August 13, 2021

What does that torn page of a siddur mean?

By Barbara Sofer

The plain brown envelope is in our Jerusalem mailbox. Inside, protected by a black paper folder, is a torn page from a siddur, a Jewish prayer book. I’m keeping it on my desk, turning it over, thinking about what it means as we approach the High Holy Days.

No, the paper isn’t a piece of ancient parchment partly burned by the Romans, nor a fragment of one of the 25,000 Jewish books burned on May 10, 1933, in Germany (by university students who included works by Einstein and Freud in the pyre), nor a leaf from a book destroyed by Stalin from the Judaica collection of Birobidzhan, capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. I could go on.

This is a contemporary scrap, a prayer torn from a siddur in Jerusalem. It was ripped from the hands of a woman praying at the Kotel just last month, June 11, 2021, to be exact, or the first of Tamuz 5781. The page I received is Psalm 150, in Hebrew. The opening line is usually translated as “Hallelujah! Praise God in His holy place.”

I doubt if those self-appointed lieutenants of the Ineffable who attacked the women in prayer would grasp the irony. It’s hard for me to imagine just how frenzied those who consider themselves pious must have been to interrupt a prayer service and desecrate a Jewish prayer book. But then, women’s actions do arouse extreme reactions. I doubt if anyone has ever examined the siddurim in the hands of the men over the barrier in the men’s section.

A word about siddurim. Torah scrolls are nearly all identical, but siddurim are not. There are so many different versions – just try to find one that suits you at a foreign synagogue or even in the stacks of prayer books at the Kotel. Choose one to download to your phone. Ashkenazi and Sephardi siddurim aren’t identical, nor are hassidic or Yemenite ones, and of course every stream of Judaism has its own.

There have been controversies over the centuries, of course – whether or not to include the prayer for Babylonian yeshivot (“Yekum purkan,” with or without additions), prayers for the state and for royalty. In recent years, certain Orthodox synagogues have tweaked the prayer for the congregation to make it more inclusive, not just for men, also their wives and families. That is what my own Jerusalem synagogue, Shira Hadasha, does, where I have found what works for me, an Orthodox feminist.

The torn page comes from a siddur published by the Women of the Wall. I’m not a member of the Women of the Wall, although I have joined its members from time to time over the decades. I admire their steadfastness, turning up rain or shine (except lockdowns) on the first of every Hebrew month, fighting for their rights in court, and standing up to criticism.

Their siddur, according to their attorney Riki Shapira, is “the result of consensus among the women who have been gathering to pray together at the Wall for over 30 years.” The Shacharit and Rosh Hodesh prayers are like the Orthodox, except that our Matriarchs are included in the text. And there’s a prayer for the Women of the Wall and for Jewish women praying everywhere.

IN DECEMBER 1988, on the last day of the first international congress of Jewish feminists in Jerusalem, 70 women led by Orthodox Rabbanit Rivka Haut, of blessed memory, went to the Kotel to hold a “thanksgiving prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel.” The sight and sound of women daring to sing together and read the Torah enraged others – women and men – who attacked them, modeling the repulsive lack of tolerance, a festival of hate and desecration, that has followed for decades.

Still, the women who wanted to pray together wouldn’t back down, although – what a surprise – there are two groups, the Original Women of the Wall, and the Women of the Wall. The question of rights has repeatedly reached the Supreme Court and the Jerusalem District Courts and national commissions. Polls have shown that the majority of Israelis don’t object to women deciding how they will pray at the Kotel, but the subject continues to create friction and negative publicity in the Diaspora.

Identify with them or not, like them or not, the destruction of tens of Jewish books should be a wake-up call for us all. So-called Saint Louis (yes, for whom the Missouri city is named), the French King Louis IX, called himself “the lieutenant of God on Earth” when he burned 12,000 copies of the Talmud. But before he did, the books of Maimonides were burned, with some sources attributing this to instigation by his Jewish ideological opponents.

WE’VE ENTERED the traditional month of soul-searching. Accepting that none of us has been appointed a Divine lieutenant is a good starting point for the required stocktaking. Tolerance starts here: at the sight of our Holy Temples, lost because of senseless enmity among scholars.

Once, long before coronavirus limited our Shabbat outreach, we were the Shabbat dinner hosts for our synagogue. A guest, whom we had never met before, told the following story.

This young woman – let’s call her Pearl/Penina – was a graduate student in philosophy at one of England’s famous universities. She had come on semester break to Israel because she “always felt more spiritual in Israel.” And this visit had been no exception.

She wondered how she could maintain this feeling when she returned to England. So she went to the Kotel. Although, in her words, “prayer wasn’t her thing,” she decided to pray. When in Rome, do what the Romans do. When in Jerusalem, well, pray.

Before her was a large selection of siddurim in various conditions, helter-skelter on a table in the women’s section.

“I didn’t know which one to take – there is such a variety,” she said. “But one book seemed to call out to me. I had to take books off the top to get to it. I took it and went to the Wall. I was sort of waiting for a sign, but not really, you know, I don’t really believe in signs. And then I opened the siddur. On the inside cover were the words in Hebrew, “L’penina b’ahava” (To Penina with love).

She looked around at our large table of locals and guests and asked, “What do you think that means?”

What does that torn page of a siddur mean?

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we’re thinking a lot about where our names are inscribed. As we seek Divine love, we have to practice love and let love. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.