Parashat Metzora: More on women and Torah scrolls

If Halacha permits, why remove their religious satisfaction on the day marked by rejoicing in the Torah?

Torah 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week I began to discuss a woman's ritual impurity while she's menstruating, and her subsequent purification by ritual immersion in a mikve (literally place of hope, or place of "living" waters - either collected rainwater or water directly connected to a ground source); I noted the fact that since menstrual blood is a message that fertilization had not occurred - that life had not been conceived, and that therefore tuma, a signal of this loss, had set in - then the antidote for such a biological state is regeneration and re-birth in the life-giving waters of a mikve. The real source for these laws is this week's portion of Metzora (Lev. 15:19-33). The main issue I dealt with last week was the permissibility - or lack thereof - of a woman's holding, reading from or dancing with a Torah Scroll (as on Simhat Torah), given the nature of her susceptibility to ritual impurity. How can a woman who is ritually impure come into physical contact with a Sefer Torah - especially since it is hardly practical to ask each woman who enters a synagogue whether she is still menstruating, or has a special permit from a mikve? I attempted to prove that from a purely halachic perspective, a Torah scroll is not susceptible to ritual impurity, and therefore even a menstruating woman may hold it and read from it. I went on to cite the great 16th-century Ashkenazi decisor Rav Moshe Isserles who, while holding this opinion, cites the custom - not law - in his country (Poland) that menstruating women did not enter synagogue. Nevertheless, even he permits such women to enter and kiss Torah scrolls on the Days of Awe, since to exclude them when large numbers of women did go would cause them great anguish. Since it is not our custom that menstruating women refrain from attending synagogue, and even if it had been the custom, it would not apply to Simhat Torah (or even to a regular Sabbath morning in most Orthodox synagogues) when the women's sections are filled, and when many if not most kiss the Torah scroll, there ought not to be a halachic objection to women dancing with Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah behind a divider (mehitza) separating the sexes. But many legal authorities may still object to women dancing with Torah scrolls, or even reading from a Torah in a prayer service consisting only of women, because it is simply not our custom. I certainly respect the view which stands firmly against any obvious change in religious ritual. Fealty to past tradition protects us against a "slippery slope," since breaking from tradition in a minor matter can sometimes lead to a break in a greater matter. Indeed, there is an understandable desire to give an observant Jew the feeling that he is participating in activities which were performed precisely as he is performing them by his great-grandparents, and which will be performed precisely the same way by his great-grandchildren. Hence, all things being equal, I am strongly opposed to changing any time-honored custom of Israel, such as the second day of festivals for Diaspora Jewry or not eating kitniyot (legumes) on Pessah for Ashkenazi Jews. The exception, however, is when the Talmudic sages themselves tell us to be sensitive to changing times and circumstances, such as the prozbol on the sabbatical year which enables loans to remain in force, and the leniencies regarding women chained to an impossible marital situation, for whom the testimony of one witness, even a gentile, was deemed sufficient to free her. (B.T. Gittin 2a, 2b). In a similar fashion, when women desired to feel more actively involved in divine service, our sages responded. Hence, despite the fact that women had been excluded from "laying their hands" on the festival sacrifices which they would bring, based on the verse "the sons [and not the daughters] of Israel shall lay their hands," the sages waived the prohibition because of their policy of enabling women "to achieve personal satisfaction (nahat ruah) from serving their Creator" (B.T. Hagiga 16b). And even though women were exempt from performing the positive commandments determined by time, our sages permitted them to perform them if they wished, and many - like Rabbenu Tam - even permitted them to recite the blessing over any commandment they chose to perform, despite the prohibition against mentioning God's name in vain. And it is not even clear that allowing women to carry a Torah scroll on Simhat Torah would be dispensing with a time-honored custom. The 16th-century sage of Salonica, Rav Shmuel d'Medina, writes that the only time it is forbidden to change a custom is if doing so would lead to a sinful transgression - which is not the case were women to carry Torah scrolls (Responsa Orah Haim, 35) Moreover, many religio-legal decisors feel that for a custom to take on the force of law, it must be a positive act. Hence, when Rabbi Yosef Karo ruled that women may engage in the ritual slaughter of chickens or cattle if they are trained, and one of the commentators argued that he had never seen a woman do such a thing, the opinion was proffered: "The fact that we might not have seen it done does not establish a custom against permitting a woman to slaughter." No custom can be established "in absentia." And especially in a generation when Torah and Talmud study for women is burgeoning, with major Orthodox institutions in America and Israel teaching Bible, Talmud and Codes to women on the highest levels, is it any wonder that some women also desire to embrace the Torah and demonstrate their love of it by dancing with scrolls on Simhat Torah? If Halacha says it is permissible, why remove their religious satisfaction on the day marked by rejoicing in the Torah? The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.