One of the questions Modern-Orthodox communities will be grappling with on Simchat Torah is whether or not to allow a Torah scroll to be taken by the women and danced with.
Last Simchat Torah my eleven-year-old daughter asked me why only the men were allowed to dance with the Torah scroll whilst the women just watched at our Modern-Orthodox synagogue. Similarly, my Birthright participants on the prerequisite visit to Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel, on Friday nights routinely question the minuscule size of the women’s section and the passive behavior of the women.
Indeed, the women attendees have absolutely no public role whatsoever in the Orthodox service. The whole spectacle is viewed as if one is at a play or at the opera, that is – passively. The women can watch as men receive honours and lead the service and read from the Torah. Women in most Orthodox Batei Knesset are not even allowed to deliver a D’var Torah (even if the women have a PhD in Talmud), or open the Holy Ark, which is a non-vocal honour. One rarely finds women in lay leadership roles even in the Modern-Orthodox world. There seems to be a dissonance between Modern-Orthodoxy’s claims of inclusion and its actual practices and attitudes.
“Shrine of the Book., Jerusalem” Photo: (c) 2014, Tuvia Book
This is clearly at variance with the rise of the professional woman in the contemporary period. Women are now astronauts, doctors, lawyers, Talmud scholars, Maharot and heads of State. In the twenty-first century there is a growing need of many religious women and men to readdress the role of women in Judaism. The gap between our social and ethical values and our synagogue lives is something that we should see as compromising our religious integrity.
As Yoni Rosensweig candidly observed:
For me the driving force [behind women dancing with the Torah] is the ability for all members of the community to be able to maximise spiritually their involvement in and enjoyment of Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah has been traditionally a spectator-sport for women, and perhaps throughout history they have been mostly happy with that role. However, as times change, women (and men too!) do not see a point in standing around and watching other people dance, and if they get bored they will simply go home.”
It is time for us in the Modern-Orthodox world to allow women to take as active a part as possible (halachically and communally) on Simchat Torah, and throughout the year, so that the Chag, and indeed all the holidays, can be claimed as their own, as well.