Channah’s Unconventional Prayer
Feminist Study of Religion
As far as we know, women have authored very few canonical texts in the pre-modern world, Jewish and otherwise. The Bible, the Talmud, and all the core sacred texts of Judaism were written by men. In fact, up until the past few decades, virtually every important Jewish text, whether halacha, philosophy or midrash, were written by men.
How are we to relate to religious texts and a religious tradition that almost exclusively reflect the androcentric ideology of their male authors? This problem is hardly unique to Judaism; feminist scholars of religion, as well as feminist practitioners of religion, struggle with their respective “canonical” texts and traditions.
Since the feminist revolution, religious practitioners sensitive to these issues—mostly women but some men as well—have dealt with the challenge of these male-created texts and norms in a variety of different ways:
Some see them as so basic and endemic that they abandon their practices and traditions. Others find buried indications that their religious traditions were originally more inclusive of women’s voices and experiences, and try to recover and celebrate a pre-patriarchal past that has been distorted over the centuries. Others reject the notion that such an era ever existed, but nevertheless remain committed, and help fashion new religious practices while changing what they consider to be the elements most offensive to their sensibilities.
Yet another form of feminist study is called the “golden thread” approach, which entails attempting to understand the meta-concerns of religion, and to change specific problematic texts and practices, based on the privileging of these concerns, and emphasizing the texts and traditions that reflect and embody them. This approach is especially useful for contemporary religious individuals. All of these different perspectives have influenced and aided me in my reading and rereading of Jewish tradition.
Channah on Rosh Hashanah
Feminist readings have recovered many overlooked biblical figures, both named and nameless. We read about one of these lesser-known biblical figures Channah, on Rosh Hashanah, in the haftarah of the first day (1 Sam 1:1-2:10). While the reason for the haftarah reading is related to Channah’s being barren—the subject of the Torah reading is the curing of Sarah’s barrenness—Rosh Hashanah is a most appropriate time to think of her for an additional reason.
Rosh Hashanah is a time when we spend many hours praying, and the middle words of U’Netaneh Tokef’s triplet, ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה “Repentence, prayer, and kind acts avert the harshness of the decree” are very much on our minds. When hearing the story of Channah read in this context, given her importance within rabbinic tradition as the originator of the form of statutory prayer (b. Berachot 31a), we are provoked to wonder: What kind of feminist reading of her is possible, desirable, and resonant?
Channah’s Decision to Pray on Her Own Behalf
Channah is the only woman who goes to the central worship site specifically to pray; unlike Rebecca in Genesis 22:21, she needs no intermediary. The way her husband responds to her tears of despair over her infertility—הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי טוֹב לָךְ מֵעֲשָׂרָה בָּנִים “Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam 1:8)—makes clear that he did not pray for her.
In other words, as a man and her husband, he did not מוציא אותה מידי חובה “fulfill her obligation on her behalf.” He has not heard her, or seen her misery. From his response, she understands that she had better pray for herself.
She does not ask permission from him or anyone to pray. Strikingly, the text of Samuel does not record her answer to her husband’s callous response. Feminist readings make us more aware of when women do or do not speak, how and to whom they speak, and the types of responses they do and do not receive. We are left to imagine what she thought or might have wanted to say to him. All the text offers us is that after Elkanah’s remark she gets up and goes to the temple to pray (1 Sam 1:9-11).
Channah’s Encounter with Eli the Priest
Eli, the high priest officiating at Shiloh, just sits and watches her:
שמואל א א:ט ...וְעֵלִי הַכֹּהֵן יֹשֵׁב עַל הַכִּסֵּא עַל מְזוּזַת הֵיכַל יְ־הוָה.
1 Sam 1:9 ...The priest Eli was sitting on the seat near the doorpost of the temple of YHWH.
Perhaps this surprising, seemingly unnecessary notice implies that Eli is sitting in judgment of others. If so, he is a poor judge—he incorrectly judges Channah to be drunk as a result of her “different,” i.e., unscripted and uninhibited, form of prayer. This betrays his narrow and rigid understanding of how a person should approach God. He lacks religious imagination – a sense of possibility beyond the set of preexisting ritual options. Because of this inability to imagine religious practice beyond the familiar, he judges Channah very quickly, harshly and improperly.
But Channah is not scared or intimidated by Eli; she shows him that he has misunderstood and misjudged her (vv. 15-16), and he accepts her earnest explanation, even sending her away with a remarkable (and ultimately successful) blessing:
שמואל א א:יז ...לְכִי לְשָׁלוֹם וֵאלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יִתֵּן אֶת שֵׁלָתֵךְ אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתְּ מֵעִמּוֹ.
