US began gathering at Rosh Hodesh to study, pray, talk, or create new rituals. Passover is sometimes referred to as the birth-day of the Jewish people. Our escape from Egypt was the beginning of our history as a people. At one Rosh Hodesh meeting in Philadelphia, we held a ceremony, symbolizing the crossing of the Red Sea with two parallel lines of women. Each woman in turn crawled through this corridor, being gently pushed along by the women on the sides as a baby is pushed through a birth canal. That exercise brought out whole new dimensions of meaning to the holiday, as an annual time of re-birth. Feminist theologian Judith Plaskow wrote a stunning book called Standing Again at Sinai. She urged women to fill in the blanks in Jewish history by learning about and writing about the women who were there all the time but are missing from our sacred texts and our histories and stories. Women scholars and writers took up the challenge, writing about women in the Bible such as Jepthah’s daughter. She was never named, but Jephtha’s daughter was killed because Jepthah had vowed that if he won a battle, he would sacrifice the first creature he met on returning home. Scholars were bringing to life the stories of women throughout recorded history. Inspired by this challenge, I wrote my first novel, Queen of the Jews,to explore and imagine the life of Shlomtzion, Queen Salome Alexandra, who was the sole ruler of Judea for nine years in the first century BCE. I had never heard of her until I saw a Jerusalem street sign with her name during a trip to Israel. I think women, and men too, have a right to know about our queens! I told the story in the first person--letting the queen tell her own story in what I imagined were her own words. This challenge shaped the way I wrote my second – just-released – novel, JUSTICE: Maccabees and Pharisees. I wanted to write about the transformation in Judaism that began in the first century BCE, when the old Judaism of animal sacrifice, led by priests in the Holy Temple, began to be replaced by today’s Judaism of study, debate, and family—centered rituals. To tell this story, I needed two narrators. The male narrator, Judah ben Tabbai, was a leader of the Pharisee movement. He was present, as a woman could not be in those days, at the debates and decisions that defined the home-centered Jewish way of life. But the struggle between the Pharisees and Alexander Janneus, the reigning High Priest and king of Judea, was bitter and bloody. It tore at and ultimately destroyed the family of Shimon ben Shetakh, the leading Pharisee and head of the Sanhedrin. His unnamed wife, called Sarah in my book, tells that more intimate part of the story. By clicking on the images of the books below, on this web-site, www.judypetsonk.com , or logging in directly from Amazon.com, you can purchase both my novels, as well as my other books, Taking Judaism Personally; Creating a Meaningful Spiritual Life and The Intermarriage Handbook; A Guide for Jews and Christians. Taking Judaism Personally recounts the ways contemporary Jews have woven their spiritual explorations, through mysticism and meditation, feminism, political activism, and return to Orthodoxy, into the Jewish identity they learned in childhood. You can order a signed copy of the hardback edition of Taking Judaism Personally by sending a check for $32.75 ($25 plus tax, packaging and postage) made out to me: Judy Petsonk, 149 N 5thAve, Highland Park, NJ 08094.
We humans, regardless of our theology or beliefs, need sacred space and sacred times. Times and places where we can renew. I love the way Judaism finds the sacred within the profane. Jewish tradition has myriads of blessings of one or a few sentences to be said throughout the day. Like mini-meditations, they allow us to pay attention, to be fully present in a moment and at the same time see far beyond that moment. The spiritual is nested in the concrete, physical life. One of my favorites is the blessing for going to the bathroom. That blessing reminds us that the human body is miraculously intricate: “tubes and more tubes, ducts and more ducts” and if any tube that is supposed to be open gets blocked, or any duct that is supposed to stay closed gets open, we could not even stand up. My body, your body, is a miracle of coordination. Take a breath, slow down, remember this miracle, and you are in a sacred space.
Blessings remind us of our human obligations. A blessing for getting dressed in the morning says that God clothes the naked. On one level, I am grateful to have clothes. On a different level, I’m aware that many people don’t have clothes, and I have to be God’s hands to bring them some. It’s my obligation this day or this week to get clothes to people who need them. And on still another level, I am grateful that as I grow older, I’m no longer as vulnerable, self-conscious, naked as I felt when I was younger. All this in one breath, one blessing.
A one-sentence blessing can remind us of the connectedness of all life and all time. The motzi, the blessing over bread, thanks God for bringing forth bread from the earth. Is this literally true? Of course not. Instead, humans gradually learned over centuries and millenia that those hard little grains, if milled and soaked and fermented, could provide edible food. They learned to plant the grains. If they were lucky, there would be rains and they could harvest and winnow the grains. It’s worth taking an extra second to acknowledge the miracle of this chain of human learning, of our ability to find sustenance in the natural world. And while I’m being grateful to be the recipient of all those miracles, perhaps I can even be grateful, not only for the farmer and the baker, but for the driver who brought the loaves I am eating to the supermarket. If I take another breath, I can even ponder the rest of the miracle: that my body knows how to make use of this bread.