Some people don’t like dancing. I am not one of those people.
Some people enjoy sitting on the side, watching all of the main action from a distance. I am not one of those people, either.
Some people don’t want to be part of the story, a link in the continuous chain of our people. And yes– you guessed it! I am most certainly not one of those people.
So… who am I? Am I a crazy, radical feminist? Or am I simply a Jewish woman who just wants to connect to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and the Torah that He gave us?
These bold and vague statements are all related to my Simchat Torah experience. But before I elaborate on the wake-up call I received this chag, I first need to delve a bit into my background. In my life, I’ve only encountered two types of Simchat Torah experiences:
- A men’s section and a women’s section of equal size, with a perfectly kosher mechitza splitting down the middle. During Hakafot, the men would carry the Sifrei Torah to the women’s section for the women to kiss (not to hold). There was plenty of dancing on the women’s side, until people get too bored/tired/chatty, and we’re left with a core of about ten girls actually dancing. This version is what I assumed was the norm.
- An all-women’s Hakafot experience, complete with Sifrei Torah. No men in sight. This version is what I assumed was revolutionary.
Until this past week, I assumed that these were the two extremes: Women dancing with a Sefer Torah, or not. Little did I know that another option existed: Women not dancing at all. Well, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised by a lack of female participation in Chareidi communities such as Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim. But I was shocked to find this attitude in a more hashkafically diverse community (some consider it to be more Chareidi-inclined, but that’s pure speculation). The disappointment deepened when I was informed that many Modern Orthodox communities (especially the more yeshivish-inclined communities) in America also don’t have women dancing.
Back to my analysis of Simchat Torah this year: In virtually every shul I visited, there were no women dancing. There were women’s sections, and heck, even some space to actually dance. But only a handful of women actually took that opportunity and attempted to dance. Here’s the other issue– because their norm was to avoid dancing, they opened up the mechitza to watch the men. This was problematic for two reasons:
- By opening the mechitza, you are ripping away any chance of a tzanua way for the other women to dance on our side.
- You are acting like you’re too religious to dance, but it’s totally fine for you to watch the men? I’ve had male friends comment to me how uncomfortable they feel when the women are just standing there, watching them dance. All of a sudden, it’s tzanua to openly glare at the opposite gender?
On face value, my chag wasn’t off to a great start. But then I found my turning point in the most unexpected of places: a Yeshiva. Going in, I wasn’t expecting to have any women’s section, and just to simply enjoy listening to Yeshiva davening. Sometimes, just singing along to the beautiful tunes, praising God as one, makes up for the fact that I feel like a bystander. However, as I entered the Yeshiva, all of these expectations were thrown out the door, and instead I was warmly greeted by a massive women’s section. Although there weren’t thousands of women dancing and there were still bystanders, I didn’t care. My friends and I were finally given the ability to express our glee on this holiday.
As I joyfully danced with strangers, my cynicism and bitterness began to ebb. My judgemental perspective of these women, who I thought were “frum-shaming” me, started to shift. In this retrospection, I replayed a conversation I overheard that day: At one of the shuls, a woman sitting behind me asked the lady next to her, “Can you open the curtain? I want to watch; I want to participate.” Then it hit me– it’s not that these women don’t want to dance. It’s not that they think they’re holier than the rest of us. Rather, this is their norm. For them, being able to watch is their form of participation and happiness. They were never given any other option.
Truthfully, all of this is speculation. I can’t honestly tell you why communities of women don’t dance on Simchat Torah. I can’t speak for them. So, let me tell you why I dance on Simchat Torah:
I dance to express my gratitude of living in a generation where Torah is accessible to everyone.
I dance because I’m fortunate to be a link in the chain of our mesora.
I dance to solidify my relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu after my transformative Yamim Noraim.
I dance to signify my transition of Teshuva M’Yira to Teshuva M’Ahava.
I dance because I only care to do what’s right in His eyes.
I dance because I don’t care what everyone else thinks.
I dance because I am trying my best to fulfill God’s will.
I’m able to dance because of revolutionaries such as Sara Schnierer and Nechama Leibowitz.
I’m able to dance because of all of my mentors who guide me every day in my Torah learning.
I’m able to dance because of my supportive community, family, and friends.
I’m able to dance because God gave me two legs and a lot of passion.
So, am I calling for a “dance dance revolution”? Perhaps. The Rambam (Hilchot Shofar Sukkah V’Lulav 8:14) tells us that back in the day, the only people who would dance on Simchat Torah were the scholars and Gedolim– the elite of the Jewish people. Baruch Hashem, we live in a society where Torah is available to the masses, not just left in the hands of the elite. We are blessed to live in a generation where we are literate, intelligent, and capable human beings. From going to schools which are dedicated to transmitting the Torah, to being able to easily pull up a shiur on YU Torah, there is no shortage in vehicles of learning. In 2018, women are also part of the story, and we play major roles on the stage of revolutionary Torah learning. So here’s my question for everyone: If all women were given their own stage to dance on, in a totally tzanua way, would they take advantage of this unbelievable opportunity?
I never thought much about the words “Veten Chelkenu B’Toratecha”- “Give us a share in Your (God’s) Torah.” After this experience, this prayer has significantly changed for me:
Give all of us a portion in the Torah, not just the men.
All of us, even the bystanders.
All of us, especially the Tinokim Shenishbaim (those who don’t have a proper Jewish education).
Give a voice to the Sheeno Yodea Lishol (the one who doesn’t know how to ask).
Give an opportunity to those who have never tasted the sweetness of Torah.
Give an outlet to the Torah lovers to express their happiness and gratitude.
Let us all rejoice through linking together in this beautiful chain which spans millennia.
All of us, the men and the women.
All of us, the children and adults.
All of us, Chareidi, Dati Leumi, Chardal, Chiloni.
All of us, Chassidim and Misnagdim.
All of Am Yisrael. Together.
We’re all learning the same Torah, aren’t we?