Parashat Tazira: Blood sisters

Is a woman permitted to touch, kiss, embrace, dance with or read from a Torah scroll?

woman holding torah 88 (photo credit: )
woman holding torah 88
(photo credit: )
'God spoke to Moses saying, 'Speak to the children of Israel, saying, when a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be ritually impure [and thereby forbidden from entering the Sanctuary] for a seven-day period; just as during the days of her separation [nida - menstruation] she shall be ritually impure…'" (Lev. 12:1,2) Is a woman permitted to touch, kiss, embrace, dance with or read from a Torah scroll? The more observant sector of the Jewish community would probably say no, and that certainly a woman who is menstruating - or at least one who has not yet become purified by immersion in a mikve (ritual bath) - must not be allowed to come in contact with an object as sacred as a Torah scroll. In a previous commentary, I tried to explain that the over-arching consideration of ritual impurity (tuma) is death - a dead body or any object which suggests death (such as leprosy) or prevents life (such as menstrual blood, which signifies that fertilization did not occur). Hence the common understanding would be that women - who must be presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity - can neither dance with a Torah scroll on Simhat Torah nor read from one, even in a congregation comprised only of women. But is this actually the Halacha (Jewish law as practiced)? The sages of the Talmud cite a beraita (Mishnaic source) which teaches that "men with incontinent seminal discharges, lepers and those who had relations with menstruating women are all permitted to read from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, to teach Mishna, Gemara, laws and legends… R. Yehuda ben Beteira would often say, 'Words of Torah are not susceptible to ritual impurity, as the prophet (Jeremiah 23) cries out, "Is it not so that My words are like fire," says the Lord; and just as fire is not susceptible to ritual impurity, neither is Torah susceptible to ritual impurity'" (B.T. Brachot 22a). It is important to note that this fundamental halachic ruling - that the Torah is not susceptible to ritual impurity - is universally accepted by all religio-legal decisors. Maimonides, whose legal decisions have been most respected throughout the generations, writes: "All those who are ritually impure, even menstruating women and gentiles, are permitted to hold a Torah scroll and to read from it, because words of Torah are not susceptible to ritual impurity. But this is only true if their hands are not dirty or soiled with mud." If such is the case, "they must first wash their hands and then they may touch" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of a Torah Scroll, 10, 8). This position has been codified in the authoritative Shulhan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo, who lived in 16th-century Safed, which states: "All the ritually impure may read from the Torah, recite the Shema and the Amida … This is also permissible for someone who has had a seminal emission. And [all of these ritually impure individuals may read from and participate in Torah and prayer] without ritual immersion in a mikve… and so has the custom spread throughout the world community of Israel." A fascinating addendum to this collective halachic agreement is the comment of the Ramo (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), a 16th-century rabbi of Krakow, Poland, who is considered the most authoritative opinion for Ashkenazi Jewry: "There are those who wrote that a woman who is actually in her days of menstruation is not to enter the synagogue or pray, or mention God's name or touch a Torah scroll (Hagahot Maimuni 4), but there are those who permit them to do everything [including mentioning God's name and touching a Torah scroll], and this latter view is the main one (Rashi, Laws of Nida)" (ibid). However, he then goes on to cite the custom - not the law - in his community: "But the custom in these countries [Poland] is in accordance with the former opinion [that a menstruating woman is not even to enter a synagogue]" to which the Mishna Brura (by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Hafetz Haim, a 20th-century decisor from Radin, Lithuania) adds that it was their custom not to enter a synagogue to do these things because of their great respect for the objects of sanctity, but not that it was halachically forbidden (ibid). To the best of my knowledge it is not the custom of our women - either in the congregations I have known in America or in Israel - to purposefully stay out of synagogue while menstruating, so that even menstruating women are permitted by Halacha to grasp, embrace and read from a Torah scroll. Moreover, even the Ramo concludes his addendum to Rabbi Yosef Karo in the following statement: "And even in places where women accepted the custom of stringency [not to even enter a synagogue while menstruating], on the Days of Awe [Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur] and similar times when the multitudes come into the synagogue, it is permissible for [menstruating] women to enter... because it would cause them great sadness to remain outside when everyone is gathered inside." Hence, it would seem to be that on Simhat Torah and family occasions where all of one's crowd comes to shul, women can certainly come, grasp and kiss the Sefer Torah, and when the opportunity permits - behind a proper mehitza or in a separate all-women's congregation - even read from the Torah. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.