A Daughter's Letter to Her Father for Mother's Day

Seeking a Feminist Alternative to the Mourner's Prayer

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By Leah Vincent

Published May 06, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.

(page 3 of 4)

The Shema is recited twice a day, by every man and every woman, but it is also the prayer said before death. It is therefore the martyr’s prayer — screamed by rabbis burned at the stake by the Romans, by children speared by Crusaders, by our European cousins as they trudged to the gas chambers.

As a child, I knew the anti-Semites would come for me sooner or later, and I prayed that when they did, I’d be quick-witted enough to scream out those six words that would guarantee me a spot in heaven.

At 17, estranged from my family, I sang the Shema in my head as I lay naked, jammed beside my snoring Jamaican boyfriend on a soiled couch in the basement of a Manhattan club. The Shema, epitomizing the Jew who would rather die than forsake his faith, functioned both as a condemnation of my sin and, as the prayer shaped by my mother’s voice as she coached me through it night after night of my childhood, a conveyor of love. I sang the Shema to myself, trying to insert a parental voice into a situation that was desperately missing a parent.

At that confusing time, still clinging to faith in God while struggling to find a place for myself in the world, I developed a dvar Torah about the Shema, of which I am reminded in reading “Kaddish.”

Unlike Wieseltier or my father, I don’t know how to weave together a tapestry of ancient sources and quotations to create a picture of the historical and academic underpinnings of this foundational Jewish prayer. If I wished, I could enroll in one of the new progressive religious schools for women of the Orthodox far left and plunge myself into the Talmud, but I resent having to start from scratch at the age of 32. I resent the assumption that I must turn away from the domestic world of the traditional Jewish woman and enter the rigid male academic structure to have any claim of authority in our faith. If I worked within the contemporary framework of academic Judaism, I would be relinquishing the too-often abdicated opportunity to claim a Jewish female voice.

Despite my ignorance, I posit that my humble meanderings are as godly, as Jewish, as valid as those of any man or rabbi. It is the Shema itself that gives me permission.

My dvar Torah asked: Why is there a redundancy in the Shema? Why not just say: “Hear O Israel my Master our God is one” instead of “Hear O Israel my Master our God, my Master, is one”?

Why the bouncing back and forth, twice, from the personal “my Master” (or, in the original, the tetragrammaton, the “One who exists”) to the collective “our God” and then back to the personal “my Master”?

Perhaps, I posited, this extra wording gives the Shema a beautiful meaning: The speaker standing beside her peers (“O Israel”) reminds them that she, like all of them, has her own personal sense of the divine (“my Master”), and that they, as a collective, have a shared understanding of God (“our God”), but that they should remember that the personal sense of the divine they each possess (“my Master”) is “Echad” — it is unified, it is one.

This prayer may be giving us permission to believe that our own personal experience of the divine is a piece of the thing to which we point when any of our co-religionists say God, and that all of our individual gods make up the collective Jewish divine.

Judaism, as a monotheistic religion, collapses all divinity into one God, but the Shema reassures the Jews that one God doesn’t mean a God with a single voice. God is a populist, the Shema says, he speaks with all of our tongues.

Throughout our history, mothers who had little religious authority beyond the transmission of this powerful, opaque phrase, recited the Shema every night with their sons and daughters. It is a prayer that is jarring with its echo of future death, fragrant with the smell of breast milk, tinged with the warmth of a good-night hug. A tiny prayer of all this terror. A tiny prayer of all this love.

The Shema, a secret sleeper cell, passed down from mother to child, containing a compact DNA sequence of the suppressed voices of Jewish mothers. The Shema, an engine of female Jewish transmission, even as it was transmitted unconsciously. If we could sequence the Shema, perhaps we could resurrect 3,000 years of silenced Jewish femininity.

Today, the Shema is the perfect progressive Jewish women’s rallying cry, a reclaiming of the prayer our mothers taught us, its words emphasizing a turning away from obsessively structured exegeses toward an embrace of the mundane personal connection to the divine that we all share.

All the gods of the Jews are one, be we son or daughter, scholar or housewife. These words can be the basis upon which I have the right to claim that my experience of the divine is valid. In this central payer, I can find a platform equal to the pulpit of my father.

The Kaddish and the Shema are dialectical:

The Kaddish obedient, submissive, garrulous.

The Shema a chant, a communal rallying cry.

The Kaddish retroactive testimony, recited after a body is lowered into the earth.

The Shema said at the time of death, expressing a current emotion.

The Kaddish tells the listener: something has happened.

The Shema testifies: this is what I feel now.

The Kaddish recited by sons.

The Shema recited by all.

Hear O Israel,

My Master, our God,

My Master, he is one.

Many religious Jews slur through the endless hours of repetitive daily prayer in one rush of sloppy sound. My father is known for his unusual habit of wrapping his lips around every consonant and vowel, each utterance pronounced with clear intent, honoring the holiness of every sound with a staggering amount of patience.

As per the law, my father always ended the Shema with a hard and sharp “daled,” the ‘D’ sound at the end of the word echad. Each time I said those words, I did the same, honoring my father’s meticulousness, my precious lineage.

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