1 Sam 1:17 ...Then go in peace and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.
This verse might reflect another reason we read this haftarah on Rosh Hashanah. We not only want to emulate Channah, but also the priestly figure who can hear when he has made a mistake even from a simple woman. Women must raise their voices, because at times we can create change and re-educate others.
The power of her response to this “man of God” is accentuated even more by the rabbinic reading of this unit in the Babylonian Talmud. The Hebrew is לֹא אֲדֹנִי - “Oh no, my lord!” In their playful creativity, the rabbis rework the syntax of the phrase, and by altering the flow between the two words transform her response from humble clarification into confident reproof: “You are no lord!”
בבלי ברכות לא: אמר עולא ואיתימא רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא: "אמרה ליה: 'לא אדון אתה בדבר זה ולא רוח הקודש שורה עליך שאתח חושדני בדבר זה'."
b. Berachot 31b Ulla said, and some say it was R. Yossi the son of R. Hanina: She said to him, “You are not a master in this matter, and the Divine Spirit does not rest upon you, that you suspect me of this thing.”
This bold rabbinic revision has Channah not only calling Eli out on his abuse of power, but asserting that such abuse deprives the powerful man of his power! In other words, power does not automatically inhere in anyone – be they men, priests, or other authority figures – and it can be lost, indeed stripped away, if mishandled.
Some Thoughts for When We Daven
By making the Channah story the haftarah of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, the Sages connect Channah’s story with Sarah’s story. Like Channah, Sarah experiences the pain of barrenness. Rabbinic tradition actually multiplies Sarah’s pain and take away her happy ending with a midrashic reading of the Akedah (binding of Isaac) story, claiming that upon hearing what her husband was doing, she dropped dead and never saw her son again.
In some sources, the cry of the shofar represents Sarah’s screams at hearing the news. Thus the prayer of Rosh Hashanah and the blowing of the shofar can be seen as expressions of the pain of two matriarchs of the Jewish people, Sarah and Channah.
For our Prayers: Genuine Feeling
As we approach the Yamim Nora’im, which are immersed in prayer, we must remember Channah’s mumbled, silent prayer, which Eli the priest does recognize. This lack of recognition gives him the audacity to define her not only as “other,” but as drunk. When in shul, we are tempted to pray every word, and to make sure that those around us do the same, but we must remember Sarah and Channah, whose model suggests that a set, structured, common liturgy cannot contain every person’s spiritual, religious and existential needs.
We must find room in shul for the personal and subjective, for forms of liturgical expression that are not found in the machzor —even if we, like Sarah, cannot articulate our needs, pain, and desires clearly. I am not suggesting jettisoning the standard liturgy, but reading both the biblical story of Channah, and its rabbinic reinterpretation, in creative tension.
For our Leaders: Understanding of Difference and Individuality
Our religious leaders and communities would benefit by listening closely to both the biblical and rabbinic Channah—particularly, in learning to appreciate the other, whose prayer may not always fit neatly within the boundaries prescribed by conventional liturgy. As the rabbinic refraction of the story indicates, those leaders who fail to do so are not men of God. A true community of God would adopt an open-hearted embrace of those who behave differently, or themselves risk losing that title.
Although it is often customary for the ba’al tefillah to daven with head enwrapped in a tallit – eyes covered in order to more fully concentrate on each word – this story warns us to not look only inward, but outward as well, at those in pain and need around us. In that sense teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah are not separate deeds, but are intertwined—true tefillah is not only to God, but must also involve interpersonal teshuva and tzedakah.
Channah represents what my teacher, Carol Gilligan, calls “a different voice.” She notes how such voices are often marginalized, and not even heard. These voices, even if they are ones we do not recognize from our repertoire of liturgy, need to feel welcomed and heard. All voices must be honored, not sorted into a rigid hierarchy. Channah represents a different voice that often has been silenced and pathologized, but that we must recognize.
From Margin to Center
How much can we learn from Channah, who by most accounts is a marginal figure in the Bible? Do we have the right to turn her—in both her biblical depiction and its rabbinic interpretation—into such a central, paradigmatic figure? Here too, feminist theory makes an important contribution, and answers a resounding “yes!”
One of the most important feminist literary scholars, bell hooks, in 1984 wrote Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Following in her footsteps, we may certainly admit that Channah has not been a major figure in biblical or later Jewish tradition, but we may and should reevaluate her, bringing her more into the center. The central role that she plays in the haftarah reading opens a window of sacred possibility for us to decide whether to leave her on the outskirts of our religious communities – and imaginations – or to decide, together, to bring her close.
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September 20, 2014
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Dr. Tova Hartman is the (recently appointed) Dean of Humanities at Ono Academic College in Israel. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where she studied under Carol GiIlligan. She is the author of Appropriately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism, and Are You Not a Man of God: Devotion, Betrayal, and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition. Hartman is the co-founder of Congregation Shira Chadashah.
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