Monday, October 05, 2009

Something to think about, something to talk about.

Occasionally I find an article or writing that makes me ponder for a bit, and wish I had several nearby women friends who enjoyed thinking deeply and discussing such things for the joy of mental and spiritual exercise.

Following a brief email comment about modern dress, I accidently came across a series of articles about the meaning of modesty as the word is used in the Bible. Discussions of Leah and Diana, Eve and King's daughters soon popped up, and then I found this interesting article that I copies below.

Don't worry about "legalism" and "being free from the law."
Instead look at the writer's goals.
What are your thoughts about her thoughts?

I'm just curious. As a woman, what do you think?

(Article from here. G-d is the Jewish spelling for God...whose name is so precious and holy that the Jewish people will not write it out fully, lest it possibly be defaced by accident or on purpose.)

My Beloved Mechitzah

By Joelle Keene

I didn't know these lovebirds, but there they were, unmistakably just that, standing at Sabbath morning services amid a sea of men and women with his arm around her waist, she leaning into his shoulder and the two of them swaying gently back and forth to the sound of the prayers.

How nice, I thought, that they're learning Torah together. Where it will take them no one can say, but they're together on a great and splendid journey.

Since then my own journey, begun in part in that same room, has led me to a place where I could not possibly stand in prayer with my husband's arm around my waist. Praying might just be the most important thing we humans do.

It's hard enough to pray when you're alone setting the stage for all of the rest of our behavior, but it is not the easiest. For most of us it takes tremendous concentration, a great erasing of everything outside and at the same time a bringing of everything we are into one small moment framed by a particular piece of ancient text.

The problem is that love is so powerful – especially love for a spouse, but even premonitions of love like crush and curiosity – that in any given moment, prayer cannot compete.

Perhaps that's why Jewish tradition invented something called the mechitzah, surely the most widely maligned – I would say misunderstood – of any institution in Judaism today. A mechitzah, literally "separation", is a screen or other barrier in a traditional synagogue that separates women from men during worship; in this separation, some say, the women are demeaned.

The religious idea is that men should not be able to see women while they're praying, for if they do, their prayer will not be heard. To me, that's not demeaning; it's a statement of obvious fact. It's hard enough to pray when you're alone.

Try this exercise: Imagine that you need to speak with G-d. Imagine that you need something very, very badly, and that G-d really is all – powerful and the only One Who can grant it to you. Or imagine that you've done something terribly wrong and need some great forgiveness, or that your first child has just been born and you want to offer thanks. Close your eyes. Find the words. Now try, really try, to send them up to heaven.

Could you do this while cuddling with your spouse? Could you do it while ogling the latest beauty to join the synagogue, or that guy you see each Saturday who's so cute it makes you laugh? Maybe you could – everyone's different – but I strive mightily just to sense G-d's listening when I pray.

For many of us, the mechitzah opens a door in... Sometimes I picture great tree-limbs, an overarching Father seeing every word and deed, or see myself as human clay addressing Him who formed it. Or I conjure up an awesome, holy Throne bathed in rays of light, considering with mercy my so tiny, distant plea. Yet with all these tools and more, still it's hard. We need all the help we can get.

And so we have a curtain – to center us perhaps, to make a place that forms a space where we can pray. There are as many kinds of mechitzahs as there are synagogues – I've seen sleek wood carved in modern shapes, and balconies where height is the mechitza, and gathered lace on curtain rods that roll.

But all mechitzahs hold us back from one another and group our prayers by gender rising heavenward. Perhaps this helps G-d hear us, too; perhaps we sound clearer, are more ourselves, unmediated by our opposites. Judaism loves categories and celebrates them every way – night and day, milk and meat, Sabbath versus holidays and ordinary days – and gender's no exception.

The men's section is front and center because men have more ritual commandments in the synagogue, while women are responsible for bringing Torah into the home. Synagogue becomes one place where we can be with our own gender, something not without a pleasure all its own.

So you can say the mechitzah exists to keep women out, that the genders are identical and all else is cultural conceit. For many of us, though, the mechitzah opens a door in, perhaps into a more concentrated experience of who we are and certainly into the presence of G-d where holiness and much direction lie. In prayer, we reach outside our earthly yearnings and search for something different, something that ennobles us, sets our sights high and improves us from the inside out.

In love, we find an outlet for those improvements, for our goodness, kindness, generosity. Love is arguably our most G-d-like activity, and also our greatest earthly reward; in its physical expression, it is said to bring G-d's presence to rest on us directly. Each paves the way for the other; I'm a better wife for praying, and drawn closer to G-d through the love my marriage brings. Each creates a chasm we can cross.

And so I wonder again about those Sabbath lovebirds, trying to make their yearnings heard above the din of daily life, studying Torah and singing psalms, arms linked, perhaps journeying down paths deep into wisdom.

There's no one way to pray, and none of us can say for sure whose prayers are heard. But perhaps their love has grown so much that they can't sit together in services anymore, or their love for G-d has grown in such a way that they don't want to. Maybe it would take more than a curtain to keep them apart – and perhaps just a curtain to link them.

8 comments:

Vicki said...

This made me think of Matthew 6:6. (And, no, I'm not going to print it here, because everyone needs to pull out their Bible daily and READ.)

