How Can a Feminist Like Me Enjoy a Liturgy Like This?

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September 1, 2005
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Martha Ackelsberg

My secret is now out: I actually enjoy the Yom Kippur Avodah Service. How can this be? How can a committed feminist and havurah Jew – one who does not feel especially comfortable in most synagogues and who has long been unwilling to pray for the rebuilding of the Temple or the restoration of sacrifices – find herself, often, deeply moved by the words of a liturgy that evokes not only the sacrifice of animals, but the spraying of their blood around the Holy of Holies in a ritual from which women were totally excluded? I have rarely admitted to these feelings, except to my closest friends and davening companions.

At the core of this service is a recitation of the details of preparations for, practice of, and reactions to, the tripartite confession (on behalf of himself and his household, the priestly clan, and the whole people of Israel) of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur – the rules for which are laid out in the Torah reading for that day (Leviticus 16). After each confession, the text tells us, the Priest would intone the verse, “for on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before YHVH…” and pronounce the name of God. The people would prostrate themselves and say, “Blessed be His glorious sovereignty throughout all time.” Then the Kohen would complete the verse, saying, “you shall be cleansed.”

As a small child, visiting an Orthodox shul with my father and grandmother, I was fascinated by these descriptions and by the prostrations of the rabbi and cantor on the bimah . I experienced this prayer mostly as theater – a series of engaging actions that were radically different from my usual experiences at our suburban Conservative synagogue. As a young adult and a member of the New York Havurah, I participated in these prostrations for the first time: one of our members would read aloud the descriptive sections in English, and then we all acted out the role of the people, including saying the words of the text. Year after year, I found myself startled by the intensity of the experience and awed by the liturgy’s mystery. Now, as an older adult who sometimes finds herself in a synagogue, I miss the magic and mystery of the Avodah service. True, rabbis may invite us to participate in the prostrations, but, arrayed as we are in pews, it’s much more difficult to lie flat on the floor. Even when I do spend Yom Kippur with a non-traditional davening community, I find myself still wanting to re-enact the drama.

It is not only the sense of awe, but also the concreteness of the process and its corollary promise of absolution that I find very appealing. What do we have in our lives today that can offer such an opportunity for a clean slate – and one that comes through a communal, rather than a personal/psychological, process? Not even therapy can promise a completely new start. Yet – at least in my reading of these texts – that is precisely what the original Yom Kippur afforded. “You are cleansed.” A new start. A fresh page. A moment to let go of and be freed from past hurts and wrongdoings. However unrealistic that might seem from a contemporary mindset, I find that very appealling.

So, despite my modernist and feminist sensibilities, I often read the Avodah service with a sense of longing for a time when communal ritual made a fresh start possible, when teshuvah had not only personal but also collective possibilities. Sometimes I am comforted by a friend’s comment that Yom Kippur may never have been about being totally cleansed, but more about “turning a page.” To turn to a new page, he pointed out, does not mean erasing or throwing out the pages that came before; it simply means accepting that it’s possible to start again. I can let go of the past (even if my sins are not physically sent off into the wilderness); I can choose to begin again.

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Martha Ackelsberg teaches political science and women's studies at Smith College in Northampton, MA. She has been a member of a havurah for almost her entire adult life (initially the New York Havurah, and now Havurat Ha'Emek in Northampton) and is a founding member of both Ezrat Nashim and B'not Esh.

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