The women grabbed my hands and joyously led me into the circle. Rather than circle dancing, this felt like spiral dancing – each spin propelled me further from the ground and into the endless Jerusalem night sky. It was late Friday night, the usual prayer services at the Western Wall had long finished. We were part of an impromptu group led by a charismatic rabbi who sat on the partition separating the men from the women to lead the prayers for welcoming in the Shabbat. The spiritual energy was palpable. With each kick from under a colorful flowing skirt we created our own private connection to the Heavens.

I had decided prior to that year to become a rabbi

It was one of my final Shabbats in Israel after spending my Junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I had decided prior to that year to become a rabbi, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to delve into Orthodox Judaism – so I could know what I was rejecting. Up until this point partitions had always disturbed my prayer – why did I have to on the other side, separated from the men? I knew the prayers; I owned tefillin from my Bat Mitzvah! I even knew how to read from the Torah – why did I need to be behind a wall? Men and women were equal, this is how I was raised, anything suggesting otherwise was heresy to my egalitarian roots.

When I entered an all women's college as a freshman, I considered myself a humanist – feminism seemed like a quaint term from before enlightened people realized that men and women were the same. Bit by bit, my secular women's college began to chisel away at my preconceived notions of womanhood. Through my professors and classmates, along with the assigned reading in many of my women's studies classes, I began to appreciate women's distinctive historical gifts to society.

While I was appreciating the different role of women in society, I was still unable to reconcile these thoughts with the different role of women in Judaism. My academic study of Jewish history had left me with the impression that the ancient rabbis were megalomaniacs making up laws to complicate the lives of the ignorant Jewish people and to keep women's status lower than men. While at Hebrew University I had the opportunity to take a class with an Orthodox rabbi. His approach to the ancient Jewish texts was completely novel to me. His obvious love and respect for the words of the rabbis, completely lacking of cynicism and sarcasm, were mystifying! Not to mention his ability to maintain high academic standards in his approach to the text.

Midway through the semester I felt a shift from deep within my soul. The rabbis were not out to control the Jewish people; they were on a noble search for truth to discover what G‑d truly wanted for His chosen people. Rather than attempting to dictate laws for the sake of oppression, the rabbis were trying to decipher G‑d's prescription for the most meaningful life possible. Midway through the semester I felt a shift from deep within my soul With this new understanding of the rabbis, I was ready to approach my Judaism, as a woman, from a totally new perspective. Becoming a rabbi no longer seemed the ideal way for me to actualize my Jewish identity. Though for some time I had thought it was the only way for me to profoundly and spiritually manifest my Judaism.

When I first had decided to become a rabbi, I knew I would have to take on many obligations. My rabbinical school of choice mandated that all students (male and female) take upon themselves the obligation of praying three times a day with a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). Though it was a serious commitment, I wasn't concerned; I had gone through several stages of consistent tefillin wearing since my bat mitzvah, and I wasn't daunted by the amount of prayer.

I did have one question, however. How did women who had just given birth fit into this equation? The response I received was the beginning of a very long path that led me to reject the rabbinate as a career, and that particular stream of Judaism as my movement. The rabbi told me a new mother would be considered as any other sick person: exempt from daily prayers until she had recovered. A pregnant woman was "sick?" She would need to "recover?" Giving birth was suddenly an illness? I was shocked that something I longed to do was considered an interference, a problem to be dealt with?

As I sit here several years later heavily pregnant and surrounded by several children, I have to laugh. Just when was I supposed to be "recovered" from motherhood? I am so grateful to the wisdom of our Torah which recognizes that a woman's obligation to her children is of the utmost importance. This is why women are exempt from most time-bound commandments, including the need to pray at specified times or with a quorum of ten. Forcing women to be like men, without any appreciation of their unique gifts, is the real discrimination. To hold men up as the ideal to which women most conform is truly to look at women as second class citizens. Man may do this, but the Torah does not.

That Shabbat in Jerusalem I felt like one of the women who had crossed the red sea onto dry land. Traveling on that path from slavery to freedom, these dancing, praying women had freed something in my soul. The spiritual energy of these women allowed me to feel complete. I was no longer bound by the constraints of male prayer, I could finally pray as a woman, surrounded by other women.

I could finally pray as a woman, surrounded by other women Miriam, Moses' sister, was the first woman to lead other women in prayer. After crossing the Red Sea and realizing their victory, the first thing the Jewish people did was sing out to G‑d in praise and thanks. The Torah tells us Moses led the men while Miriam led the women. What was different about the women's prayers? They were not merely a spontaneous response to their miraculous escape, but rather was planned and expected. Even in their haste to leave Egypt in which they could only take with them the most basic necessities for what they knew would be an arduous journey, the women ensured that they brought drums and tambourines. What would they need these for in the wilderness? The women knew, due to their complete faith, that G‑d would save them and there would be cause for music and thanksgiving afterwards. The women celebrated their freedom as they sang and danced and played their drums, just as they knew they would.

That night at the Western Wall, as I prayed and danced, I felt that I was finally able to honor Miriam and those women for their complete dedication and faith. They had given of their body and soul in giving thanks to their Creator. These women were able to teach me the true meaning of womanhood and the true meaning of prayer. And just like the Sages teach that it was in the merit of Miriam and the righteous women that we were redeemed from Egypt, so too, it will be us, the Jewish women of today, who will lead the world to the final redemption.