Female-only megila readings growing in popularity

“I was always envious of the men who got to read the Torah in synagogue, and Purim poses an opportunity for me to take an active part in the rituals."

This Purim, Tamar Bogoch will be reading the ninth chapter of Megilat Esther to a group of women in the same Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem, synagogue she attended growing up. Her husband will be at home, minding their two young children.
“I was always envious of the men who got to read the Torah in synagogue, and Purim poses an opportunity for me to take an active part in the rituals,” Bogoch said, when asked by The Jerusalem Post late last week what prompted her to found the female-only reading 10 years ago.
“I enjoy reading in public; it connects me to the holiday and gives me a role. And of course I do it out of feminism, to promote women and equality with men,” she added.
Not all women who attend such readings, however, are motivated by egalitarianism, feminism or even sisterhood. Some simply want to be able to focus and experience the megila to its full extent, and feel that the way to the mitzva is via an unrushed and clear female voice.
The phenomenon of women-only readings of the Scroll of Esther is increasingly growing within observant communities, with the halachic rationale and ruling being that since women were part of the Purim miracle, they are obliged to hear the megila. And in Judaism, an obligated individual, a woman in this case, can exempt others through the act.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the foremost haredi Sephardic halachic adjudicator, went as far as to determine last year that under certain circumstances, a woman can even read the megila for a man. In his ruling, based on the Shulhan Aruch, he discarded the notion of the woman’s voice being immodestly distracting to the men, since megila reading is not like prohibited singing but rather permissible talking.
However, other heavyweight poskim are sounding the alarm on what they call an unnecessary feminist-motivated breaking-off from community, which is contrary not only to the nature of halachic Judaism but specifically to the essence of Purim, in which the power of the oppressed Jews lay within their unity as a group, as the megila tells the story.
Ramat Gan’s Chief Rabbi Ya’acov Ariel recently reiterated his position that while it is halachically permissible for a woman to read for women, small gatherings for megila readings of women, and even of men, for that matter, should be discouraged.
But breaking off is quite contrary to the intent of many of these women. For Ruth Amaru, a hi-tech entrepreneur and long-time resident of Alon Shvut, reading the megila for and with women provides an important opportunity to connect in the deepest way to the mitzva of the megila.
Twenty years ago, Amaru was part of a group of young wives at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s kollel who, after staying home with the children while their husbands went to shul to hear the megila, would gather to hear Esther’s story read by a man who had just finished hearing it himself, and was in a rush to eat his first meal after the fast.
“It was a terrible experience; I even remember the room as being dimly lit,” she recalled with a smile in a conversation with the Post late last week.
It might have been the women’s largely North American upbringing, which entailed memories of a more active female role in Jewish ceremony, or the dissonance between their ability to have successful careers and lack of potential for growth in shul, that prompted them to approach the Yeshiva head, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, and win his implicit acquiescence, or at least lack of objection, to the concept of a women’s megila reading.
Amaru can understand the suspicion of some rabbis toward what they seeas a potential “slippery slope,” and even justifies their stance tosome extent, as they feel “it is their responsibility to make changesslowly.”
But her megila reading, she says, is not an attempt tosnub the rabbis, but rather an attempt to “try to find a good,fulfilling place in Judaism, within the existing framework.”