Being a religious woman at Yale is a balancing act. Since arrived in the fall, I’ve slowly become more comfortable saying “Actually, I don’t celebrate Halloween,” and “Sorry, I just need to take five minutes to pray before it gets dark.” Though Yale often can feel like a space that does not accommodate people of faith, it’s not hostile to religion either.
As some recent columns in the News have described, there is a strong minority of individuals who strive to live in accordance with traditions they believe to be the will of God. I am among these people. My college experience is structured around prayer three times a day and ample time for Torah study, in addition to classes and extracurricular commitments.
In some ways, my religion has allowed me to feel like an insider at Yale. The Biblical references Locke makes are familiar, and when the week’s Directed Studies philosophy lecturer describes Spinoza’s excommunication, I can picture the traditional Jewish community he was thrown out of. But my relationship to religion, and especially its intersection with gender, is more complex than some on campus would imagine that interaction to be.
The Orthodox Judaism I grew up practicing separates men from women in prayer contexts. As a girl who excelled in Talmud class but was denied participation in the synagogue, the question of “How can I best serve God?” has always been complicated by gender. My genuine delight in Jewish study took me from left-wing Orthodox Judaism to Traditional Egalitarian Judaism. While in Orthodoxy, women are exempt from certain ritual duties, I now understand myself — as a full citizen of the secular and religious realms — to bear the weight of all the obligations of a Jewish legal adult. I live a life striving to live up to these obligations, to meet God’s commands as much as I can.
To be a Jew striving to live a life in service to the Divine through adherence to Jewish law often puts me in community with those who do not share my perspective on gender. While on Shabbat I pray with a gender-egalitarian congregation, during the week I usually daven with a group of kind, interesting and serious people who do not count me in their prayer quorum nor offer me the opportunity to lead prayer. This usually doesn’t trouble me.
There are days when there are two women and eight men in the room, and we need to hunt down two more men in order to pray as a community of 10 (the minimum number required by Jewish law to constitute a prayer community). Being excluded used to poke a raw place, but now that I have settled into a practice in which I fully count, it hurts much less when others believe religious law asks different things. Still, there are some days when hearing my dear friends say, “We need one more for a minyan,” — even as I stand there uncounted — hits at some deep well of bitterness. On those days I pray quickly and sadly, yet I have thus far always returned on the next day to that same community.
Feminist spaces are not hard to find at Yale. I’m fortunate to attend this University at a time when I can learn with and from remarkable women, and where I have not felt restricted in my ability to speak up in class. My womanhood does not negate my personhood here. But the place I feel most fully a person is as a person standing before God, in religious community. And so, it is an aching paradox that the place which most affirms my personhood — a place of prayer — is also where I am most regularly rendered invisible and secondary.
Ultimately, it is important to me to stand with others in worship even though these environments are one of the few at Yale that excludes me. Gender differentiation is not part of my ideal Jewish community, and it is not part of the Jewish communities that I hold most valuable. But it is with those I regularly pray alongside whom I feel perhaps the closest bond. I could join any extracurricular on campus, gender irrelevant, and yet I opt into this one.
The intersection of religion and gender at Yale is much deeper than my prayer practice. Whether discussing sex on campus, life goals, planning for the future or housing, I speak simultaneously as a religious person and as a woman. Taking religion and gender seriously in our community needs to begin with more open conversation about faith and an appreciation for organized religion’s emphasis on seeking something greater than oneself.
So let’s talk about religious Yalies and what they need. But a conversation about religion at Yale should begin with questions of how to live, not where to live.
Avigayil Halpern is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at email@example.com .