Over the past week, I have seen many beautiful and moving posts about women’s experience over Simchat Torah, the last of our autumnal holidays, defined by the experience of dancing with a Torah scroll. Over Shabbat, I learned that my mother was one of those women at Jerusalem’s Beit Boyer who pioneered “Sitting with the Torah on Simchat Torah,” as Shira Pasternak Be’eri so lovingly described.
However, I thought it was inappropriate for me to weigh in, as yet another man telling women what and how to feel about this challenging holiday. I still think that. But I do I feel the need to address my fellow men, especially regarding a troubling phenomenon I’ve witnessed on social media.
The argument runs something like this: “Maybe women in YOUR community feel the need to dance on Simchat Torah [with or without a Torah scroll], but in MY community they’re perfectly happy celebrating vicariously by watching their husbands, fathers, sons and young daughters dance [because females age out of Simchat Torah as soon as Donald Trump starts contemplating dating them].”
Now, that’s not a real quote per se, but a composite. Still, I could not help but wonder for how many centuries we men have been speaking for women, declaring that a certain quirk of Jewish law “doesn’t bother them.” It didn’t take long to come up with a list of the Top 12. Why Top 12? Because I like to go one step beyond the Nostalgia Critic.
- A woman has no right to expect to meet a man before they marry. (BT Kiddushin 41a)
- A woman should expect her husband to marry as many women as he wants (except for kings, they’re limited to 18). (BT Sanhedrin 21a).
- A woman may be divorced against her will. (BT Gittin 21a)
- A woman may receive her bill of divorce in the mail, even though her husband has cancelled it en route. If she then remarries, she is an adulteress and forbidden to stay with the latter man. Oh, and their children are bastards. (ibid. 33a)
- If a man dies without children, his brother may take his widow, sexually, with or without her consent or any ceremony (BT Yevamot 8b).
- A ritually impure woman may not enter a synagogue. (Rema, OH 88:1)
- She may not touch a holy book. (ibid.)
- She may not pray. (ibid.)
- She may not say any blessings. (ibid.)
- A woman does not need any formal Jewish education. (BT Kiddushin 29b) A woman must not study Talmud. (JT Sota 3:4, Maimonides, Talmud Torah 1:13)
- A woman should not work outside the home. (Maimonides, Ishut 13:11).
- A young woman’s becoming a bat mitzvah is nothing to celebrate. (Everyone before Ben Ish Hai, Re’eh 17)
Now, in each of these cases, Jewish law at some point rethought the matter. But what about the decades, centuries, millennia before? How long were Jewish men declaring that women were OK with this, that they had no objections to it, that their femininity somehow was enhanced by the enticing possibility of being raped by their brother-in-law or having their kids made bastards by their ex-husband or being told that God didn’t want His name in their mouths while they fulfilled the biological imperatives that God gave them?
I don’t have an answer. On the contrary, I have a question, which you, my brothers, must ask: How do the women in your lives, in your communities, synagogues and workplaces, feel about this? There’s a revolutionary way to find out: ask them. And then listen to what they have to say. And we Jews, male and female, might find a new list of items to rethink in the future.