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Better when I’m dancin’ (on Simchat Torah)

Celebrating the annual completion of reading the Torah is not reserved for the intellectual, ivory-tower educated elite, but for everyone - including women
Women dancing with Torah scrolls. (Facebook)
Women dancing with Torah scrolls. (Facebook)

What does it mean to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah?

Another year has passed marked by the ending/beginning of the Torah reading cycle. King Solomon set a precedent for celebrating a “siyum,” completion of a book or the entire Torah. The midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9) teaches that King Solomon awoke from a dream having acquired great wisdom which he had requested, so he celebrated with great joy and thanksgiving.

This early source for celebrating the completion of the Torah on Simchat Torah highlights the importance of celebrating accomplishments in our lives, big and small. The talmudic sage Abaye proudly made a feast whenever he saw a young scholar complete a tractate of Talmud. Especially after recent years, when celebrations were hindered and limited (though often still special), Simchat Torah gives us permission and encourages us to celebrate together. 

Also, while we are “the People of the Book” — often, of intellectuals — Simchat Torah provides a way for everyone to connect to Torah: through dancing. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that dancing is one of the unique features of this holiday. There are no divisions based on the level of people’s Torah knowledge or understanding. On Simchat Torah, everyone is welcome to celebrate Torah and join in the dancing.

What does it mean for a woman to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah? 

We now live in a world where women have access to high level Torah learning and scholarship; where women answer halakhic questions and serve as Jewish communal leaders; where women learn daf yomi and nach yomi and find many paths into Torah study. Women love Torah too. And so on Simchat Torah, what message do women receive about their relationship with Torah if men dance with the Torah and women do not? 

Some halakhic authorities have expressed concern about making changes in shuls. Others have supported gradual change. In truth, the history of Simchat Torah customs is one long story of development and evolution. 

Rabbi Eliezer teaches in the mishnah that “one whose prayer is fixed is not [engaged in] supplication.” Some rabbis understood this to mean that prayer requires an element of “chiddush,” something novel. Orthodox Judaism is strong because of the Jewish people’s ability to adapt when necessary and because of the careful balance struck by leaders between tradition and innovation. On Simchat Torah, everyone should feel welcome to celebrate Torah and join in the dancing.

What does it mean for a mother to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah alongside her daughters? 

Mothers have passed down Jewish traditions, recipes, and faith to their daughters for generations. Rashi teaches that when the matriarch Sarah died, the miracles of her tent — Shabbat candles lit from one Friday night to the next, dough which was blessed and a cloud which hovered above her tent — ceased. When Rebecca entered her tent as the wife of Isaac, the miracles reappeared.  

For much of history, a woman’s Jewish life centered around the home. Today, Jewish women are still devoted to their families and homes, and many of us also find fulfillment outside of the home: at work, in school, as volunteers, and through Torah study. We encourage our girls to maximize their potential. We want them to keep mitzvot and deepen their connection to Torah. Like King Solomon and Abaye, contemporary mothers and daughters would like to celebrate a “siyum” or the completion of the Torah and share their joy of Torah together. Wouldn’t it be better if, on Simchat Torah, everyone was welcome to celebrate Torah and join in the dancing?!

About the Author
Karen Miller Jackson is a Morah l'Halakha, Jewish educator and writer, living in Ra'anana, Israel. She teaches and studies at Matan HaSharon and is the creator of Power Parsha, a short weekly whatsapp dvar Torah. Currently, Karen is a Matan Kitvuni Fellow, writing a book on Talmud Berakhot. She is the host of the Eden Center podcast: "Women & Wellbeing" and she runs Kivun l'Sherut, a guidance program for girls before sherut leumi/army service. Karen is a board member of Kolech - Religious Women's Forum.
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