Taking a Page From Esther's Book

When religious women became fed up with the passive role relegated to them, they saw the permission for women to read the Megillah aloud as a window of opportunity.

For more than a month now, Shulamit Phillips has been practicing reading the Book of Esther aloud. She will read this text, known as the Megillah - which provides the basis for the holiday of Purim - in a synagogue, in front of dozens of women who will make noise every time wicked Haman's name is uttered. Not in secret, and not in the women's section, but rather in the main section of the Shirat Ganim Synagogue in Ir Ganim, the Jerusalem neighborhood where Phillips lives.

Phillips' daughter, who will soon celebrate her bat mitzvah, and a number of other girls will also be participating in the special ceremony. A social worker by profession who belongs to the religious Zionist stream of Judaism, Phillips speaks elatedly about reciting the Megillah to women only.

purim - Laura Weisman - March 20 2011
Laura Weisman

"Women are kept out of religious ceremonies," she says. "We worship in the women's section of the synagogue. Reading the Megillah to women is our opportunity to lead."

The custom of holding a women-only Megillah reading began about a decade ago, says Phillips. "The first year we read in someone's home, and a year later there was a debate about whether to hold the reading at the synagogue, but now it's natural for us to read from the bimah near the holy ark."

Within the congregation a range of opinions on the matter can be found, Phillips says, and even though everyone agrees about holding a separate reading at the synagogue, there are still women who choose not to attend.

Hadass Ohrbach, a dentist by profession, will read the Megillah this year alongside Phillips. She learned the chanting on her own, "Just like a boy learns the cantillation for his bar mitzvah," she says.

While holding separate Megillah readings just for women is a growing trend in the religious Zionist sector, these ceremonies are not replacing the central Megillah reading held by men on the eve of the Purim holiday. The women's events are for the most part held later, after the Purim banquet. There are dozens of female prayer quorums held not only in Jerusalem, the bastion of the liberal religious, but also throughout the country.

Religious feminism today

Women's prayer quorums on Purim are a clear manifestation of religious feminism today, as is young women studying Gemara and the activities conducted by religious women's organizations like Kolech. The practice is controversial within the Hardali stream (an acronym meaning Haredi nationalist ) and among conservative rabbis. Despite the criticism, however, among the general public of religious Zionism no one argues that, from the perspective of rabbinical law, women should not be allowed to read the Megillah aloud. Even Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled several years ago that it is permissible for women to read the Megillah to themselves.

The authorization within rabbinical law actually stems from women's obligation to hear the reading of the Megillah. Usually women are exempt from certain "performative" ordinances - that is, those which are dependent on a specific time, such as building a sukkah for the holiday of Sukkot. The assumption is that they are busy at home and taking care of children.

There are several exceptions, however, like lighting the Hanukkah candles and reading the Megillah on Purim. The reason provided in the Tractate Megillah of the Gemara is that women "were involved in that miracle" - that is, the salvation came at the hand of a woman, Queen Esther. When religious women became fed up with the passive role relegated to them in ritual and began seeking a place for themselves, they saw the permission for women to read the Megillah aloud as a window of opportunity. Moreover, women can fulfill their obligation to read the Megillah by doing so among themselves, without men present.

At first, this involved just a handful of women, mainly in Jerusalem, who met at a different home each time. From these intimate rituals for women only, organizations like Kolech were established. Hannah Kahat, the founder of this feminist religious organization, is one of the pioneers of women's prayer quorums for reading the Megillah. She started a prayer quorum of this sort in Neveh Daniel, in the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank, where she lives.

This particular prayer quorum, in which about 40 women regularly participate, is now active all year round, not just on Purim. They recently commissioned a special curtain for their holy ark, into which personal pieces of jewelry they have each donated will be woven. In this way, they are seeking to commemorate the biblical story of the women who donated jewelry for the establishment of the Temple.

"The separate reading for women began out of a desire to be active and take part," says Kahat. "We wanted to act like autonomous people, instead of passive satellites at a synagogue led by a male hegemony. Reading or worshipping separately makes it possible for us to coalesce, hone and refine the female voice."

