The Torah, in our hands and in our voices

Since those formative moments years ago, I have learned to read Torah and have taught many women to do so as well.

By RACHEL COHEN-YESHURUN
June 9, 2019 22:46
4 minute read.
The Torah, in our hands and in our voices

KETER TORAH.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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Eleven years ago, I heard a voice and heeded the call. It was the sound of my prepubescent son, Yosef, reviewing his bar mitzvah portion, chanting each verse with precision and care, sighing as he caught his mistakes and adjusted accordingly. Each note became clearer and more confident over time, and I heard his voice developing into one that sang the words of Torah with pride. As Yosef prepared to accept upon himself the responsibilities of an adult relationship with Torah, I sensed in myself a longing to deepen my own commitments too.

Yosef’s enthusiasm awakened my own aspirations, and also launched me into waves of memory. I recalled my days as a girl in Beis Yaakov in Montreal, fastidiously memorizing and reciting the Torah verses my teachers transmitted on photocopied sheets. My education was at once focused on Torah and distinctly removed from any real contact with it, barring one yearly exception: each Simhat Torah, the festival of “rejoicing with the Torah,” my father would take me to trek for an hour to the other Orthodox shul across the town, where women were granted permission to dance with a single Torah scroll. I danced with the other girls and women, holding hands and spinning in circles. But it would be many years still until I would hold the beloved scroll in my own arms.

Once I made aliyah and began to find my sense of community in Israel, I joined Kolech (the first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in Israel) for Simhat Torah and finally embraced the Torah up close. It felt like holding an infant – minus the squirming. And instead of hearing coos and cries, the resonance of the verses I had recited in girlhood reverberated in my mind and heart. Suddenly those words were connected to their source, the very Torah in my arms; I felt determined to hold it near, to open it wide and read its words aloud, in my own voice.

Since those formative moments years ago, I have learned to read Torah and have taught many women to do so as well. From 12- and 13-year-old girls marking their traditional rites of passage, to women later in life who want to mark their bond to Torah and the Jewish people in a meaningful ceremony, each of these women inspires me as she takes on the challenge of mastering the ta’amim (the “music notes” used for Torah reading), as well as the unpredictability of a service at the Western Wall with Women of the Wall. Preparing for a bat mitzvah requires much persistence under any circumstances, but those who opt to mark their milestone with Women of the Wall demonstrate a remarkable level of conviction to fight for Torah against all odds.

My most recent student especially evoked this tenacity and passion in her process of becoming bat mitzvah. Mercedes, 26, from Michigan, joined the Jewish people several years ago, and has also been a strident Women of the Wall supporter from afar, tuning in to WOW’s Rosh Hodesh livestream for the past few years. She recalls her journey: “Before I started watching the monthly broadcasts, religious feminism was foreign to me—I did not know that it was possible to be both religious and a feminist. Now, I can’t imagine my life without religious feminism.” To Mercedes, WOW presented a ray of hope, a declaration that her identity as a Jewish woman could be powerful and vocal, and that Torah belonged to her too.


Mercedes told me when we began learning together (an international project enabled by Skype and mutual commitment!) that friends and family questioned her decision to mark her bat mitzvah at the Western Wall, lovingly suggesting she hold the celebration at her local synagogue instead. They were puzzled by Mercedes’s insistence on a service likely to encounter disruption and backlash. But her dream would remain undeterred, and she explained she was set on chanting Torah at the Western Wall with WOW “because I believe in equality. More importantly, I believe women’s voices need to be heard at the Kotel.” While she lives in America, Mercedes demonstrates a call for making Israel a place that is truly inclusive to all Jews, including women who wish to pray and read Torah aloud at the Western Wall.

Mercedes chose to hold her Bat Mitzvah on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, preceding Shavuot, “because Sivan is the month that I agreed to receive the Torah and mitzvot and joined Am Yisrael.” Mercedes’s dedication echoes the ancient story of Ruth whom we honor by reading her story on Shavuot. Ruth the Moabite heard an inner calling, pulling her toward her people, the Jewish people, even in times of hardship. “For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live I will live, for your people are my people and your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16). Like Ruth, Mercedes continues to cling to Torah despite intimidation and resistance. She is in good company with her WOW sisters, who hold the Torah close even as many try to dissuade us with violence.

To read Torah at the Western Wall is a battle cry, a call for a revolution of access to tradition. As we greet the holiday of Shavuot, when every Jewish soul is said to have stood at Sinai, “as one person with one heart,” I hope we can open our own hearts and our Torah scrolls too, so that “all who desire may come and partake” (Talmud Kiddushin). It took me years to pick up a Torah scroll, but I have not let go since. I am claiming what is rightfully mine, what is all of ours, to read proudly in our own voices.

The writer is a board member of Women of the Wall, and works as a computer programmer and is a member of Masorti Kehilat Shirat Hayam in Ma’aleh Adumim

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