Friday, October 24, 2008

Simchat Torah and inequality

I was brought up in a Conservative* synagogue and community in the Boston suburbs, and a pretty radical one for the times (the late 1960s and 1970s). Unlike many other Conservative synagogues at that time, women were "allowed" to read Torah, have aliyot (say blessings on the Torah), lead services, and eventually, hold their Bat Mitzvahs on Saturdays, just the way the boys did. Music was allowed in the synagogue if it was Jewish or Israeli music, and some of my fondest memories are of doing circle dances with my friends at temple.

However, we were aware of "the others." The Jews who did not offer equal rights to women: Orthodox Jews.

One of the pivotal moments of my Jewish upbringing and of my feminist awakening was the Simchat Torah when some boys from my class - we were probably early teens at the time -- were trying to get permission from their father to go to "the Rebbe's," a black-hat Chassidic shul in nearby Brookline. I knew that women weren't allowed to participate there, and that they had to stand behind a mechitza (a divider). I was incensed at the thought.

Fast forward about, oh, 35 years, to today. I attended a Simchat Torah celebration back at my old shul this week with my son. There, we passed the Torah from person to person, we danced with the Torahs. Men and women participated equally and comfortably.

Yet, reading some blogs today, I read about the same thing that happened 35 years ago at the Rebbe's, still happening today in Orthodox shuls.

"The recent Simchat Torah holiday has brought out some long-simmering resentment about the unequal treatment of men and women in Orthodox synagogues" states SuperRaisy on her blog. "My younger daughter, who's nine years old, could not understand why she would not be allowed to hold a Torah just like her friend Zvi could. "Do the men think that I don't love the Torah the way that they do?" she asked me. So to the Orthodox men out there- Rabbis and shul machers alike- What's the deal, dude? There is no halachic reason that women have to just sit around in the shadows while the men spend hours celebrating."

Or A Mother In Israel states: "Simchat Torah is a difficult holiday for Orthodox women. It seems like the men are having the fun, while the women are sitting around waiting, watching, and mostly talking. I don't mind sitting separately the rest of the year, when I am actually praying. But an hour and a half is too long to watch dancing, if you can call it that."

Amazing. 35 years have passed, and nothing has changed.

*just to clarify, Conservative Judaism has to do with "conserving" Judaism, balancing it with modern life, as opposed to being politically conservative


SuperRaizy said...

Thank you for visiting my blog, and for linking to me in your post.
I grew up Orthodox, and I have no desire to stray from Orthodoxy now as an adult. But there are quite a few issues in the Orthodox community that I find frustrating, and the exclusion of women and girls from synagogue rituals is one of them. My daughter's 12th birthday is next week, but she will not be called up to the Torah as her brother was when he was Bar Mitzvahed. There really is no halachic reason why a girl should not be able to read from the Torah in front of a female-only group, but it's just not done. I remember that when I got married, my husband told me "you can come to shul if you want to, but you really don't have to." It is because of things like this that my attendance at synagogue is infrequent.

Leora said...

I remember going to the Bostoner Rebbe's growing up, walking from Newton to Brookline. Afterwards, we would go to the Talner's (z"l). I don't remember whether we danced in a group as women; I do remember greatly enjoying the whole walk and visit. There was a lot of standing around outside, where there was no mehitza.

Like Raizy, I was raised Orthodox. The issues with women aren't perfect, by far. But Conservative Judaism isn't the solution for us (it may be for you). I consciously chose Orthodoxy for myself for various reasons. It works for me. The women's issues bother me less than they used to. And women's tefillah groups are an option in some communities.

Yael said...

I go to an Orthodox synagogue that is very egalitarian in this regard. The simchat torah participation was totally equal. Women got half the sefrei torah and were dancing separately but equally. There were Torah readings and aliyot for both men and women separately.

There are women's torah readings for Bat mitzvahs..

SuperRaizy said...

that sounds wonderful.