On Simhat Torah, we celebrate the Torah not by studying it, but by touching it, embracing it, kissing it, and dancing with it. “We” being “males” in most Orthodox synagogues (the frame of reference for the remainder of this post).
On Simhat Torah, everyone is called up to the Torah, even children. (Every male, that is, and only male children of course. What are we, Reform?)
The impulse of Simhat Torah is inclusive and egalitarian. We dance in circles, which are non-hierarchical, each point equidistant from the center. We even tolerate drinking among those who require some chemical assistance to bring out their latent love of Torah. Sometimes those egalitarian circles grow so large that they extend into the women’s section, pushing its observant observers out into the corridor. Sorry for the inconvenience, ladies! We are expressing how everyone has an equal share in the Torah, here. You can understand that, right? You can attend a special shiur for women in one of the classrooms in the meantime.
Simhat Torah is a constantly-evolving holiday. Entire books have been written about its history. Sources from barely a century ago record that seven hakafot (circuits) around the bimah was not a universal custom, as some congregations performed three circuits. When it comes to Simhat Torah, the only thing that is constant is change. Oh, and the exclusion of women from the central ritual aspects of the celebration. That’s also constant.
Full disclosure: I am something of a Simhat Torah grinch. Not only because of the chaotic revelry, but because the emphasis on the physical object of the Torah scroll smacks of fetishism to me. I imagine a form of hakafot that is more like speed dating: Two concentric circles in which two people would have a short conversation around some text, and then everyone moves on. Everyone has a 3-minute havruta session with everyone else in the room. Either way, the true joy of Torah is in learning it and sharing what we have learned with others.
However, I have made my peace with the celebrations, and I have even come to enjoy it in my own way, spending a lot of time on the fringes of the dance-circle, discussing Torah ideas with friends.
But it’s easy for me to make peace with it. It was designed for me. It’s much more difficult for women to make their peace with Simhat Torah. At some point around the age of 10, they will take their memories of riding on their fathers’ shoulders to the other side of the mehitza, where they will watch their younger sisters, with their plush Torah-dolls and flags, laughing from their paternal perches above the fray, and they will try to imagine themselves as little girls again, celebrating the Torah without complication.
I like to think that I’m an ally. I favor of women’s Torah study at every level. Several years ago, I penned an essay favoring women getting aliyot (in congregations where 10 adult males are present) on Simhat Torah. For the past couple of years, the rabbi of our synagogue has asked me to speak prior to the evening prayers marking the onset of Simhat Torah (because the rabbi knows that he can count on me for 20 minutes of learned discourse… and that I’m a man). Both years I’ve spoken about how the entire historical arc of Simhat Torah has bent toward greater inclusion and greater participation, demonstrating that the Torah belongs to all of us, and that the next phase in this evolution has to be the inclusion of women. Our synagogue has taken steps in this direction, but we can do better.
But I realize that I am coming from a place of privilege, that I have the luxury of choosing to speak about this from the pulpit during prayers. I can take or leave participation in Simhat Torah. I can decline the day’s highest honors when they are offered to me. And another full disclosure: When they were offered, I took them. So much for non-hierarchical egalitarianism.
Some learned women, real talmidot hakhamim, like my wife, make the conscious choice to celebrate Simhat Torah with the women they shared Torah with throughout the year, rather than going somewhere more inclusive. Other women find other ways to make their peace with a holiday that still needs to evolve to accept and celebrate their deep relationship with the Torah. Many others have decided to go elsewhere, leaving their communities, their sons and husbands, to celebrate the Torah in an environment that better acknowledges the depth of their relationship with it. And who can blame those women who have simply decided that they are not part of the Torah’s intended audience?
So what can we (men) do? We can try not to “mansplain” which choice is the right choice and recognize that it is not our choice to make. At the same time, we can think about how to enable women to express and celebrate their connection to Torah in our sanctuaries. Maybe then their choice will be a bit easier.