Orthodox women get their Esther on

Proliferation of women’s megila readings shows increasing desire for role in religious life.

A packed house for the Purim megila reading in 2016 at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (photo credit: Courtesy)
A packed house for the Purim megila reading in 2016 at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some 205 megila readings by women and for women were conducted, or will be conducted, over the Purim festivities this year in services around Israel and the Diaspora, in association with Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Of those, 101 readings were scheduled in Israel, 84 in the US and 10 in the UK, as well as readings in Canada, Australia, France and the Netherlands.
The phenomenon of Modern Orthodox women’s megila readings is one that has grown strongly in recent years, and reflects an increasing desire by many religious women to play a larger role in religious and communal life.
According to Yael Rockman, executive director of Kolech, women’s megila readings began in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the US, and sometime afterward spread to Israel.
The fact that there is little in Jewish law to bar women from reading the megila, especially to other women, has helped the practice of women’s megila readings in particular to flourish, she noted.
The spread of Orthodox women’s megila readings has occurred during a period when the possibilities for women in the Modern Orthodox world to engage in high-level religious studies and participate in the dialogue on Jewish law have greatly expanded, while the opportunity to obtain positions of religious leadership, gain ordination, and serve as decisors of Jewish law has also become a reality.
And it is likely that these expanded opportunities have led to louder calls and more strident efforts to include women in Orthodox Jewish life.
“Women want to be part of religious rituals, but for the most part, women aren’t able to so at present,” said Rockman.
“But women cannot remain silenced and excluded from religious ritual. Judaism is very much based on religious practice and therefore the need for ‘doing’ is a very basic precept.”
Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes, an executive committee member of the Beit Hillel religious-Zionist organization, echoed Rockman’s comments and said that women’s megila readings are an opportunity to involve younger women and girls in particular.
“Megila readings for women by women are a very valuable tool to educate young religious women and to help them feel part of the community and not like outsiders when it comes to religious practice,” said Hashkes.
“The lack of opportunities for young women to be involved in religious services has become a big educational problem for girls. Synagogues are a big part of our community and lifestyle, but girls have no reason to come because they can’t participate, which becomes an even greater problem after they become a bat mitzva at the age of 12,” she said.
“We need to make them feel part of the community, and megila readings are one of the ways to do this,” she added.
This desire for greater female involvement in Orthodox religious life has taken on other expressions in recent years, including women’s Torah readings on the Simhat Torah holiday, increasing numbers of bat mitzva girls reading from the Torah in different formats and women delivering sermons on Shabbat to congregations, including those consisting of men.
Partnership minyanim, in which women are able to take a more active role in parts of the prayer services, have also sprung up, although they are not yet part of mainstream Orthodox life.
Rockman said she does not know how far women can go within Orthodoxy in participating in religious rituals and services, but that the coming generations will experience a different reality in this regard than that at present.
“Halacha [Jewish law] always knew how to change within determined boundaries, and it always knew how to provide an answer to developments happening on ground,” she said.
Rockman described the progress of women within Orthodox Jewish life over the last 20 years as something that has developed from the ground up as a grassroots phenomenon, and argued that some of the biggest obstacles to the furthering of this trend were sociological rather than halachic.
“It’s sometimes hard for men to understand this desire, but they should go and sit in the women’s section at some point and see how it feels to be on the side or at the back, and to feel that you’re not part of the picture,” she said.