Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

Spectator Sport? Women Dancing with the Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah

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.

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“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.

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Zionism curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Education” (fifth edition, 2017, Koren) and is at present working on his next book, a history of the Jewish people. Tuvia has a doctorate in Israel education. His dissertation title is: “Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: Exploring the Influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli Soldier Participants.”
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