Sunday, 29 September 2013

simchat torah, act 2: sefer torah

in the wake of simchat torah, and the almost-inevitable wave of feminine regret over the hollowness of what i have to again describe as a 24-hour-kiddush, i've been thinking more about women dancing with the sefer torah.

now i'm not a posek nor the daughter of a posek, though i know a man who is. i try to remind myself (and when i forget, my husband is happy to do it for me) that rabbis are human too. even the ones i disagree with. and i try to remember that everyone has their red lines which, when crossed, just make them feel too, too uncomfortable. and so i have never had a problem with having as the rav of my community someone who takes a different position to me on women and ... issues. women and learning mishnah. women and learning gemarah. women and dancing on simchat torah. we don;t all need to agree, and if i want to be given the space to follow the opinions which i follow, then i have to give others the same space and respect to be uncomfortable with it.

but this is where i get a bit stuck. honestly, i am not sure of the answer here. if you are the rav of a community, and there is an issue which you, personally, find makes you so uncomfortable that you would find it hard to daven in the shul if it were to occur, and yet it's non-occurence makes so many of your community feel disenfranchised, bored with judaism, unwanted in the communal religious framework which you strive to make open and welcoming for both men and women - well, what would you do? what should you do? i accept the difficulty of this problem, and i don;t know what the answer would be. i know  that i would respect the struggle of any rav who told me that this was what faced him. i do not remember ever hearing it phrased in this way, though.

this is part of why i realise that i have been trying not to demand or ask too much for the opportunity to dance with a sefer torah. although i disagree with any reason against it i have yet heard, i do accept (well, try to accept) that some - many - rabbonim might be so unfamiliar with it (and with any similar halachically-permissible female inclusions) that they simply feel very very uncomfortable at the thought of davening in a shul where it occurs, let alone being the one to permit it. i suppose this is me being an emotionally-driven woman again, but i would appreciate it if halachic objections were put to one side, when they truly are spurious, and instead people spoke a bit more candidly about how they feel about it.

all that being said, i do not think that men - of rabbinical and non-rabbinical stripes - realise how potent the sefer torah is. when women do get the opportunity to dance with the sefer torah, they handle it so reverently. there is so much awe at being entrusted with something so precious; fear at possibly doing something wrong; amazement at how heavy and alive it is. actually, it is most similar to the way many men react on holding a baby, especialy those unfamiliar to it. i am sure that many men respond to the sefer torah in a similar way, yet for men, there is a familiarity to the sefer torah which breeds - not, chas v'shalom, contempt, but...casualness. correction: which can breed casualness.

one time, i taught the torah l'am course. in the first of the six weeks of the course, i brought with a sefer torah. my memory may be deceiving me, but i think it was a pasul sefer torah (i brought it to show the layout of the torah, the columns, paragraphs, petuchot and stumot, in case you were wondering). the men were pretty unfazed by it - it's jsut a sefer torah, oh yes, i never noticed those petuchot and stumot before, but it's something i'm familiar with. the women, however; wow. they were blown away by seeing a sefer torah up close, able to lean in, look at the words, carry it and hold it. they kept taking it in turns to hold it. (and yes, we did have to debunk that menstruation myth again.) they were so excited. there was an energy to the way they interacted with it. and that night that the sefer torah lay on my kitchen table until i returned it the next day, i moved differently, kissed it when i passed, thought and acted differently, because i had a sefer torah in my home.

i do not think that men know how women feel about the sefer torah. if they did, i'd like to think, they would share it a little bit more.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

simcha for all* (*may not include women)

Last night - simchat torah night here in israel - after shul, hakafot, dinner etc, i was composing this blog post in my head. it went something like this:

There are some times when i wish i was not an optimist. then there wouldn;t be so much disappointment.

Every year i look forward to simchat torah. i love the layning; i love the feeling of completing the cycle of Torah and moving on one notch as we start it again. i also love to dance, and love to feel and express a connection with Hashem through my feet and body, celebrating the Torah that i love.