"Purim," explains Kahat, "had become a very frustrating holiday for women. It was an exhausting holiday, involving tons of work. While the men enjoy themselves and get drunk, the women serve them. They are outside the celebration. Before the holiday women have to sew costumes, and during the holiday they are busy with mishloah manot [gifts of food to friends and neighbors]. All of these factors increased our motivation to make a change."

Later on, more and more women's prayer quorums were instituted on Purim, most of them involving women from the mainstream - who came for the convenience but subsequently, it seems, discovered the power of the female ritual. Ohrbach relates how at first she wasn't able to listen well to the reading of the Megillah because of the small children.

"One time a young fellow with five children came and read the Megillah to us, the women. The feeling was, 'Why put him to all the trouble if we can read it ourselves - why do we even need to ask a favor from a man?'" she explains.

Nothing slipshod, please

In many female prayer quorums, they have started to expand the celebration. For example, changing the traditional reading with cantillation into a kind of play, with the reader adjusting her voice according to the speakers in the Megillah, to the delight of the participants - who are dressed up in costumes of course.

At Neveh Daniel, it is customary to celebrate the completion of the Megillah reading with a "women's banquet," or a farcical tish with female rebbes of Purim. The banquet includes singing and dancing and even refined drinking of alcohol, Kahat says.

There are also midrashot (sort of yeshivas for young women ) where much wilder banquets and parties are held, as is the custom at the ultra-Orthodox and religious yeshivas for men - a night of drunkenness. Kahat, however, does not really approve of this phenomenon of "drunken girls rolling around."

There are women who have come out strongly against the expansion of the Purim celebrations, which is evidenced in the religious forums where women have expressed shock at the idea of reading the Megillah as a play, even though it's really begging to be done. Some have said they prefer the more moderate and traditional version - "No theatricality, a serious reading, not slipshod."

According to Phillips, there are still women who prefer not to alter anything of the tradition and want a man to read the Megillah. But once someone has experienced a reading among women only, Phillips claims, she won't be able to go back to the male reading.

This special quality of which Phillips speaks could also apply to more ordinary days in Judaism, not just Purim, as women are liable to become bored with the place allotted to them in the women's section. Perhaps for this reason the idea of a separate prayer quorum for women was welcomed in Neveh Daniel.

"Women like me don't enter an ordinary synagogue with a partition," says Kahat. "I worship only with our [women's] prayer quorum."

But despite the female celebration, their prayer quorums are not an idyll, in Kahat's view, but rather the least bad alternative. She aspires to create egalitarian prayer quorums - synagogues where the screened-off women's section has been removed, though men and women are still seated separately, but this time side-by-side.

In prayer quorums of this sort that are operating - the dominant one among them being Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem - the women receive significant roles in leading the prayers.

"Once these quorums spread," says Kahat, "there will no longer be a need to keep the women separate."

In the meantime, there hasn't been any sort of mass exit from the traditional synagogues. Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, considered a key figure in the moderate stream of religious Zionism, strongly criticized the women's prayer quorums last year.

"They are contrary to rabbinical law," he said, arguing that the quorums were established for feminist reasons.

One common argument against them is that they "break up families," because on the holiday of Purim the husband and the wife go their separate ways. Of this criticism Kahat says: "Those are conservative rabbis who aren't prepared to give women anything in terms of partnership in rituals. In my opinion this is unfair, because that wholeness of the family they are preaching comes at the women's expense."

Equality in separation

At Rabbi Benny Lau's Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, hundreds of women gather for an independent Megillah reading with his support.

"In my opinion, this is a wonderful ceremony that conforms to any yardstick, both culturally and in rabbinical law. This is a positive ceremony and not one that protests anything," says Lau. It is precisely in the separation at Purim that he sees an expression of equality.

"When there is a women's reading, the men look after the children and no one has to celebrate at the expense of the other," he explains. "Large groups of women don't want to break down the separation screens, but rather want authentic and accepted expression."

"Maybe in a decade from now, the men will join us and we'll read together," says Phillips. "On the other hand, there are always those pushing for total separation and preservation of the male hegemony."

"Maybe two publics are actually developing here," she muses aloud. "The Hardalis who are pushing for total separation, for example at weddings, and the liberal public, which is moving closer and closer to the concept of an egalitarian synagogue."