August 10, 2011
David Suissa: A woman’s edge
It’s not politically correct to talk about differences between men and women. In a society that values equality, this is understandable. As my friend Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote this week on the Morethodoxy blog, “I believe fervently that Orthodoxy has yet to grapple fully or satisfactorily with the dignity of womankind.”
The rabbi was especially disturbed by the prayer that blesses God every morning for “not having made me a woman,” which he said “has the effect today of justifying our lack of progress.”
Kanefsky’s focus was on inequality. Women in Orthodoxy have fewer rights than men in several areas, including divorce, the prayer space and the rabbinate, and he lamented that while progress has been made, the community still “falls short of this goal in many ways.”
These sentiments speak to a modern sensibility against discrimination of any kind, whether based on race, religion, gender, lifestyle, disability or age.
But while Kanefsky’s sentiments were justifiably focused on a man’s halachic “edge” over women, it seems to me that an important idea got lost.
That idea is a woman’s spiritual edge over man.
I got a taste of that edge last Friday night at Temple Beth Am, where a packed house welcomed their new cantor, Magda Fishman, a soulful trumpet player who sings Shlomo Carlebach melodies like Billie Holliday sings the blues.
This was not my natural habitat. I pray in Orthodox shuls, so I’m clearly biased toward male cantors. Give me a Sephardic baritone with Ladino melodies and I’m in davening heaven. For me, the depth of a powerful male voice is like a surge of adrenaline. It charges me up. And it’s what I’m used to.
So, how do I explain that I was so moved on Friday night by a female cantor leading services on the rooftop of a Conservative synagogue?
I think it started with the amazing rooftop setting, which was like being immersed in a mikveh of Godly air. Instead of being distracted by memorial plaques or stained-glass artwork, I was distracted only by an endless sky and a whispering breeze.
Into this open-air setting landed Magda Fishman. With the Los Angeles sunset framing her angelic face, Fishman picked up her trumpet and played a slow and moving solo that opened the evening. Then we all sang “Shalom Aleichem.”
I confess — I felt a frisson of spirituality. I know “spirituality” is a nebulous term, so I’ll say it more clearly: I lost myself. I stopped thinking and started feeling. It helped that every time I looked up at Fishman, she also looked lost. Lost in her prayers, her melodies and the moment.
She was receiving from God as much as she was giving to us.
She read the opening words of the “Hashkiveinu” prayer — “Help us lie down, O Lord our God, in peace, and rise up, O our King, to life” — and spoke, in her subtle Israeli accent, about the simple gratitude we owe God for waking up each morning. She then sang part of the prayer in English, and it sounded as if she was in a blues club singing her own lyrics.
Our mystics teach us that the Shekhina represents the feminine attribute of God. As meditation teacher Rabbi Yoel Glick writes: “The Shekhina is the essential creative force in the universe. It is also the creative power of the woman that forms new life in her womb. The introduction of more spiritual creativity into the prayer service is the introduction of the energy and power of the Shekhina.”
On this night, Magda Fishman was the “Shabbat bride” who brought down a Shekhina strong enough to make me forget my bias for male cantors. In harmony with Rabbi Adam Kligfeld’s Torah insights, as well as his own singing and that of Rabbi Susan Leider, I could feel a spiritual energy throughout the congregation that transcended the very idea of gender.
Later, it struck me that the Orthodox davening that I’m so used to, while often passionate and powerful, has a certain macho and businesslike quality that can use a little softening up — a little feminine energy, if you will. It’s the kind of energy that puts more emphasis on opening up our vessels to receive God’s blessings than it does on the satisfaction of “a job well done.”
That feminine energy, which honors the holy act of receiving, helps us better connect with God and with each other. It’s a spiritual energy that doesn’t belong exclusively to women, and can be creatively embraced within halachah.
“The Lurianic tradition emphasizes that it is the original separation of the Shekhina from the masculine that is the source of much suffering in the world, that the rebalancing is crucial for the Messianic era, ” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, head of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.
In other words, we men have a lot of rebalancing to do. Not just in recognizing the rights and dignity of women, as Rabbi Kanefsky pointedly reminded us, but also in learning how to receive the spiritual Shekhina from women.
I can say with all political incorrectness that, in my experience, women have an innate spiritual edge over men.
It almost makes me want to complain to God.