Almost every year, i come out of simchat torah feeling hollow, having again experienced the transformation of the day of the celebration of acceptance of the Torah into a 24-hour kiddush. I do understand that men, by and large, do not realise how empty simchat torah is for most women. i do also accept that there are women - possibly many, many women, possibly even the majority - who truly feel the simcha of having the Torah through the vicarious experience of watching their husbands and sons dance. And i applaud them; i wish that i was so easily satisfied, it would make my life much simpler.
(What they all think should be arranged for single, divorced, widowed, or childless women, i haven;t a clue. i think they should probably take the hint and go off to thailand for the duration. (side note: this year i received an email from our shul before rosh hashana, reminding the women to appoint their husbands as their shaliach for hataras nedarim the next day. i replied asking, what about the single women in our community? or women who wish to do it themselves? the response: "i have no idea".).)

I know of a few communities which organise women's learning for simchat torah. i think that's lovely; it's a good thing for women to learn torah. but it's not, actually, what traditionally happens on the morning of simchat torah. If it's 'the done thing' for men to celebrate simchat torah by dancing, not learning, why should women be fobbed off by being told that if they want to experience simchat torah, they should learn? (thanks to Jo Bruce for that one.)

Last night, i was composing this blog post because i went to our regular shul. i like to be in the same place for chagim as i am all year round. it gives a nice sense of community. and continuity. and i do like our community. i like the people in it, though i don;t know them very well yet. ( i think i do not actually know them well enough to have made the comment i did to the woman standing next to me, watching our men-folk celebrate. the comment: you know the mishna in succah about the simchat beit hashoeva in the beis hamikdash? that only those who were on a high enough level of torah learning danced, and the rest just watched? maybe one day, i'll be zocheh to a high enough level to be able to dance on simchat torah.) Last night, the men danced. the women squashed together and watched. some of them sat down comfortably and yachna-ed outside while the kids ran around on sugar highs (becuase for children, this is one of the two 'chag of the endless sweets'). part of me wondered if i should go outside and join the yachna-ing, because i don;t know the women very well yet, and i would like to, and maybe i shouldn;t squander the opportunity to yachna? and then i thought of my daughter. 8 years old, notices everything you don;t want her to notice, already been disappointed once by the lack of provision for women to dance at a recent simchas beis hashoeva 'for the whole kehilla'. do i want her to look around from watching the men dance with sifrei torah, and see her mother chatting? nope. so i called her over, and we sat down together and finished learning sefer yehoshua which she'd been working through all year. it was lovely to be learning together with my daughter on simchat torah. but it would have been even nicer to have finished learning, got up, and danced together to celebrate the torah that she learns and that i learn.


That's the blog post i wrote in my head last night. Baruch Hashem, today i went to a different shul. ok, it was not perfect. but there was space for women to dance in as well as the men. there were women sitting and learning as well as talking. there were women dancing (and, more blessedly, lovely, lively teenage girls singing and dancing. how wonderful it is that they were there! on so many, many levels. something must have gone right for them to still be inside a shul on simchat torah, starting off the dancing, rather than chatting in the park). There were men carrying the sefer torah over for women to kiss (only a couple, but i have been slowly lowering my expectations. it's a start). there were little sifrei torah of the sifrei neviim which some girls were dancing with, without outrage (again, i know it is not the sefer torah. but again, it is a start. though one woman dancing refused to hold it, probably because of that menstruation myth again). i know how much was lacking, so no need to deluge me with reminders, but just to find women dancing made me feel less empty. or perhaps it was being around other women who also acknowledged that there was something missing in the female experience of the day that made me feel less like the last human in 'attack of the zombies'.


