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Rabbi Menachem Nissel

Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, the towering baal machshavah we just lost, rarely taught women directly, yet cared deeply and, through his students, conveyed priceless messages to bnos Yisrael

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

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WOMEN’S WISDOM Rav Moshe explained that every morning, as she recites morning brachos and celebrates the blessings in her life, a Jewish woman celebrates her gender. She turns to Hashem and says, “Your Will is unconditional giving and in that You find the consummate simchah. My will is unconditional giving, and in that I find the consummate simchah. Thank You, Hashem, for having made my will the same as Your Will” (Photos: Menachem Kailish and Nissel Family Archives)

T hroughout my almost three decades as a seminary tefillah teacher, I was zocheh to discuss many facets of the unique nature of women’s davening with mori v’rebbi Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l. He took women’s chinuch very seriously. He believed it was possible to inspire, empower, and challenge women intellectually, without compromising an iota on the timeless mesorah.

Through Rav Moshe’s many talmidim who taught in seminaries, a generation of women were exposed to his thinking. Prominent rabbanim showed their talmidos the fathomless layers of depth and infinite beauty in every maamar Chazal. They made irrelevant the mistaken need to expose women to Talmud or use Talmudic methodology to teach halachah and machshavah. The educational revolution started by Rav Dessler was all that was necessary. This was taken to a new level under the guidance of Rav Moshe, Rav Dessler’s great talmid.

He was also sensitive to the many challenges women face. When I wrote my sefer, Rigshei Lev — Women and Tefillah, he instructed me that the book should always strive “to make life easier for women.”

Rav Moshe once commented that when dealing with contemporary youth, “every three months is a generation,” and our pedagogical instincts had to be constantly fine-tuned. In contrast, when it came to practical living, he disdained any innovation. Our forbearers were to be emulated, not “improved on;" our bubbes knew best.

Above all, he believed in women, and their delicate yet essential spiritual pathway. When invited to address the students of Gateshead seminary, he ascended the dais, and said the following opening words: “In the name of the Avos: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. In the name of the shevatim: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Zevulun, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Yosef, and Binyamin. In the name of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Nevi’im, Rishonim, and Acharonim. Thank you so much. Thank you for continuing the doros in the Yiddishe way.”

Below, I share a few of my rebbi’s divrei Torah pertaining to women. Please note that the following concepts are based on my understanding of the ideas he shared. I may have misunderstood them and they may not necessarily convey the full depth of what he wanted to teach.

A Woman’s Prayer

“What’s the hardest part of your job?” I once asked a campus kiruv director. Without taking pause for thought, he answered, “Taking my female students to shul for the first time.” He dreaded the women’s reactions when they realized that they’re on the other side of the mechitzah, detached and excluded from all the action. Indeed, when visiting the old shuls of Eastern Europe, it’s often shocking to see the meager size of the ezras nashim. Where did the women daven? What are we missing here?

When it comes to authentic tefillah, Rav Moshe explains, women do not sit in the back of the bus. They drive it.

The Rambam, whose every word was weighed like fine gold, does something unusual when introducing Hilchos Tefillah. He gives the historical background as to how tefillah developed. In ancient times, when anyone wanted to daven to Hashem, they’d talk to Him at any time in his or her own words. One can almost envision how in an age of prophesy a woman would step out of her home in her village in the Galilee, look Heavenward, and know exactly what words to say. Her quasi-prophetic instincts would allow her to perfectly communicate her needs and stresses to her loving G-d.

This all changed with the armies of Nevuchadnetzar. We were taken to exile and the art of the prayer wordsmith was lost. Chazal intervened and wrote a nusach for three daily prayers. This became the mandatory standard for the new post-prophetic era.

Rav Moshe points out that during this period we see the introduction of communal prayer. “Lech kenos es kol hayehudim!” cries Esther. In a hostile world that wants us to assimilate and have our uniqueness be dissolved, we need to gather together and pray with unity. The rabbis promoting communal prayer were called Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly. The word knesses, assembly, echoes the idea of “beis haknesses,” a place where we gather together for prayer.

Until then, all tefillos mentioned in Tanach were private. Whether Avraham Avinu was davening for Sedom, Moshe Rabbeinu davening for Klal Yisrael, or Chana, a broken woman alone in Shiloh, davening for the ability to bear a child, they were all solitary pleas, hidden from the public eye.

A genius in Torah — and bein adam l’chaveiro: Rav Moshe Shapira at R’ Menachem Nissel’s family simchah

Rav Moshe identifies the source of our decreased ability to daven alone. Our bitter enemy, Bilaam Harasha, curses the Jewish People. Hashem turns the curses into blessings. The Talmud [Sanhedrin 105b] relates that the blessings all turned back into curses, except for “Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov,” the blessing that our synagogues and study halls will flourish. How did Bilaam have this victory?

Rav Moshe explains that the evil Bilaam knew our weak point. He had Balak send in the Midianite women and the Jewish men fell into their trap. With the crushing of the kedushah of the Jewish male, our Heavenly protection was lost. History would repeat itself with the Babylonian Exile. The Jewish men assimilated; some married non-Jewish women. The kedushah of our nation slipped away, and with it the immunity from these curses granted by Hashem. Bilaam’s curses that had been so lovingly flipped to blessings would now return to their original evil intent.

Except for two safe havens: the beis knesses and beis medrash, the ohalecha Yaakov.

In this period of history, the shul became our fortress and refuge from the ravages of a spiritually malevolent environment. And indeed, for over two thousand years, our shuls and yeshivos have protected us from the outside and nourished us from within.

Now comes Rav Moshe’s cogent point. Jewish women never sinned with the Midianites. In fact, the whole episode was an embarrassment for them. Chazal tell us that Jewish women had true beauty. Why would their husbands leave them for these lowly females? The nashim tzidkaniyos retained their kedushah, hidden in the sanctity of their own “ohel” — the Jewish home. So when Bilaam’s curses returned in full force, they were directed at the men, not the women.

Women never fell for Bilaam’s trap. Therefore, women never needed the shul as a safe haven. Women retain the ancient form of tefillah, as in the times of prophesy. They maintain the ability to take every small strain and pain and turn it into eloquent heartfelt words of prayer. A woman davens for her children ten times a day and cries for Mashiach to come. This is her legacy. Her birthright.

Of course, it is still advantageous for a woman to go to shul, especially on occasions like the Yamim Noraim. But they don’t need to go to shul in the same way as men do. Our grandmothers did what they saw their grandmothers do, davening the way the Rambam describes as the true pristine form of tefillah. The way it was always supposed to be.

Interestingly, Rav Moshe would tell us in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the most powerful place for prayer is not the Kosel. It is Kever Rochel, the place where our matriarch Rochel Imeinu would stand by the wayside in the classic form of female tefillah, weeping for her children as they went out to Exile. That is the most powerful place of tefillah.

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