A Women's Minyan

The Women’s Minyan is the title of a play by Naomi Ragen about a woman who is ostracized by her Ultra-Orthodox community when she leaves her husband because of a range of abuses.  She leaves in night when she must save her life, and the community refused to let her see her 12 children, believing lies told about her by her husband and the rabbi with the support of the town’s women.  The plot revolves around the ostracized woman’s plea to ten women in the community (including her mother and former mother-in-law, two daughters, and a sister-in-law) to hear her case in a women’s minyan.  Normally a minyan for purposes of prayer and justice involves ten men in orthodox Judaism, but a women’s minyan may be called for rare occasions, including an effort to reconcile enemies.  Here the women’s minyan serves to allow women to speak the truths of their lives, and to hear how they’ve failed one another by again and again protecting the customs that they hope will give them honor and respect, even when doing so involves covering up men’s violence, betrayals, and justifications for control of women.  Eventually the minyan enables the women to speak back to the rabbi and male leaders, even if the woman on whose behalf the minyan was gathered still must leave, her younger children having been taught to fear her as satanic. I saw this play the other night with my first-year students, including two veterans who did not seem at all to mind the fact that not a single male actor was involved.  They had both (along with others in the class) taken to task a speaker earlier in the week, a 20-something author of the book Smashed, about growing up binge drinking.  They found her (Koren Zailckas) too self-pitying and self-absorbed in her book, not taking enough personal responsibility, and thought that in her talk, she should have talked more about men and binge drinking, not only focusing on the women.  (I myself thought she was an introspective writer sort, and young, and finding her way into something important.)  But the response to the play seemed to be different.  I heard at least the two veterans say to one another that the play was cool and awesome.  No matter that men were absent, and portrayed largely in the worst of ways.  I suspect they responded to the integrity and accountability the women were searching for among one another–the theme of courage in facing a difficult situation in a transformative way.

As a Lutheran, I’ve been struck often by the value of role models and spiritual heroism in Benedictine culture.  The Oblate retreat last year was something you’d never find Protestants doing:  going off to write and reflect about the qualities of a 19th century spiritual ancestor, and how to imitate some of them.  The role of the saints is a more subtle and diffuse matter among Protestants, who celebrate the priesthood of all believers in a vague egalitarian way, and seem to find lifting up one person as a matter of immodesty and potential idolatry (though such lifting-up happens with respect to charismatic pastors all the time).  But viewing my students’ responses to the play reminded me of the the human hunger for ordinary role models who creatively work with a people’s traditions to give them new life, integrity, and direction.

And I thought too of how often we who are women are pulled to uphold religious or community traditions in ways that leave us judging one another harshly in order to secure the approval of other men and women.  I saw and felt this in my own rural hometown, when I was the first (since I no longer lived there) to speak of sexual abuse in our Lutheran church, under a previous pastor.  It hurts me still to visit my hometown (and I never again visit the church), for while some were glad I spoke on behalf of myself and many others, others turn away when they see me, or tell others in the grocery store aisles:  “I never did believe any of that happened.”  I heard about the latter from a friend who still lives there and who is part of something like a women’s minyan for me.  But I sense that in such situations, the Benedictine valuing of stability of place means not staying in a place that has profoundly hurt you, but finding and staying with the creative angle of engagement–the women’s minyan that is both traditional and a place to gather and claim truth and power to speak to those who want to protect injustice.

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