Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simchat Torah in a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Abba, I held the Sefer Torah!” My 12-year-old daughter came running to me with that news on Simhat Torah night during hakafot (dancing with the Torah). She was beaming, glowing with joy.
Our synagogue, Ohel Yonah Menachem in Beit Shemesh, made the bold decision to have the women be given Torah scrolls to dance with during the hakafot this year. After hearing what transpired on the women’s side, I suggest that every synagogue rabbi, board and membership seriously explore doing the same next Simhat Torah.
What I heard described was teenage girls holding the Torah tight while shining with pride; young mothers cradling the Torah with love, in the exact position they hold their babies; middle-aged women tearing up as they gave expression to their years of love for the Torah and Torah study, by dancing joyfully with that devotion in their arms; and senior citizens who never even considered kissing or holding a Torah as an option now given the opportunity to do so. One 80-year-old woman who held a Torah with the assistance of her daughter and my wife said that it was “the most meaningful experience” of her life.
As opposed to dancing without a Torah – an effort which usually fizzles out by the second hakafa
– the woman’s side of the synagogue divide was alive with energy and passion throughout the entire hakafot
. Woman after woman and girl after girl took their turn dancing with the Torah, as the rest of the women danced in circles around them.
The decision for a synagogue like ours – which adheres strictly to Halacha – to give women Torah scrolls to dance with did not happen overnight, and was not taken lightly. The move came after a group of women – feeling a sincere desire to transform hakafot
from close to non-existent to one of spiritual elevation and inspiration through dancing with a Torah – approached the rabbi and the synagogue lay leadership with the idea. The synagogue held a vote of its membership, with secret ballots providing a variety of options, and the majority chose the women being given Torah scrolls throughout all of the hakafot
. The rabbi, Rabbi Mayer Lichtenstein, taught the community the halachic basis for women to dance with the Torahs, and the result was a magical night and morning: young girls through women in their 80s were spiritually uplifted, experiencing close encounters with God by tangibly expressing their love for His Torah.
The naysayers will say “this is not the way we do things”; “this is not the way we were raised”; “this is not what our grandparents did.” I used to be in that camp as well. But after seeing my daughter shining with pride after she danced with the Torah, and after hearing other girls and women describe their hakafot
experience, I have come to understand that we cannot teach our daughters to love the Torah and Torah study, and then relegate them to standing on the side watching while the men are given the opportunity to give physical expression to that love.
A brief look at the halachic sources make it clear that if a synagogue wants to make this policy change, it is completely within the framework of Halacha to do so. The only issue raised regarding women touching a Torah scroll is whether a menstruating woman may do so. Maimonides makes it absolutely clear that he sees no problem with this: “All impure people, even menstruating women…are permitted to hold a Torah scroll and read from it, for the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity.”( Laws of Torah Scrolls 10:8) The Code of Jewish Law rules in accordance with Maimonides. (Yoreh Deah
To be clear: there are dissenting opinions.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rama), in his additions to the Code of Jewish Law, states: “There are those who have written that a woman who is menstruating cannot enter a synagogue, or pray, or mention God’s name, or touch a holy book. And there are those that say she is permitted all these things, and that is the essential law. But the custom in these lands is according to the first opinion.” (Orach Chayim 88:1) On the spot, however, the Hafetz Hayim (Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan) in his Mishnah Berurah
, quotes the Chayei Adam (Rabbi Avraham Danzig) that this stringency was not practiced in Lithuania.
It is important to note Rabbi Isserles’s next words: “And even in the place where the practice is to be stringent, on the High Holy Days and [days] like that, when many gather together to go to synagogue, they (menstruating women) are permitted to go to synagogue like the rest of the women, since it is a great sadness for them that all gather and they would stand outside.” This opinion is based on the Terumat Hadeshen (Israel Isserlin) (2:132), who wrote that he was lenient about the women attending synagogue “because of peace of spirit for the women because they had a saddening of spirit and a sickness of heart, that everyone gathered to be part of the community and they would stand outside.”
Take note that all the halachic sources link the issue of menstruating women not entering a synagogue with not touching a Torah scroll. Would anyone dare suggest that a woman not be allowed to enter a synagogue in our times? So why should it be any different when it comes to holding a Torah scroll?
Thus we see that there is clearly a halachic basis to allow women to dance with a Torah scroll (Maimonides and Code of Jewish Law), and even those who are stringent allow room for leniency on these types of issues when this would be best for the women and their spirit.
We live in a time when keeping the next generation connected to the spiritual path is filled with challenges and obstacles never seen before. Our children are bombarded by temptations, and have limited attention spans even when we manage to connect their spiritual antennas. Those who care about the continuity of Torah and our tradition should be looking for any opportunity to connect our children to God, Torah, and spirituality – within the framework allowed by the classic halachic sources.
Given all of the above, and on the heels of what our synagogue experienced this Simhat Torah, I strongly encourage every rabbi and community to consider the best path to pave the way for the women to dance with Torah scrolls next Simhat Torah. When you see the Divine joy and spiritual elevation on the faces of your 12-year-old daughters, you will know that you have done the right thing.