Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem
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Rivka reads the Torah

A tenuous new ritual for Orthodox Jewish women that seems perfectly natural through the eyes of a 4-year-old

“Where’s Rivka?” I thought, anxiety rising, as I scanned the room for a little girl I didn’t know.

It was Simchat Torah, some 12 months ago, in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. Approximately 60 women had gathered in a separate room to read the Torah, after dancing with it during the hakafot circuits. Like most women’s readings, it was a decorous affair. The women reading the Torah cycled through the concluding section of the five books of Moses, chanting the ancient words slowly, in lovely, lilting tones. One by one, the women in attendance were called up to recite a selection of verses before and after the readings. There was no perfunctory mumbling here, as there often is when men are called up to the Torah. Some women recited the verses in clear, strong voices, while others recited them hesitantly, timidly. The room burst into song when one of the older women, trembling with emotion, was called up to the Torah for the very first time.

And yet, I was not fully part of the experience. For while I have attended halakhic women’s Torah readings on Simchat Torah for decades, I have never been called up to the Torah myself. I have always been ambivalent about mimicking the male ritual while skipping the elements that require a male prayer quorum. And so year after year I attend the women’s reading, fully committed to it while never fully participating, never ready to cross the line and go to a partnership or egalitarian service.

On this Simchat Torah, there was an additional pull. My three sons were standing in the hallway outside the women’s room, waiting to be called up to the Torah at one of the satellite readings for men. Although they were all well past bar mitzvah age, they rarely participated in the synagogue service, and I didn’t want to miss it. So I orbited between the two readings, sometimes standing on one side of the door and sometimes on the other, alternating between my identities as woman and mother.

“Do you think you could find my daughter Rivka and bring her to me?” asked a young man I had never seen before, a big knitted kipah on his head and tzitzit strings dangling at the side of his khaki pants. “My wife is not here and I can’t go in to the women’s reading.”

Armed with Rivka’s height and the knowledge that she had glasses and was wearing pink, I entered the room and scanned it for a preschooler who fit the description. One mom had two girls the right size sitting next to her, both wearing glasses. One was wearing pink.

“Is this your daughter?” I asked, pointing to the pigtailed girl in pink and white polka dots. “I don’t know who she is,” said the mom, “but she is mesmerized.” The impish girl sat with a closed children’s book on her lap, totally engrossed in what she was watching through her blue-framed lenses.

“Are you Rivka?” I whispered to the waif. She nodded her head solemnly. “Your father is outside. He wants you to come out to him,” I said in hushed tones. Rivka looked at me with wide eyes and resolutely shook her head no.

“She doesn’t want to leave the Torah reading,” I reported back to her father, promising to keep an eye on her. I continued watching the men’s reading, periodically peeking into the room where an enthralled Rivka sat watching the Torah reading. My boys were each called up to the Torah with little fanfare, and quietly recited the blessings before and after the Torah reader cycled through the reading at breakneck speed.

Rivka’s father approached me again. “Can you please ask Rivka to come out? It’s getting close to the end of the service and I’m afraid I won’t find her.”

I opened the door and stepped inside. The seat where Rivka had been sitting was empty. I scanned the room, desperately searching for a bespectacled four-year-old who was nowhere to be found. Had she snuck out? Was I distracted while watching my sons? I was given one job, and now a little girl was lost in the synagogue or wandering the neighborhood unattended.

I scanned the room again, my heart racing. That’s when I saw her. There was Rivka, at the foot of the table where the Torah was being read, squeezed into a small space between the reader and the scroll. Her nose was in line with the text, while the woman who was reading arched her back to make room. There was no ambivalence for Rivka; she was totally enchanted, bobbing up and down as the black letters on the parchment danced before her eyes.

What seemed perfectly natural for Rivka, however, could not be taken for granted. Rivka had no way of knowing that during the course  of the coming year, the question of whether to bring the Torah to the women’s section of the synagogue when it is carried through the men’s section for kisses would be raised and rejected by the congregation. Evolution is a slow process and status quos are hard to break.

Rivka also couldn’t know that during the months to come, there would be a tug-of-war over the positioning of the ark, which had once been partially in front of the women’s section but had been moved fully into the men’s section following a series of renovations. Sometimes, steps are taken backwards in the midst of a generally forward motion.

But at the same time, Rivka didn’t know that down the block, just several hundred meters away, lived a woman who by next Simchat Torah would have received rabbinical ordination from two Orthodox rabbis, after completing a rigorous course of study at a Jerusalem study center. Change can also come swiftly at times, and from surprising sources.

As I watched her bobbing before the Torah, I marveled at how different Rivka’s world is from the Orthodox world in which I was raised and wondered how that will affect her. For whether they are called rabbi, rabba, rabbanit, or maharat, such women role models will exist in the religious world in which Rivka is growing up. Rivka has been born into a world in which women are taking more and more control over the religious dimensions of their lives, have broken the barriers of learning, and are breaking the glass ceiling of leadership – a world in which Orthodox women are serving as ritual purity consultants, are functioning as rabbinic court pleaders, and are drafting prenuptial agreements to prevent other women from being chained in unwanted marriages.

And in this brave new world, which sometimes seems to be standing still while it is actually turning very slowly, Rivka has the possibility of reading the Torah, surrounded by women, in an Orthodox synagogue.

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator who works as the coordinator of the Mandel Foundation–Israel's websites. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three fine young men and two daughters-in-law, and is the happy grandma of one. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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