In January of this year, even after the protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews surrounding Women of the Wall’s monthly gatherings had subsided, there was an altercation at the Western Wall. In defiance of regulations enforced by the Kotel’s rabbinic authorities, the women’s prayer group unsuccessfully attempted to sneak their own Torah scroll into the women’s section of the holy site.
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It seems that controversy follows every attempt by women to have contact with Torah scrolls, and as we approach Simhat Torah, the question arises again as to whether women are permitted to dance with these holy scriptures. Dancing with the Torah on this holiday, after all, is how we celebrate our people’s love for learning, as we mark on this holiday the end of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. Some women, whose religious learning was once limited to the laws she needed to know to run a household and raise a family, wish to join this celebration, as they too enjoy the learning opportunities once available only to men.
At most Orthodox synagogues, women sit in the balcony or behind the mehitza, separation, on Simhat Torah and watch the men and young children sing and dance with the communities’ Torah scrolls. The women, for their part, join in the celebrations by throwing candies at the men and children. But for some, this activity lacks simha, joy, the essential mitzvah of the day. Thus, it is appropriate that there are other Orthodox synagogues, where women are given their own Torah scrolls to dance with in the women’s section, allowing them a fuller participation in the celebration of the day.
The Federation Beit Din, religious court, of London issued a ruling on this last year, demanding an immediate cessation to the practice:
“It has recently come to the attention of the Beth Din that on Simchas Torah in various shuls women have been given a Sefer Torah to dance with in the Ezras Noshim [women's section].This is strictly forbidden according to Halachah. Women are not to be handed a Sefer Torah under any circumstances and in any location Women dancing with the Sefer Torah profanes the sanctity of the Sefer Torah and in Rabbi Soloveichik's ztl words violates the halachic etiquette of the synagogue.”
What does Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who the Bet Din cites, mean by “violates the halachic etiquette of the synagogue?” That the minhag, custom, of the synagogue carries such significance that at times it can be elevated to status of halakha, law.
Broadly, Soloveitchik understands halakha as representing an unchanging, empirical reality – one that is not affected by the period in which it is applied. According to Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer, Soloveitchik "was worried that if the rabbis gave in on those matters of synagogue practice where there was admittedly some room for flexibility, it might well lay the ground for a call for change in other areas of halakha as well - areas where there was little or perhaps no room for maneuvering." Thus, Soloveitchik, as he did when asked the halakhic question 40 years ago, would likely resist recognition of additional changes in the modern status of women, continuing to forbid them from dancing with Torah scrolls, for fear of this opening the door to further innovations for women’s roles in the synagogue.
An alternative view of halakha to that of Soloveitchik’s is expressed by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, who understands Jewish law as being eternal principles that rabbis are required to adapt to modern circumstances. Accordingly, from this perspective, it would be entirely appropriate to consider the changes in women’s personal status – in both their familial and professional lives – when determining their role in the synagogue. Each community should, in this view, determine for itself where to draw the line and how far to institute changes.
However, even in the latter view, there are some lines that cannot be crossed. One is when it comes to mixed-gender dancing in public. In Orthodox communities, this compromises the halakhic standard of modesty. Only when doing so would not compromise public modesty, some Orthodox synagogues give women Torah scrolls of their own to dance with in the women’s section.
Clearly, a community’s decision to prohibit or permit women dancing with Torah scrolls depends on how it accommodates changes in the personal status of women in halakha. From an empirical perspective, the etiquette of a synagogue defines a modest role for women that precludes dancing with the Torah. From a perspective where eternal principles interact with modernity, the empowered status of women in society allows them more freedom of expression in the synagogue, too.
In Jerusalem, where I live, this Wednesday evening and Thursday morning for Simhat Torah and Shmini Atzeret, women who want to dance with the Torah know which synagogues provide the opportunity. I doubt there will be any public pronouncements, as here – and I believe, by extension, elsewhere – the issue should remain a decision each community makes based on what is customary and appropriate for it.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.