A Tale of Two Simhat Torahs
Israel Hayom has an article (Hebrew) by Emily Arusi about this most recent Simḥat Torah in Israel. Here are a few sections that I translated:
When I was in my early twenties I also tried. I asked that they pass the Sefer Torah to the women’s section, that we be able to dance with it, to be part of the holiday whose foundation is dancing around with the rolled up writing on parchment. On the other side of the meḥitzah they refused. This was not women’s territory. I went home to look through a different book, any best-seller, new from the Torah but less meaningful. From then on I never participated in Simḥat Torah prayers, except for a glance at the men celebrating I had no reason to be there.
And suddenly, like a volcanic eruption, on this past Simḥat Torah the barriers fell. At the same time and without any coordination, tens of Orthodox synagogues and communities underwent a leap of thousands of years. In Shoham and Beit Shemesh, in Efrat and in Modiin, in religious kibbutzim and in settlements and where else not. Rabbis said that there really isn’t any halakhic problem, and for the first time, as if it had always been this way, they naturally passed over the large and heavy Torahs to the other side.
In the Jerusalem synagogue Korzin, the men went outside and made room for the women in the men’s section, that they should have enough room to dance. In Modiin, at the well attended dancing at the end of the holiday (“The Second Hakafot”) in the square of the Cultural Center, the Sifrei Torah were raised up with strength among the head coverings and the skirts. In the Sephardic synagogues in Pisgat Zeev, with the agreement and joy of everyone, the Torahs were passed from hand to hand to the other side of the meḥitzah. In the city of Rehovot, crowded circles of religious women moved around the Sifrei Torah. So it was in the settlements of Tekoa and Gush Etzion, Nehushah in the Jerusalem Corridor, Eliav in East Lachish, Lavi in the Lower Galilee and the list is long.
The article brings a quote from Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who is not surprisingly opposed to this phenomenon. What I did find interesting was how his comments were one hundred percent Yeshayahu Leibowitz-no feeling, no experience, just obey God’s commands.
“The question is what do we want,” said Rabbi Aviner, “a post-modern conversation, romantic, that searches for experience, or to do God’s will-period. It is possible that people are not in love with the worship of God and in order that the pill will be easier to swallow, they coat it with a lot of chocolate, when what interests them is the chocolate and not the Torah.”
Rabbi Aviner’s comments are similar to others from men who seem to believe that whenever women desire greater participation in religious ritual they probably have impure intentions. There is no small amount of irony when this is said in the context of Simḥat Torah, a holiday that is one hundred percent the result of human initiative, emotion, and sentiment. See this comprehensive article for other examples of this approach.
As I was reading this article, the following from a recent interview with Daniel Sperber came to mind, maybe hinting at the generational change that may be going on in the national religious community in Israel that is also addressed in Arusi’s article.
Once a year, during Simhat Torah celebrations, Rabbi Daniel Sperber ventures across the divider, or mehitza, that separates the men’s and women’s sections of his Orthodox synagogue and tries to get a female congregant to accept a Torah scroll from his hands. He rarely finds willing customers. “It’s usually only the young girls who agree to take it,” he says. “The older ones do not. They just don’t feel that they need it.”
A recent article (Hebrew) was published that provides a counter-narrative to Arusi’s article. The author, Rachel Malek-Buda, described certain groups within religious feminism as a new form of terrorism:
Maybe it’s time that I say this, since from informal discussions on Facebook and other places I get the impression that I am not alone: feminism, in its present form, is a type of female terror disguised as the holiest ideology that there is. In a scary and ironic way, feminists protest against conservative-religious norms, but behave like a fanatic religious group in every way: the heated discussions, silencing of opinions, the removal from a discussion of anyone who annoys them through selective “likes,” and in certain cases also comments that border on hatred of men.
Being that I follow the discussions on the Facebook group to which Malek-Buda directs some of her criticism, I can testify that the overwhelming majority of the people are tolerant and welcoming. We’ll wait and see whose Simḥat Torah and whose feminism gains the upper hand.