After our rather disastrous simchas beis hashoeva experience, i was forced to clarify and articulate just what was so bad about it. so here's the benefit of my reflections. First, the experience:

- we went to a simchas beis hashoevah run by our shul, billed as being 'for the whole kehilla'. now i make a lot of allowances for our shul, paertly becaues i like it, and partly becuase it is crammed into such a bdi eved house and so it cannot provide things for the women (or men) that it perhaps would like to, just because of a lack of space. however, in my naivete i thought that the men would dance outside, and the women would dance inside, so that they would have some space. instead, the whole men's section was cleared (a reasonable size) and the women;s section - tiny at best - was still set up as it normally is.

so i cleared away the tables and chairs, thereby creating an empty ladies' section with plenty of space for about half a dozen women to dance in. forutnately, that's about exactly how many women came. i danced with them and my eager-to-dance daughter for about 10 minutes, and then left (as i had intended) for a melaveh malka. as we walked away, daughter and i commiserated over hte lack of dancing  or provision for dancing. she said 'next year, we won;t go'. i said 'no. next year, we will organise it so that it will be better'.

- Ben's responses and other reasonable defenses:
      - maybe women in the kehilla just don;t come
      - maybe the women in the kehilla just don;t dance

- my reflections:
     - don;t call it 'for the who;le kehilla' if you don;t want women to come.
     - don;t invite women and then make no possibility for them to dance

It matters to me, immensely, that our daughter grows up feeling that she has a place, value, and worth in our kehilla. i know all about a woman's role in building a home, and i think it is hugely important, and indeed primary. however, no woman spends her whole life married with small children. she - and every girl - needs to feel that she matters in the kehilla. i am not convinced that parents on their own can counteract a message received from all around of 'your role in a kehilla is as an adjunct who sends her husband to daven' and 'your spiritual life is only within your home'.

every girl and women needs to feel a relationship with Hashem that is not solely defined my her role as wife and mother. small events such a this send a clear message that the women who come to communal events are only expected to talk or prepare the kiddush, or not to come at all. certainly that communal religious experiences are only for men.

i am reminded of the time of the haskalah, as young jews slipped away from orthodoxy in droves to join nationlist movements, zionist movements, socialist movements, reform movements. there was widespread wailing and gnashing of teeth, and it took a remarkably long time - with the benefit of hindsight - for the mass of leaders and teachers to realise that perhaps the jews who were leaving judaism were not just doing so because these of the wonderful things that these other movements had to offer, but becuase they felt something lacking in judaism. and even longer to realise that if that was the case, then something in the way that they taught judaism had to change.

nowadays, there is a great deal of energy spent by leaders nad teachers decrying jewish feminism, women's tefillah groups, egalitarian and/or partnership minyanim, and others of that ilk. it is usually blamed on the spirit of the times, a desire to rebel, and lack of tznius. remarkably seldom, it seems, do leaders and teachers reflect that perhaps, women are looking elsewhere for a religiously fulfilling experience because they are excluded from having one in the 'mainstream' orthodox world. that perhaps, if women were permitted to do that which we are, actually, permitted to do, fewer women would turn away from orthodoxy.

this year, our daughter came, and was disappointed. next year, she wouldn't come. after that, she wouldn;t come to shul at all. she would stay home to read, or chat outside of shul with her friends. and then, why should she expect a shul to be a place where she experiences any sort of spirituality? i found it hard, growing up with the message around me that women's collective religious experience is to say tehillim. Baruch Hashem, i have made my peace with the options available to me, and learned enough Torah to know that what i hear all around me is not always - or often - halachically true, and that there are more options than those dreamt of in their philosophy. but it was a longish road, and i'd love my daughter not to have to travel it. i want to help her to short cut straight to 'fulfilling communal experience and relationship with Hashem within a mainstream orthodox framework'.

All of this sent me into simchat torah determined to show my daughter that a. Torah is also for women and b. a communal religious experience is also for women.

Baruch Hashem, i did manage it, although it wasn't perfect. and so, this blog post is a little longer than i'd composed it last night. and also a little bit more positive.