More women are celebrating Simhat Torah in Australia - opinion

Many women from all over the world have described watching from the sidelines as feeling like spectators on what is supposed to be a day of celebrations.

 CELEBRATING SIMHAT Torah in Gush Etzion. (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
CELEBRATING SIMHAT Torah in Gush Etzion.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

If the measure of a successful Simhat Torah is the amount of joy and happiness felt by one’s connection to the Torah, then this year was most certainly a success for the modern orthodox women of Melbourne, Australia. With over 220 women at the event, I attended on Simhat Torah morning, as well as hundreds of women attending multiple other events around Melbourne, times are surely changing.

It used to be that Simhat Torah was a day of frustration and somewhat alienation for many women. By definition, Simhat Torah is a day of rejoicing in the Torah. Unlike Shavuot, this connection on Simhat Torah is not through learning or intellectually connecting with the Torah. Rather, we are commanded to attain unparalleled happiness through dancing and singing with the Torah, physically holding the Torah and showing that the Torah belongs to us all.

Yet how were we, as modern Orthodox women, supposed to physically connect to the Torah if we are unable to hold it and dance with it?

How are modern Orthodox women supposed to connect?

For many years, it felt as though women were being shut out from the very essence and fundamental purpose of the day. Many women world-over have described watching from the sidelines and feeling like spectators on what is supposed to be a day of inclusion.

 Women learn Jewish religious studies at a seminary in Jerusalem. We are fortunate to be living in a time when women's Torah learning is of a high caliber, says the writer. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90) Women learn Jewish religious studies at a seminary in Jerusalem. We are fortunate to be living in a time when women's Torah learning is of a high caliber, says the writer. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

After all, even children are invited to dance with the Torah. To be sure, this is a sentiment that is sorely felt by women many times during the Jewish calendar year. However, for many women, this is felt most acutely on Simhat Torah.

In Israel, women’s hakafot including dancing with the Torah has taken place for many years, as has women’s leining (reading from the Torah). While originally the number of modern orthodox synagogues to hold such events was smaller, the worldwide swell has led to more and more opportunities for women to take part in modern Orthodox synagogues in varying ways.

And so too, like their Israeli counterparts, women in Australia have had the urge to take part in this beautiful holiday in a meaningful, joyous and inclusive way.

We are fortunate to be living in a time when women’s Torah learning is of a high caliber. Many Australian girls are privileged to attend midrashot (seminaries) in Israel post-high school, where they learn the halachot (laws) surrounding female participation in-depth from experts in the field.

These women have sufficient knowledge to understand that there is room within halacha to allow them to participate in various ways. No longer are we ignorant of the possibilities available to us within a halachic framework.

There have long been a number of opportunities for women to partake in hakafot dancing and reading from the Torah in Melbourne. However, recently, the worldwide swell has reached our shores and resulted in more women seeking out ways to engage in Simhat Torah. This has sparked a proliferation of new Simhat Torah events for women, some in private homes.

Notwithstanding some tension and backlash, the past few years in Melbourne have seen an avalanche of support for the available options for women on Simhat Torah. What was at first approached by some with trepidation, has now become normalized and celebrated.

The number of participants is reflective of the strong and burning desire of women to take an active part in the celebrations of this holiday. What began with one or two available experiences for women, has flourished into a plethora of choices for large groups of intergenerational women and girls who now describe Simhat Torah as the highlight of the Jewish calendar year.

Witnessing the tears in the eyes of women as they receive their first aliyah to the Torah, watching young girls hold the Torah for the first time and feel that it is truly theirs, feeling the pure joy of brave young women dancing with the Torah on the eve of Simhat Torah, being able to hear a pin drop while women listen to the Torah reading with purpose and intent, hearing the strong and unwavering voice of a woman reciting the prayer for the aguna (a woman who is chained in her marriage), hearing the sweet yet powerful voices of women singing in unison while the Torah is being lifted, with all of this occurring in a gathering of four generations in one room, united in experiencing the joy of the Torah resulted in a palpable spiritual excitement.

And so, what was once a holiday that brought about much angst and discomfort for women, has now become a day that is inspiring and fulfilling. A day that led to many women feeling disengaged has now flipped and become a day of connection and empowerment.

Because, after all, we are commanded to experience joy and unabandoned happiness on Simhat Torah – all of us. I can say with certainty that although there is still a way to go, this is a mitzvah we have fulfilled wholeheartedly this year.

The writer is a modern Orthodox feminist living in Melbourne, Australia. She is on the advocacy committee of the National Council of Jewish Women (Victoria) and a member of JOFA Australia.