The national-religious Beit Hillel organization has encouraged and promoted dozens of readings of Megilat Esther (the Book of Esther) in some 50 cities and towns around the country over the Purim festivities on Sunday and Monday this year.
The rabbinical association published a halachic ruling two years ago, which stated that it was permitted and acceptable for women to read the megila for other women, and that doing so would fulfill their obligation in Jewish law to hear the megila.
Beit Hillel’s ruling has strong foundations within the Talmud and later rabbinic commentaries and codifications of Jewish law, but women’s megila readings have not been a widely accepted practice in the Orthodox world. The rabbinical association, however, has promoted the idea as part of its more liberal approach to modern Orthodox life and the developing role of women in Jewish religious practice.
“We’re living in special times in which women have become more involved in spiritual practice, women’s learning has grown, and women want to play an active role in Jewish life and want to be involved,” said Dr. Penina Neuwirth, one of the founding members of Beit Hillel and a member of the organization’s board of management. “This is a holy and respectable desire and so it is our role as spiritual leaders to find a path within Halacha to allow the expression of this aspiration,” she continued, emphasizing that Beit Hillel’s ruling simply highlighted and made accessible to the public “a known halachic fact.”
This year, to encourage women’s megila readings even further, Beit Hillel reached out to synagogues who wished to hold them and also provided details of such services for those women interested in attending.
Approximately 100 readings were held in 50 different locations from Haifa to Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Tel Aviv, Afula, Zichron Ya’acov and dozens of other towns and cities.
At Neuwirth’s synagogue in Ra’anana, more than 200 women attended the women’s megila reading.
Neuwirth emphasized that the halachic ruling pertains only to women reading the megila for other women, She added that the organization has underlined the importance of unity within synagogues and communities, and that adequate solutions for this concern should be found. Neuwirth said during Purim at the Ohel Ari synagogue in Ra’anana, the megila readings on Saturday night were read by a man, while a women’s reading was held Sunday morning.
Speaking more broadly about the participation of women in Orthodox Jewish life, Neuwirth said the ruling on women’s megila readings was part of a wider initiative to provide a different perspective on Orthodox Jewish law than has been heard within the national-religious world on such issues.
“We felt that in the public sphere only one voice was heard and it wasn’t the authentic voice of Modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism,” she said. “We felt there were a lot of extremist voices that sounded problematic to us and, moreover, that this was the only voice being heard by the public.
“In a cautious manner we’re trying to make the public aware of the existence of halachic rulings well rooted in talmudic discussions, and rabbinic authorities that support the participation of women, who are increasingly knowledgeable and learned and who are demanding their share of the spiritual experience.”