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Thinking Women and Simchat Torah

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

For many years my feelings about Simchat Torah, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, have ranged from boredom to resentment. From the time I was too old to stay on the men's side of the mechitzah, I was relegated to watching through the latticework: the dancing and singing, the emotional and physical involvement of boys and men as they danced with the torahs and generally reveled in their expression of closeness to the holy books. The experience was like watching people eat cake, and not getting a piece. It was not until I had children of my own, that I could again enjoy the holiday. When my young ones were dancing around the torah with their father, I enjoyed the experience, albeit vicariously. In the back of my mind remained the thought: "In a few short years, they will also be forced to experience this as spectators and will not be able to participate". Indeed, when my oldest daughter turned eleven she already felt unwelcome and uncomfortable on the other side, and made the decision to stay on the women's side of the mechitzah, watching the action (and being bored) rather than participating.

Apparently, I was not the only one with these feelings. Just a few years ago the rabbi and congregation decided that it would be proper to bring a torah into the women's section, set it down on the table, and allow women to dance around it. It was a nice gesture, but missed the point. This was like bringing the cake closer, but still not allowing us to partake. Some women danced around, some halfheartedly participated, feeling awkward dancing around the table, while looking at the torah; most ignored the torah.

Only on one occasion in our shul did I get a chance to more fully participate in a rejoicing of the torah, and it wasn't even Simchat Torah. When our synagogue dedicated a new torah scroll, a celebration was organized, all the torahs were brought out, and two of them were brought into the women's section. Women were given the green light to hold and dance with the torah. I watched some brave women who held the torahs for the first few songs. The women around me were energized and interested. The young girls looked on with surprise and delight. Suddenly one of the women approached me and offered me a torah. She showed me how to hold it. I took it gingerly, and felt its heft and substantial weight. It fit snugly in my arms, resting on my shoulder, at once heavy, but also with a lightness, a life, like a sleeping child in a mother's arms. My heart raced. This was a new experience, something I felt I had waited many years for. I thought of Russian Jews denied their heritage, who finally had a chance to see, touch, and hold sifrei torah. They must feel the same lightness, excitement and joy. My feet danced with no effort. The lyrics and melody washed over me, as I experienced a closeness to the torah, and depth of involvement with the joy of celebration. My daughters, too young to hold the torah because of its weight, danced around me, touching the wooden dowels and velvet cover. Their eyes sparkled with excitement, reflecting my own exuberance. I passed the torah on to another woman, but the feeling of closeness and full participation remained, as I danced around the women holding the torahs.

There is no halachic reason prohibiting women from holding or dancing with torah scrolls, yet some rabbis view the practice as an abomination. Many observant women in our modern society achieve positions of prominence, leadership and great responsibility in the American community, and need to feel as participatory members of the religious community as well. What is an orthodox woman in that situation to do? Some become Conservative, where they can participate fully. What about Orthodox women who want to stay Orthodox? Is there a place for them as achievers and doers? Or are they forever to be relegated to the role of spectator?

Groups of yeshiva-educated modern Orthodox women have initiated prayer groups which, within the carefully proscribed confines of strict halachic adherence, allow for personal and communal expression of deep religious feelings. Women in these groups meet regularly and pray together at Shabbat services, and include reading of the torah (by women, for women). They omit any portion of the service which would require a quorum of ten men. They have worked out the details of these services with the advice and blessing of a number of rabbis in the community. A number of these prayer groups have served women in various communities, and have consistently continued, in the spirit of halachic observance, to help women who are interested achieve a more meaningful experience in prayer and observance. The groups coexist peacefully with established Orthodox congregations, pose no threat to established congregations, draw no members away from Orthodox congregations (in fact most participants are dues-paying, active members of traditional Orthodox congregations as well). The women's prayer groups go about their business in modest and tznius-dik ways, without fanfare, without advertisement, to serve those who seek them out.

Unfortunately, just a few years ago, the Orthodox rabbinate of Queens, New York voted and declared that women's prayer groups should not be sanctioned, and should, indeed, be boycotted. One rabbi (a school principal) even went so far as to forbid the classmates of a bat mitzvah girl from attending the prayer group meeting where she was to read from the torah in honor of her reaching the age of mitzvah observance. This is indicative of a disturbing trend in the orthodox community. Thinking women are not considered and their needs are not only ignored, but squelched. The Orthodox rabbinate should be scrutinizing halacha to enable, not disable opportunities for women in the community. Some enlightened rabbis are doing that and have been for several decades. Those rabbis are to be lauded and applauded, not denounced and ridiculed.

Meanwhile I anticipate my annual choice: I can stay in my synagogue and watch the men holding and dancing with torahs, while women are permitted to dance around - but not touch - a torah lying on a table. Or I can seek out the local women's tefillah group - which meets in local homes, lest it offend members of the local orthodox synagogue. If I choose the latter, I will not be with my family, since my daughters have shown little interest in rocking the boat. If I choose the former, I will be relegated to gazing at the torah lying lifeless on the table... looking so lonely, I could just pick it up...

© 2000 Miryam Z. Wahrman

 

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