Question: R. Katz, apropos this weekend’s Simchat Torah celebrations, I am looking for a teshuva (halakhic responsa) that proves that it is halakhically permissible for women to dance with the Torah during hakafot. Have you written anything about it, or could you point me to someone else who has written about it?
Answer: I have not written a responsa about this issue, nor do I think such a teshuva is necessary. It is absolutely permissible–plain and simple.
Here is the jurisprudential basis for why I believe that we can assume it is allowed even in the absence of an explicit teshuva making the case that it is indeed halakhically permitted:
We in the observant community are trained to look at leniency suspiciously and therefore always burden the permissive voice with the responsibility of proving the legitimacy of their opinion. That does not have to be so. In many areas of halakha it is appropriate to start with an assumption of leniency and permissibility, therefore putting the burden of proof on those who want to reject the lenient position and advocate for stringency.
That is precisely the case with your question about the permissibility of women carrying a Sefer Torah.
When a posek is asked this question, the answer, in my opinion, does not require any lengthy exposition. It should be no longer than three simple words: SURE, WHY NOT?!
That is all that needs to be said because the default assumption should be that it is allowed without any need for sophisticated argumentation and sourced textual proofs. It is permitted because there is no reason why it should not be. And if someone wants to argue otherwise, the onus should be put on them to prove their case.
While I would apply this approach to many areas of halakha I feel particularly strong about this when it comes to questions having to do with women’s inclusion.
After repeatedly realizing how wrong we were about halakha’s attitude toward women’s inclusion in the halakhic arena, thinking that they are almost always excluded and then realizing that we were wrong, our starting point on these issues needs to change. We thought that women aren’t allowed to study Talmud, but it turns out we were wrong; we thought they weren’t allowed to say kaddish in shul, again, turns out we were wrong; etc. Time and again our default assumption of halakhic stringency and exclusion was incorrect.
Consequently, we are due for a paradigm shift whereby our default assumption is turned upside down, going from assuming prohibition to supposing permissibility.
In other words, if the question arises about any halakhic issue related to women whereby we wonder if they are included or excluded, the default assumption should be in favor of inclusion. We should assume that halakhically women can do most of the things men do, and place the burden of proof on those who want to argue otherwise. Let them produce overwhelming textual proofs in defense of the suggested argument for women’s exclusion. Until that happens we will go with our gut and assume that just as with several other halakhic issues (studying Talmud, reciting kaddish, etc.), women have the same status as men.
So, in short:
You asked: are women permitted to dance with the Torah during hakafot?
My answer: Yes, why not?!
And If someone believes otherwise, the burden is on them to provide the proof, because absent any evidence to the contrary there is no justification for assuming that it is not allowed. Why in the world would a woman not be allowed to carry a Torah?! Why should this powerful spiritual practice of carrying the Torah and thereby expressing love for Judaism’s holiest book be gender specific?
Moadim le’simcha and wishing you a meaningful and enriching Simchat Torah.
(Full disclosure: I am somewhat biased on this issue. Personally, few things offer me greater spiritual sustenance than the privilege of getting intimate and being up close with a Sefer Torah. Cradling the Torah scroll in my two hands the way one would cradle a fragile newborn is a powerful moment of incredible intimacy with the Divine. That is when I encounter Godliness in a physical and deeply intimate manner.)