The title of this post is shamelessly stolen from an e-mail by my friend Rebecca Boggs, who is interested in egalitarian alternatives to traditional ritual. Thanks, Becca! (Though I didn't ask. I hope that posting your e-mail on this blog is in the category of zokhin le-odem she-loy befonov: You can do favors for someone without their permission. At least, if they think it's a favor.)
But her e-mail needs an introduction. On Shemini Atzeres, the "eighth day of assembly" which is the concluding day of Sukkos (well, only in some ways, not in others -- let's not get into that here), a special hymn is said, called Geshem ("Rain"). It's a rain prayer, of course, parallel to the Passover hymn for dew called, appropriately enough, Tal ("Dew"). The words of the traditional prayer are beautiful and oblique in ways common to piyutim (liturgical poetry). For the life of me I can't find the traditional Hebrew text on-line. (A translation is here, and an nterpretation is here. Warning on the latter: Tendentious Artscroll Alert.)
The question is: where are the women? Water flows over and under nearly every memorable story in the Bible, and where there's water there are leaders of flocks and leaders of people. Most particularly, Miriam (she of the well!) comes to mind. But Geshem (like Tal) includes no references to our matriarchs.
There are a couple of ways to understand this absence. An Orthodox approach, I suppose(though I'm arguing the opponent's case here), might be that women are private creatures ("the honor of the princess is [to be kept] indoors," or something like that -- yes, I know that that translation is misleading, but this is all for the sake of argument), and so one shouldn't refer to them in public. Their role is behind the scenes. At least, I hope that's the argument, and that there is nothing suspect about the merits of our matriarchs. If any traditional commentator remarks upon the lack of women in these piyyutim, I'd be grateful if someone would let me know.
A more plausible approach, at least to my mind, is that every poet has a reservoir of references available to him or her. When Geshem was written (whenever that was! My Elbogen is packed up), the poet simply did not imagine that women were to be classed with men as figures for poetic evocation. So he didn't. Now it's not a simple matter to change the liturgy, but I think that piyyutim are ripe for directed modification. First of all, they are not, by and large, part of the matbeye she-kavu khakhomim, the "coin of prayer" which (it is held) was instituted by the Rabbis of the Talmud. They are later additions: cherished additions, but add-ons nonetheless. Furthermore, if we can, with suitable awe of Heaven and poetic grandeur*, craft an egalitarian version that is equal to the merit of our matriarchs -- well, why not?
This by way of introduction to an e-mail that Becca received. She had written some knowledgeable friends of hers to ask about egalitarian renderings of Geshem. One of them wrote back as follows:
The best place to go to see where people have done interpretive/alternative liturgy is the website ritualwell.org. I looked for something on Miriam. Mark Frydenberg has posted exactly what you were looking for. There is also a poem by Barbara Holender.
You might also want to check out the book of poems, "Journey into healing" by Sherri Waas Shunfenthal.
Of course, another option, if you don't find what you are looking for, is to write a response to the text that you find challenging/troubling/incomplete.
I found something else on the Web, an egalitarian version of Geshem (in Hebrew, no translation available) written by Rabbi Yoram Mazor of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel. I think it's closer in poetic spirit to the original.
I anticipate modifications of this post as more resources pop up. Please direct me to on-line versions of the original piyut, your own Geshem compositions, translations of the Israeli egal version, etc.
*Insert gratuitous bashing of the literary quality of Sim Shalom translations.