An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man gestures as he protests during a prayer organized by the Women of the Wall.
If you pray, do you kneel, bow your head, and close your eyes? Do you keep your mouth shut, speak words of confession and praise, or let your voice utter sounds that come to you? Do you use dedicated items, like a shawl or something to hold? Do you say printed words — a prayer written by others — or your own? Do you always finish with the words Jesus said to pray? Or maybe you help others and consider that action to be your prayer.
Buddhists sit in meditation, and even though they don’t believe in a deity, their meditation is considered by many to be prayer. Muslims have a full-body bow as just part of formal prayer. Non-believing Westerners, including some atheists, might have a time of reflection or centering when they are sitting and silent and turned inward, and that can look like prayer to an observer. Pentecostal Protestants and rosary-oriented Roman Catholics look very different in their motions of prayer, but they’re both Christians addressing Jesus and their god.
Some people pray in a conversational way that expresses their personal relationship with their divine savior. Others use intermediaries, such as a living priest or a dead saint, more formally to approach a supreme being. And there are people who internalize their thoughts; some call that prayer, others don’t.
Is prayer active by mind but passive in action? Conversely, might demonstrating how you love your neighbors and help the least among you be just as valid as prayer?
The definition of prayer is individual, and depends on a person’s own faith and way of praying. But there is also corporate prayer, done as a group or body: instead of each person praying her and his own prayers all are participating in a common prayer. With many who take part in corporate prayer, there is an uncommon element: they’re separated in the practice by gender. If their prayer is common, why have differences of the body?
In Jerusalem some Orthodox Jewish women are upsetting traditions at the Western Wall by attempting to pray like the men. They wear a tallit, a man’s prayer shawl, and tefillin, the Scripture-containing leather boxes that some observant Jewish men wrap around their arm and forehead. These Jewish women violate some faithful people’s accepted divisions of what men do and what women do.
Last Sunday, the women were able to pray closer to the wall and to receive police protection thanks to a judge’s ruling. In the past, some women had been arrested for praying there. But they still can’t bring a Torah scroll with them. Is it a violation, if you’re a woman, to pray like your father did?
Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld of Congregation Etz Chayim, Toledo’s Orthodox Jewish synagogue, said, “There is never violation to want to do that. Is there a violation to actually do so? Yes, but not in a strict legal sense; it’s more in custom — but sometimes custom does become law.”
Because Etz Chayim is Orthodox, “In our congregation women do not wear a tallit and do not wear tefillin,” Rabbi Bienenfeld said. “I genuinely feel for somebody who doesn’t share those beliefs and wants to practice those beliefs. While I do not agree with them, I do feel for them.”
The rabbi noted the difficulty of forming an opinion about anything related to Israel without having the facts and actually being there. “The Western Wall plaza, just about the holiest site that we can at least access now, has come to be a religious/political battleground. We never brought [the issue] to a table of peace and discussion to be able to hash out some ideas.”
Deeper than the demonstration of women praying in the way of men, Rabbi Bienenfeld said, “The notion that a woman may want to pray in that manner, I think it’s a healthy kind of feeling” and can lead people to “explore what Judaism has to say about individual roles of men and women.”
Prayer is individual and important to so many people. Any test of “norms” of prayer can expand someone’s religious ways. With the women’s actions at the Western Wall, may their prayer be transforming, not transgression.