The world is changing. “Women can dance with Torah scroll on Simhat Torah,” proclaims the Jerusalem Post. “More Orthodox synagogues allowing women to dance with the Torah,” pronounces Haaretz. It’s heartening. And it’s true.
But here’s a scoop: Just because they can, doesn’t mean they do. As someone who has been dancing with the Torah in liberal Orthodox synagogues in Jerusalem for most of the last 30 years, I can tell you that when Orthodox women are asked “Would you like to take a turn holding the Torah?” on Simchat Torah, their answer is very often a polite but resounding “no.”
Why do Orthodox women decline the privilege of holding the Torah when it is actually offered to them? Beyond the psychological, sociological, emotional, and cultural explanations, there is a practical reason: The Torah is heavy. It’s awkward to hold. If you agree to hold it, you often find yourself with the weight of the tradition literally on your shoulders for a period of time that feels like the length of the Diaspora. Wrists and shoulders aching, you discover that no one is willing to relieve you. And although you have never seen it happen, you are petrified that you will drop the Torah and obligate everyone present to fast for 40 days due to your epic fail.
Over the years, I have learned that one of the best ways to convince women who are reluctant to take a turn with the Torah is to undertake to find them a replacement when they can no longer continue. But on Simchat Torah eve this year at the Beit Boyer synagogue in Jerusalem, where women have been dancing with the Torah for some 18 years, even those assurances didn’t seem to be enough. Only a handful of women were dancing, and most of us had already taken a turn holding the holy, heavy scroll.
“Would you like to take a turn holding the Torah?”
A smile and slight shake of the head. “No thanks.” “Maybe later.” “I’m not a dancer.” “Learning would work better for me.” “I have a bad back/ elbow/ knee.”
Rather than take second turns, one woman suggested that we put the Torah on a table and dance around it. Although I have seen that solution succeed at other synagogues, I was reluctant to implement it. A Torah on a table in a synagogue where women have already been given the right to hold it seemed to be a step in the wrong direction.
So I persuaded. And cajoled. And bargained. Because how is it possible for there to be a Torah in the women’s section with no demand for it? What does it mean about the fight for the right if once it is won, there are no takers?
Eventually, the women on the dance floor began to thaw.
One woman deposited her infant with her husband. Hands free, she danced in the center of the circle, cradling the Torah in her arms like a baby, rocking it back and forth as she swayed from side to side.
Another woman grasped the two wooden poles at the bottom of the Torah, thrusting the unsupported scroll up and down to the heavens, over and over—a joyous female Torah weightlifter, no less strong than most men.
A young woman in a bright green head scarf could not be contained by the ring of shuffling, middle-aged women; she burst out of it, Torah in arms, skipping around the outside of the circle in the opposite direction of the dancers, in a unique and surprising Torah celebration.
As the seven circuits drew to a close, it seemed that everyone who was interested had already had a turn. There was little I could do to enlist the women who were uncomfortable with the idea of holding the Torah or who felt no need to do so. But what about the ones who had physical reasons to decline the activity? Or the women I had never approached because they seemed past the age at which they could dance with the Torah for any sustained period of time?
Suddenly, it’s 1982. I’m behind a low wall in the back of an Iraqi synagogue in Be’er Sheva. In the center of the synagogue, a number of men are sitting with the Torah scrolls, as the rest of the men of the congregation circle around them. I ask my host about the peculiar practice. “You Ashkenazim,” he replied, “jumping around with the Torah in all kinds of ways. You think that is respectful? We Sephardim know how to treat the Torah respectfully. Members of the community sit in the center of the synagogue with the Torah scrolls and we all file past them in a dignified manner.”
Coming out of my reverie, I approached one of my neighbors who had not danced with the Torah in many years.
“Would you like a turn holding the Torah? Don’t worry—I’ll bring a chair and you can sit.”
Her reply was immediate and positive. With wise eyes and wizened hands, she sat joyously hugging the Torah as we danced around her. When she was done, she was promptly replaced by another woman, whose foot did not allow her to dance. A new custom was born.
On Simchat Torah morning, the situation was more promising. The new day brought new energies, and this time, the chair was an option from the outset. I used it myself when I was holding the Torah and the men suddenly launched into a rousing rendition of a chant that involved lots of standing in one place and jumping as if on a pogo stick; it allowed me to conserve energy and seemed more respectful of the Torah.
As the hakafot neared their end, I made the rounds of the women’s section, this time approaching everyone, young and old alike, offering the option of sitting to anyone who seemed hesitant due to age or physical concern. Many more women said yes. Three of the takers had never held a Torah before; two of them were women who would never have agreed had the option of sitting not existed.
During the last round of dancing, an older woman set down her cane and sat down on the chair. Her face was wrinkled, but she had sparkling eyes and there was no concealing her beauty. As I lay the Torah scroll in her arms, resting it on her right shoulder, she burst into a broad smile. “It’s such an honor. I’ve never done this before. I’m almost crying,” she said. “The honor is ours,” I replied, backing away to join the ring of dancers around her, struggling to hold back my own tears.
As we circled, I watched this woman, a portrait in black and white, with streaks of colored skirts and head scarfs swirling behind her. Her face was radiant; her silver hair crowned with white lace. In her arms was a Torah that survived the inferno of the Holocaust, repaired by non-Jews in Norway as a gift to the Jewish people in Israel.
I looked at her gnarled hands. How many babies had they swaddled? How many Shabbat dinners had they cooked? How many Chanuka presents had they wrapped, Seder tables laid, school sandwiches made? How many years had this woman lived by the Torah, loved the Torah, taught others to love Torah, but never touched it?
Gazing at the Torah in her hands, I realized that sometimes all it takes to overcome certain barriers is to reach into the tradition and pull up a chair.