What I learned from Aliza Lavie ...
Did you know that there's a special prayer for preparing the wicks of Shabbat candles? Neither did I. This past Tuesday, I listened to Dr. Aliza Lavie discuss her book, A Jewish Woman's Prayer Book, a collection of prayers composed by and for women over hundreds of years in all parts of the world. Her discussion reminded me how prayer is, in many respects, a living social history.
Lavie's work is quite astounding: she's uncovered and re-introduced prayers that have either been forgotten, overlooked, or assumed to have never existed (the assumption held by many academics is that Jewish women did not write prayers at all). Through this process, Lavie is restoring women's words to their proper place in religious history while preserving their authenticity. In doing so, she's also offering insight into Jewish women's lives as they've evolved through the centuries. Lavie spoke of her own grandmother, an Afghani immigrant to Israel, who prayed every day, reciting prayers that had been transmitted by memory, often with little context.
I was surprised to learn of a prayer for beautifying the synagogue which Lavie uncovered in a communal prayer book from 15th century Italy. The prayer reads:
G-d Who blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah - may G-d bless every daughter of Israel who fashions a coat or covering with which to adorn the Torah, or who prepares a candle in honor of the Torah. May the Holy One, blessed be G-d, pay her reward and grant her the good that she deserves, and let us say Amen.
Who knew that the matriarchs appeared in 15th century liturgy? And who knew that women's roles in creating Torah covers and supposedly making the synagogue's ner tamid were acknowledged and honored in a community siddur? Lavie also found specific prayers written by the coverso women of Spain and Portugal, as well as prayers written for young girls in (the former) Czechoslovakia by a woman named Fanny Neuda. Why and how did all of these prayers get left behind?
With so much contemporary prayer writing and ritual innovation happening by and for women today (Marcia Falk, Jill Hammer, and Savina Teubal, z"l are recent prayer/ritual innovators who come to mind), it interests me that the desire to express women's social realities through prayer is not entirely new; it's actually been brewing for hundreds of years, only in very different contexts.
While it may feel less important today to recite a prayer for preparing the wicks of Shabbat candles (how much wick preparation is there, really?) than to recite a prayer for the birth of a baby girl, I'm struck by the stories that the prayers that got left behind can tell us. Even more, I'm intrigued by the possibilities we have to integrate prayers of the past with prayers of the present to keep our traditions relevant and alive. Aliza Lavie is getting us started.