It Takes a Village: Simchat Torah & Disability

I don’t know if it matters that it only involved women. I’m not sure that it was different because it was a self-selected gathering of women. We weren’t a specific community, just a group of women who wanted to celebrate Simchat Torah. The women were bound together in an incredibly special venture, a once a year opportunity. Maybe it was that the collective neshamas overcame the individual disrespect that we have come to expect.

I’m talking about a Modern Orthodox Women’s Simchat Torah minyan where 25+ women sang Hallel, danced with the Torah during the 7 Hakafot, then leyned the Simchat Torah reading. Most of us were between 30 & 65 years old, but there were also babies, children (mainly girls) and great-grandmothers present. On the day we had one Offruf and one Batmitzvah. We also had one woman in her 60s who leyned for the first time. Many participants had had their batmitzvah last year.

The gathering was very joyous. The atmosphere was thick with joy – I’m not sure if that makes sense but there are few English words I can think of that go beyond ruach to the spiritual realm. At one stage the men came to the back of the area we were meeting, with a procession of Torahs and loud voices. They were unable to distract us from our singing and dancing with our one Torah and so continued their dance around the building.

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Nothing remarkable? Well, maybe not. If you are used to this sort of experience, or you have more regular access to one of these rare Orthodox experiences. As a Modern Orthodox woman, I often feel excluded, although my Shule regularly brings the Torah into the women’s section and women recite Kaddish, as well as the Prayer for Australia, Israel & the IDF. Further, I have personally been honoured to give a d’var Torah from the Amud from time to time. Nonetheless, Simchat Torah has frequently been the worst festival and the most exclusionary of women. So that makes the Women’s Minyan held at my Shule particularly welcome.

Even more remarkable than the inclusion of women, which after all is the purpose of the minyan, was the inclusion of women with disabilities. Last year a young adult with a disability had her bat mitzvah at the minyan alongside women of all ages. But I was very anxious on behalf of one woman who came to the service with her daughter. My anxiety was that she was using a wheelchair. That meant she couldn’t “Stand before the Torah”. Would she be allowed an Aliyah? She couldn’t dance in the ‘normal’ way. Would she be sidelined, even more than the nursing mother who could bring baby centre stage when he was ready? She couldn’t lead the Hakafot as she couldn’t hold the Torah and get around the room. Would this mean that she couldn’t hold the Torah?

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Almost seamlessly, the dancers included the wheelchair user, the Gabbai called the woman for the honour of reading from the Torah, and when the Torah was placed in this woman’s hands during the Hakafot, the community danced and sang with the Torah and woman centre-stage. What was really wonderful was the number of people who made sure that all of the possibilities available to every woman there was also available to the women whose legs function differently from most. This is as it should be. It just usually isn’t.

It really takes just a small bit of consideration to include someone. This is often predicated on the decision to make eye contact with the person with the disability and the courtesy of asking the person what they would like to do rather than deciding for them what is best. Just as one welcoming action does a lot towards inclusion, one exclusionary act – avoiding eye contact, moving away so you don’t catch whatever it is that has caused the disability – can undermine the welcome. It is therefore not just a matter of one positive act, although this is certainly better than none. In this case, the whole village acted – and it does take a village.

About the Author
Melinda Jones is a feminist human rights scholar & activist, working on a range of social justice projects on women's empowerment; disability, Judaism and Jewish law; and gender and children's health rights. Her previous research has included books, chapters and articles about the rights of vulnerable people in domestic and international law. Topics have included the rights of people with disabilities; free speech & racial hatred; the rights of the child; religion & the law; and feminism, gender & women's rights. Melinda taught political science and law at Australian Universities for over 20 years.
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