One recent Shabbat in shul, a friend several years my junior leaned forward in her seat and whispered in my ear, “Where are all the women?” The men’s side was brimming with religious activity. The women’s side looked as if we were still practicing rigorous social distancing. The empty seats drained a sense of vitality from the prayer experience on our side of the mehitza, even in our wonderful synagogue with a generally high female turnout.
There are blogs, posts, and articles by rabbis of multiple denominations bemoaning the loss of congregants as we negotiate the long-tail of COVID’s impact on our communal and spiritual lives. Orthodox rabbis who share this concern may be focusing primarily on one side of the room as they count ten men for a minyan. Women, too, have to count, even and especially when they are not counted for a minyan. When women don’t feel they count, it’s easier not to show up. We pray as a community – “be-rov am hadrat melekh” – because God’s glory is more apparent when all human beings share sanctified space. We look up in prayer, but we also look at who is next to us. Our tefillot somehow seem less potent when there is no one else there.
So where are all the women? When this friend articulated the problem starkly, I began to realize just how much this question bothers me, how much this question has always bothered me, even decades before COVID. I envy the bustle and easy comradery of the men’s side from the loneliness of the women’s section. When I was 18 and in seminary in Jerusalem, I went to morning minyan in a large local Israeli yeshiva. Having attended a co-ed Jewish day school with a daily minyan requirement this seemed normative enough. The few men populating the cavernous women’s section in this yeshiva, however, huffed when I appeared. My presence was an obvious inconvenience to their communal prayer experience. After a few weeks, I was called into the Rosh Yeshiva’s office, where he asked me in Hebrew if I had my eye on a yeshiva bochur. “No,” I replied. “I come here to daven.”
I sought out another minyan where I might feel more at home, naively thinking that as women’s scholarship advanced, the pews, too, would fill. But, it turns out, the prayer experience has not kept apace. COVID has only deepened an already profound chasm in the spiritual intimacy women could share in shul but don’t. Certainly, spaces that are unwelcoming and unfriendly to women discourage female participation. But some prayer spaces are very welcoming and still empty.
The loneliness of the contemporary Orthodox prayer experience for women takes us back in time to one of our most important Biblical narratives on prayer, where we learn some of the most profound halakhot of tefilla: the story of Hannah. In a careful reading of the first chapter of I Samuel, it is hard not to notice that Hannah and her husband Elkanah both visit the House of the Lord but never, it seems, at the same time. This dissonance signals a remoteness between them that is amplified by Elkanah’s well-meaning but insensitive questions: “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (I Sam. 1:8). Hannah offers no answers in the narrative because what could she possibly say to a man who is so tone-deaf to her anguish?
Hannah travels alone to Shiloh. Her only company in the Beit Elokim was Eli, the governing High Priest at the time. He was physically close to Hannah as she prayed – “The priest Eli was sitting on the seat near the doorpost of the Temple of the Lord” (I Sam. 1:9) – but spiritually, he could not have been further away. He misinterprets the depth of her prayer, accuses her of being drunk and chastises her to sober up. Like Elkanah but without his softness, Eli is clueless about Hannah’s internal strife.
“Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.” “Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.” (I Sam. 1:15-17)
Only when Hannah makes herself vulnerable by confessing her pain does Eli modify his approach. He blessed her with peace, perhaps more accurately translated in this context as contentment with what she has, lest God not bless her with children. Eli never apologized, but he offers his hope that the intensity of her prayers will be affirmed and answered by God. Perhaps if the men in her life do not understand her pain, then at least her Maker will.
Even after Samuel was born, and Elkanah and his household hold their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah does not travel with him: “Hannah did not go up… So the woman stayed home and nursed her son until she weaned him” (I Sam. 1:22-23). When Samuel is finally weaned, she goes to the House of the Lord alone…again.
Hannah is the “Lonely Woman of Faith.” There is something haunting and tragic about her solitary prayer experience. She admits as much in her tefilla in the very next chapter. In the book’s opening chapter, we are privy to her emotion, but not her words. In chapter two, we hear her words but are unsure of her emotions. We expect thanksgiving, but instead, her ten-verse prayer is about the existential nature of the human condition. God can do anything. Humans, however, live in a world of polarities, disappointments, and unexpected grace. “He raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the dunghill” (I Sam. 2:8). Hannah’s fortune changed. Her state of loneliness, however, did not.
Why does the story of a barren woman include the insensitivities of two men? The same narrative without these details would have been no less meaningful: an infertile woman prayed intensely for a child and was eventually granted one. The presence of these men in this story highlights the absence of women in this story.
Imagine a totally different scenario. In the hill country of Ephraim, a different Penina sympathized with Hannah’s situation and provided solace as Hannah wrestled with her infertility. Along with Eli, the House of the Lord was filled with other women. Some, like Hannah, were also struggling to become mothers. They understood Hannah’s torment even without words. These women prayed for each other. Some were mourning parents and siblings and appreciated the amen of the women beside them. There were women praying for healing and recovery for themselves and others. There were also prayers of joy shared in an atmosphere of friendship. In this House of God, women caught up with each other, laughed with each other, cried with each other, and celebrated with each other. Had this been Hannah’s lot, maybe instead of Hannah’s existential prayer, she would have offered a prayer of thanksgiving.
This imaginary community of women who experienced their lives together could be replaced today with a real community of women in a sanctified space. These are women who age together, go through milestones together, and revel in the ordinariness of routine together by showing up for each other and for women they don’t yet know in shul.
Let’s be honest. Not every woman who is not going to shul on Shabbat is raising a young family or caring for someone elderly. Not every woman who has stopped attending minyan is struggling with feminism’s discomfort with Orthodox prayer space and gender disparity. Not every woman whose synagogue involvement has diminished has similarly diluted her other religious commitments. Female company is clearly important to these women, just not in a sanctuary setting. There are clusters of women’s walking groups on Shabbat. There are get-togethers with other mothers of young children. There are those who drop in for a kiddush shmooze and happily chat together. But they don’t happily pray together.
Here’s a case for a fuller women’s section:
It’s time to talk about this issue publicly from the pulpit and in boardrooms. It’s time to survey women and hold focus groups. Those we lose as we emerge out of COVID may not come back unless we address this now and understand what is really going on, in the spirit of Jeremiah, “Call to me, and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3).
But there’s something else going on here that cannot only be addressed through public conversation. It lies in the private hearts and minds of individual women. For a long time, I faulted synagogues for not creating dignified spaces for women’s prayer and rabbis for not being sufficiently encouraging. That, sadly, is still true for many synagogues. But as shuls have taken women’s needs more seriously for the past decades, I now understand that the issue is far more complex. I wonder if many blame leaders and institutions when, in reality, many women have given themselves a pass on showing up. On a grassroots level, maybe it’s time for women to take some responsibility for this. If Hannah were alive today, would she still be lonely?
Dr. Erica Brown is a well-known author and public speaker and a consulting editor at TRADITION. She is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University.