I always understood that Simchat Torah was about celebrating with the Torah. Celebrating having the Torah. Celebrating reading, learning, loving, living the Torah. Sadly, what I see around me – what I have been seeing, for several years – is that an authentic, Torah-focused celebration has been replaced (for many) by cheap thrills and vicarious pleasure.
It wasn’t until I got to university that I discovered that for so many men, Simchat Torah is Purim Kattan. It’s the other time that men are meant to drink. I didn’t understand why. I still don’t understand why. I can only assume that men who find it hard to reach simchah through Torah turn to alcohol for a quick and easy way to get high. Cheap thrills.
What’s far sadder is that this is what we teach our children too. Simchat Torah is Purim Kattan for our kids. We don’t just shower them with sweets, we positively catapault them to a sugar high, because this is what Simchat Torah is all about. Cheap thrills.
And then there’s the vicarious pleasure for the women, who not only are excluded from expressing the true joy of learning-living-loving the Torah by dancing with the Torah, but in some large and prominent synagogues are even excluded from the cheap thrill of alcohol consumption (although sometimes they get to steal a sweet from their children). In all too many communities, women are still expected to revel in the vicarious pleasure of watching their menfolk rejoice with the Torah.
When alcohol and sugar dull our ability to feel the true joy of Torah celebration, it seems like nothing much to marginalise women to the vicarious experience of watching from the sidelines.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the more involved one’s relationship with Torah during the year, the greater the sense of celebration at Simchat Torah, and so men who learn in a committed way all year will be at one end of the scale, experiencing a far greater and more personal simchah than a young mother who has barely had time to open a siddur, let alone a chumash, from one Yom Kippur to the next. However, I do not think that this is a reason why all women should be shut out from experiencing and expressing their simchah. Especially given that there is no means-tested entrance to the dancing on Simchat Torah. Only you can know if you’ve had a year when you learned as much as you could. Only you can know how truly fervent your dancing is.
People have asked me why women should need to dance at Simchat Torah, let alone dance with a Torah? Since men and women have different roles, men can have their celebration in shul, and women can have theirs in some other way, in the home, by learning Torah, or setting out kiddush, or reciting Tehillim.
Simchat Torah is the collective siyum of the whole Jewish nation. Our children get siyumim in school at regular intervals – a party of encouragement when they finish learning something, to make them feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment, so that they’ll be motivated to learn more. And it’s not only for children: adults also celebrate a siyum every time that they complete a significant chunk of learning. We all need this feedback of celebration and encouragement – we’re only human, after all. We all need a time to celebrate our achievements, to feel the joy that comes from accomplishing something through our toil and effort. While we each experience our own personal times of siyum celebration, Simchat Torah is a time of collective encouragement, just like, while we each should reflect on our life’s purpose and direction, and repent whenever we have done something that needs repenting, we have a collective repentance and stock-taking at Yom Kippur.
Whether we’ve been actively learning or not, whether we’ve made it to shul every week, or any week, that year; we all need Simchat Torah to mark that we have lived-learned-loved round an entire cycle of reading the whole Five Books of the Torah. Why should women be told that the vicarious pleasure of watching their husbands celebrate is all that they should need? We by and large no longer expect women to vicariously learn Torah, or to vicariously know how to keep a kosher kitchen. Learning Torah, reciting Tehillim, and serving food are all important, but they are not celebrations which mark the achievement of a year of Torah. Why do we demand that women feel fulfilled – indeed, that they feel honoured and privileged – when we allow them to organise shiurim on Simchat Torah, or to recite Tehillim, while the men are dancing with the Torah? It sometimes seems that women are expected to express their celebration and dedication to Torah by putting out plates of herring and saying tehillim. It’s great, but it’s not Simchat Torah.
In sharing my desire to find a shul where my daughter and I can feel a positive shul-going experience, I was also asked why I think it important that my daughter feel part of the shul community, given that her main role will be as a Jewish wife and mother, supporting her husband at home. I answered that yes, I pray that that will be her main role and it is an important role and one which I am very concerned to prepare her for. However, she will also be an individual member of the Jewish community, and already can and should be one today, both because it will make her future husband and children into better, stronger Jews, and because it will make her into a better, stronger Jew.
Around a hundred years ago, when women were learning secular studies but not Jewish studies, the Chafetz Chaim, Harav Yisroel Meir Hakohen Kagan, zt”l, approved the extremely radical step of opening up schools for girls to learn Jewish texts to an advanced level. It was opposed by almost everybody else at the time, but he maintained that if a Jewish girl is going to a non-Jewish school and learning non-Jewish material to a high level, she must learn Jewish material to a high level also, otherwise she will be unable to resist the pull of non-Jewish culture, and there is no way that Judaism could survive if her mothers are head and shoulders out of the door.
Today, Jewish women are out in the workplace, in the study-place, in the market-place. I wonder, if a Jewish woman is integrated into a non-Jewish community through her work and social ties, through her cultural and literary references, how can Judaism survive if she is then excluded from the Jewish communal framework of the synagogue? A Jewish girl needs to be part of her community in order to feel a part of it. If she does not, what hope can we have of the Jewish home that she builds being connected to the whole Jewish nation? If Jewish women do not feel connected to their community, then we will become nothing but a collection of individual Jews.
On Simchat Torah, when we refuse to allow women to participate fully (albeit separately) in celebrating another year of living-loving-learning Torah, we are not just excluding them from a once-a-year dance event. We are excluding them from the communal annual experience of the Torah, and thus from the wider Jewish community.
I would like to see a true Torah celebration returned to Simchat Torah for men, women and children. Without cheap thrills, easy highs, or vicarious pleasure – just a real, true, Torah-focused, communal rejoicing, in which we each reap the joy of however much work we’ve put into learning-living-loving Torah in the past year. Only by rejoicing together can we cement our nation into one community. Perhaps, the community that sways together, stays together.