Halakha does not change. That is, Torah, mitzvot, Chazal and their underlying way of studying and transmitting the Torah – one of them being that men and women have different obligations which are Eternal. Psak halakha is how it’s put into practise, which can and does change.
Rambam, commenting on the mishna (Sukka 5:2) says that a mechitza is a “great enactment” – a designated place for women and a designated place for men, a place for women was above the designated place for men, taller, so that the men would not look above the women. One could interpret this in a way that the women are so holy, and are closer to shamayim, that they are placed above the men. But, the point is that the men cannot see the women and there is a mechitza for halakhic reasons. Additionally, The Rav (Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik) states that a shul with mixed seating forfeits its sanctity and halakhic status, and it is unfit for tefila. This is the halakha which does not change.
I have no issue with this. Ultimately, I keep halakha and I am firmly against changing halakha. That to me is wrong. As Rav Lichtenstein z”l says, “we do not pick and choose”. Just as Adam and Chava chose to eat from the wrong tree, we must not eat from the wrong tree either and I refrain from doing so. But where this goes wrong for me is on Simchat Torah. When there is a mechitza and davening on a regular Shabbat or chag, I join in and it’s not so difficult. Not the same on Simchat Torah. After much debate and thought, frustration and deliberation, I’ve come to think more and more about this issue.
Simchat Torah is known to be about hakafot and aliyot and males getting drunk. There is a clear divide with the mechitza as the women do not partake in any of these traditions. Instead of doing nothing about it, why, can we not actually do something about it?
Rav Moshe Feinstein noted if a woman wishes to partake in a mitzvah she is not obligated to do, because she is motivated and yearns to keep mitzvot, she may do so. This totally occurs everyday. So, under Rav Moshe, if a woman wishes to dance with a sefer Torah, she may, if she wishes that will allow her to feel motivated. There is really nothing stopping anyone here and I think what should be done is allowing the women to do something for women. I think more shuls or institutions should allow for this in a way that the women can produce and initiate such a group themselves and fulfil the avodah they wish to fulfil. This is completely in accordance to the halakhic ruling of mechitza, as it would be the women leading something powerful for women. No men involved.
I speak on behalf of myself, and I know other women, who refrain from going to shul. This is not a good thing, because if no women go to shul, where is her voice? How can we do something to shape what we believe in and practise what we preach, if we don’t even attend? I may personally prefer to daven on my own and at my own pace, but there’s a bigger picture. We cannot get our message out if we refrain from attending such places which are the centre of Jewish life. This is pushing more towards not being active and engaged and contradicts the whole point of this piece. Something like what I quoted above can occur if more women commit and stick to such boundaries.
As I like to stress, we can find our own unique avodah. We can make a day like Simchat Torah unique in that despite our distance from whatever goes on for the men, we can literally do the same for women. Example, being what I quoted above, but we can learn to the highest levels, and we can share what we learn to the highest levels.
Women’s Torah learning has become revolutionary and thousands upon thousands of us have all been privileged to attend top midrashot in Israel, many of which have full-flowing schedules of high level Gemara, Halakha and Tanakh classes. Women continue to learn excessive amounts of Torah and as such we are committed to a full halakhic lifestyle. We can learn Gemara and halakha and we can answer questions. We can make Torah part of everything we do, and that doesn’t have to be through dancing with a sefer Torah, that can be in a learning environment. We can most definitely celebrate the Torah we learn in our own way. We can create learning opportunities on Simchat Torah. Ultimately, Simchat Torah is about us giving the Torah back to Hashem. We can do that in so many ways, which are not hakafot, getting drunk and aliyot. Anything for women can be just as powerful and meaningful as what there is for men. But most importantly, back to where I started, what’s important is that we are still keeping the halakha, we are not breaking the halakha. We are striving to live according to Hashem’s word and we are keeping our Judaism alive.
I once heard a statement (I think it was said by The Rav – which wouldn’t be surprising, as I mostly learn the Torah of the Rav). “Judaism is about taking discipline, and making it a romance”. The halakha is the discipline. We keep the halakha. We keep Shabbat, we eat matza on Pesach, we sit in a sukka. What’s the romance?
When we undergo these disciplines, which define who we are and which are the fundamentals, we have to make the most of the experience. When lighting Chanukah candles for example, don’t just light your candles. Light your candles and turn it into a romance, by starting a kumsitz next to the lights, or by learning some Torah with friends, with some sufganiyiot. When in your sukka, don’t just make a bracha, eat and leave, rather learn something and embrace the experience of the discipline and allow it to enhance your relationship and connection to Hashem. Add words of Torah to every mitzvah you do. That is real simcha. On Simchat Torah, women should be able to do mitzvot and make them romantic, but most importantly, we can take the discipline of Talmud Torah and make it into something revolutionary as we celebrate something so important to us.
Judaism is exquisite and it is fragile. Our role is to pass it on, and locking it away and not embracing it would be killing it. It only works if we use it. We must pass it on in a way which is authentic, meaningful and relevant to every person. As women, that is required of us. It’s not just for men. We must remember to embrace every mitzvah, every opportunity, Torah and our avodah and keep it going. We must not feel restrained or restricted. We must take the mesorah and do our best to keep it alive. We aren’t changing anything, rather we are embracing everything. There can’t be full simcha unless every single individual is part of the simcha. Let’s stand for what we believe in, speak up and do something about it.