Simchat Torah is behind us, but the arguments surrounding women’s participation in this holiday just go on and on and on. And in every rehashing of the same old debates, there is always at least one person asking, “How come you are so eager to dance with the Torah/read the Torah on this day, when you don’t attend shul three times a day on a regular basis?”
The implication of this question is clear: Men earn the right to celebrate Simchat Torah by following the rules of male observance all year round. If you (the women demanding more ways to participate in the celebrations) were truly motivated by legitimate religious zeal, you would have first pursued heightened observance in all the normal, traditional avenues of Jewish life that are already open to you. Since we don’t see you attending shul regularly (like men), we must deduce that your demand to participate now isn’t motivated by proper religious feelings. You are either overly attracted to flashy one-time events (i.e, shallow), or motivated by foreign, Western ideas like (gasp!) feminism.
This argument has already been blasted from many different directions. Some pointed out that it smacks of double standards, since plenty of men who don’t attend shul regularly are nonetheless welcome to participate in Simchat Torah, no questions asked.
Others argued that the right to celebrate Simchat Torah needn’t be “earned” in the first place: The Torah belongs to all of us, and we should all rejoice in it.
More and more Orthodox rabbis go further and explain that the critics misunderstand the causal relationship between regular observance and Simchat Torah. Celebrating with the Torah can be a reflection of our observance of its laws in the previous year, but it can also motivate our observance in the year to come. Therefore, they conclude (and change the rules of their communities accordingly), women’s participation should be encouraged.
I don’t want to restate what was said so well already by many, many others. I do want, however, to point out one element of the “how come you demand participation only now” attack that I have always found baffling.
By comparing women’s participation in Simchat Torah with our (lack of) adherence to male standards of regular shul attendance, this argument assumes that our goal is to celebrate Simchat Torah “like men.” If you want to celebrate “like men,” it tells us, first behave “like men” on a regular basis.
I’m sorry to disappoint, but I most certainly do NOT want to celebrate anything “like a man.” I can’t speak for all my fellow Orthodox women, of course, but what I truly want — what I truly desire when I seek a shul that will let me participate in the celebrations — is to celebrate Simchat Torah like a woman.
I want to hug the Torah scroll with the arms that held my newborn babies while they nursed, and which will guide them into their own experiences of Torah as they grow.
I want to rejoice with the heart that learned what it means to be God’s partner after another heartbeat thrummed within me by its side.
I want to dance around the Torah scroll on the legs that carried me to the mikveh on the eve of my wedding, following in the footsteps of my predecessors, generations upon generations of Jewish women.
I want to read the Torah with the eyes that read the Chumash and Rashi, but also Tolkien and Tolstoy, the eyes that watch my kids play in the park and note the changing colors of the leaves. And I want to say aloud, “Blessed be the God that gave us His Torah” with the lips that turn everything I learn and see into words and stories and praise for God’s creation.
And then, when the celebration is over, I want to take those arms and legs and lips and heart and pour them into living my Jewish journey the only way I can: As myself.
I am a Jewish woman. Whether I attend shul regularly or not, whether I daven three times a day or not, whether I dance with the Torah again or not —
I certainly won’t do it “like a man.”