Religious Feminists Take the Torah Scrolls Into Their Own Hands

A feminist group on Facebook has helped more women take part in religious services and contributed to the creation of partnership synagogues.

Sharon Mayevsky is a religiously observant playwright, screenwriter and blogger. Her Hebrew-language blog is called “Dosa Feminista” - dosa being a riff on dos - a derogatory Hebrew term for an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

On the recent holiday of Simhat Torah, Mayevsky celebrated a milestone — her bat mitzvah — granted, a few years late. In Orthodox Judaism, girls become bat mitzvah — fully obligated in Jewish law and observance — at 12.

Mayevsky, who is married and the mother of two daughters, was called up to read the Torah for the first time in her life, and she delivered the festival-day portion from beginning to end. With some emotion she notes that her parents, who belong to a more conservative community, came to see her perform, and her father even made a blessing during the reading.

For many traditional Jewish women Simhat Torah - celebrating the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings - is a men’s festival. While the men dance with the Torah and are called up one by one to make a blessing over the reading, the women basically watch and talk among themselves.

But Mayevsky is one of many women who have been taking part directly - at one of several Orthodox partnership synagogues in cities like Jerusalem, Modi’in and Be’er Sheva. As at traditional Orthodox synagogues, these shuls have separate seating for men and women, but unlike the traditional ones, the men’s and women’s sections are side by side with a divider between them, and the Holy Ark that houses the Torah is front and center, visible and accessible to all.

Mayevsky says that for many years the men danced with the Torah scrolls while the women prepared food for the kiddush — the refreshments after the service. “For many women, girls and teenagers, their experience of the holiday consists of sitting in the women’s section and watching the men dance. It’s sad and painful that for them, Simhat Torah is a limited celebration,” she says.

Together with other feminists — including men — Mayevsky is working for change: “In partnership synagogues, we try to give men and women equal participation in prayer and ceremony.” Last Simhat Torah, the Torah scrolls passed through the women’s section, too. Women held the scrolls, danced with them and took part in the Torah reading.

Cracks in the wall of conservatism

In the Conservative and Reform movements, equal participation for women in the synagogue is nothing new. It has been happening recently in Orthodoxy, fueled by women from English-speaking countries. According to Mayevsky, feminists from abroad who brought the idea to Jerusalem were joined by “Israeli feminists and men as well who felt that the rejoicing shouldn’t take place on just one side of the divider. If the community was celebrating, all of it should celebrate.”

She says that in some places where there are no partnership synagogues, women held their own Simhat Torah services; this happened in Tel Aviv, Shoham, Gush Etzion and elsewhere.

Mayevsky tells of elderly women who were called up to the Torah for the first time in their lives, and of women who came to Jerusalem especially for the opportunity. “For the first time, women in Orthodox communities can celebrate Simhat Torah,” she says.

This opportunity has gained momentum thanks to the Hebrew-language Facebook group for observant Jewish feminists entitled “I’m Also a Religious Feminist and I Don’t Have a Sense of Humor Either.” In this group, established around a year and a half ago, “You hear stories and realize that quite a few women want to do this, and not everybody can,” says Mayevsky, who’s a moderator of the group. “You see cracks in the wall of conservatism all over the country and realize that things are moving forward — maybe with frustrating slowness, but still moving.”

As might be expected, religious feminists draw plenty of criticism — not only from the religious establishment, but from other religious women as well. Both sexism and issues of religious observance are motives for criticism.

“It’s hard to distinguish between them, because basically religion is constructed in a certain way. The ones who made the rules were men who lived at a certain time. Things can be argued in terms of Jewish religious law, but I think the main thing is fear of change. That includes the fear of a whiff of Reform Judaism, as some people put it,” Mayevsky says.

“We’re Orthodox people who want to make changes that seem obligatory from a moral, religious and educational perspective. We’re part of the larger world and make progress in our jobs and careers. In the world of religious observance, people can’t close their eyes anymore and say, ‘All right, that’s all there is,’ because for us, being religious is a major part of life.”

Mayevsky offers an intriguing answer to the cliched question of how feminism can coexist with religion. “Feminism is what brought me back to religion. I lived for years without a religiously observant home, with a lot of anger and sadness about how I as a woman had no part in community life. There’s something missing in being religious without a community,” she says.

“Religion requires being part of a community. Since I found a partnership synagogue, I’ve gone back to praying in synagogue. In the religious feminist group on Facebook, I’ve met women who are very committed to religion and realized that my key to survival as this hybrid creature, a religious feminist, is to work more deeply in both aspects. That’s how I’ve found my place in the world.”

NOAM - Tel Aviv