As one who is easily distracted, praying alone is necessary. However, praying conversationally with God (in my thoughts or even aloud when I'm alone) needs to become a habit...a way of thinking and focusing. I'm doing my best to pray continually.

Lovella ♥ said...

I read this earlier but was unable to come up with a conversationally intelligent response.
I thought to myself. . I'll wait until Vicki responds and then I'll build on her response.

So .. here I am. .later. .

I really enjoy conversational prayer with God. I don't generally squeeze my eyes shut. . and I can be praying while eating dinner if something comes to mind. I pray when I'm driving, when I'm cleaning. .when I'm singing .. most anytime seems suitable for telling God what I'm thinking.

Holding hands with the person I love when going to bed at night ..praying. .seems a perfect way to end my day.

Deborah said...

My thoughts: Modesty could be defined as being clothed with the good works that are born in faith.

I think that for Joelle Keene, the mechitzah is like (for me) knowing Christ and having both the indwelling and covering spirit - my oneness with God - my ability to commune with him because there is no longer a veil between Him and me. The mechitzah allows her time with God undistracted, which is her modesty as defined above, and which allows the blessings of God to flow in the rest of her life.

This probably is not very clear or well stated - I always find words horribly inadequate. I like her article, though, and the symbolism I see in it.

Judy ~ My Front Porch said...

Food for thought...for sure. I think there are times when we need to pray alone...in our closet...with no distractions. 'Praying without ceasing' though is more like conversational prayer...where we are aware of God's presence and keep the thoughts/conversation going...regardless of where we are.

Modesty? I'll be back to see what others have to add about that. I'm thinking.

Anonymous said...

I think the time I feel closest to God is when I have set aside the time alone to read my BIble after asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten me to what God has for me in the verses. Then prayer follows with such a warm feeling of God listening and caring and loving me.
Then again I do know that God hears and answers my Arrow prayers that need to be said when something comes up that needs immediate attention.
Then there are precious times when I meet monthly with long time friends to pray for our church and families.
We have such an amazing God who loves us so much that He will listen to our prayers whenever or wherever we pray.
Loving you, Mom

Amy Letinsky said...

Thanks for sharing this article Jill. It took a topic that I typically have a knee-jerk reaction to and forced me to think more deeply and also have more understanding for the very good reasons why it is done.

There are some interesting metaphorical meanings to this curtain separating men and women, that go far beyond modesty. You have the division between public and home signified. There's also the division between the sexes, honoring our differences.

But I think you also lose out on the image as the church as a whole worshiping before the throne, that metaphor for heaven. A church service, with all colors, all genders, all ages together worshiping the God is the most powerful foretaste of heaven for me. And to put a curtain between the people wouldn't be complete.

I also know that men are more led with their eyes, so perhaps this is a gift women can extend to them, to give them even more freedom and a shot to focus their eyes on God.

Marg said...

Well, this is very interesting...Good topic.
I think as we age we have had so many opportunities to experiment and try some things...at least I have been around that corner...but I don't know why I always land up going back to my grass roots and feel so comfortable and relaxed in my prayer style. Praying with my hubby is not my highlight, but praying while I walk my barns is just the cat's meow...
I have time to think and think...

I heard Dr. Juan Carlos Ortiz many years ago in my late 20's and bought up his stuff....it made sense to me and I still refer to it..
He said "prayer is like breathing..Every heart beat can be a prayer line to heaven and that has allowed me to explore my own prayer life without being entangled in my hubby's arms....
So I love it that I don't need to be alone on my knees by my bed to pray, but I can talk anytime, anywhere and feel his presence.
What a sense of freedom.

Sara said...

This is a thought provoking article, and I must have read it about six times by now over the past several days, trying to think of something "conversationally intelligent" (to quote Lovella!) to say.

First, I must ask myself, what are the writer's goals? Well, I think she states one goal (to show how important prayer is) in the third paragraph when she says "Praying might just be the most important thing we humans do." And her second point seems to be that in prayer we find strength and inspiration to give love to those around us, which pleases God. I agree with both points.

The next impression I receive is that in her experience prayer is difficult, requiring tremendous concentration, etc...and that love of spouse, etc., can keep one from achieving proper prayer that will be heard by God. Thus, one benefit of the mechitzah.

And she seems to be saying that this separation during public prayer and worship does not truly separate a loving husband and wife, and in fact, will bring them each closer to God and thus to each other.

What saddens me that it seems such an effort (from her point of view) to formulate and then to send heavenward a prayer that will be heard by God. I love Marg's quote that prayer is like breathing. We normally breath without concentration or great effort and, if we orient our hearts toward our Father, prayer can indeed become like breathing. Simple, life-giving, and continuous.

And, this just occurred to me, on the other hand, I find that I need my own private mechitzah, my own prayer closet where I go in and shut the door and pray to my Father in secret. I'm talking about in my heart at any time during the day, as well as early morning times alone with Him, so sweet and precious.

Perhaps it is an issue of public versus private worship and prayer...

Everyone standing together before the throne of God in worship is, as Amy said, a foretaste of heaven. And we are also told to go into our prayer closets, shut the door, and pray to our Father in secret.

So these are just my rambling thoughts. I was interested to read what everyone else had to say. So many good points and ideas. There is always something more for us to learn!