Women Dancing With Torah Scrolls

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simchat-torah-2by R. Gil Student

I don’t like dancing, not on Simchas Torah nor at bar mitvahs nor even at my wedding. It’s a chore I’ve learned to deal with. Looking over the mechitzah on Simchas Torah, I am both troubled and envious.

Many of the women I see look very bored. Why should they sit bored on this holiday? On the other hand, they do not have this communal, family and customary obligation to dance. They can sit in the women’s section and open a sefer and learn. I can’t do that without being reprimanded. In many synagogues, the women watch the men dance, some with great delight, others bored and others just talking with each other and ignoring the dancing. To level the field and give women more options, decades ago some synagogues began women dances and even introduced Torah scrolls into the women’s dances. This was and remains controversial.

The Beit Hillel organization in Israel recently published a responsum permitting women to dance with Torah scrolls on Simchas Torah. They base their view on R. Nachum Rabinovich’s ruling in Si’ach Nachum (no. 40), explicitly permitting this practice. Without detracting from R. Rabinovich or the men and women of Beit Hillel, I cite here contrary opinions.

Primary among them is that of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He is quoted by his nephew, R. Moshe Meiselman, as deeming the practice impermissible (he does not say forbidden). While R. Meiselman’s assertions in the name of his uncle can sometimes be questioned, and in the next issue of Jewish Action I do just that on one specific point, readers should note that the following quote appeared in a book published in 1978 as part of R. Norman Lamm’s Library of Jewish Law and Ethics. I am not suggesting that R. Lamm agrees with everything in this book (he indicates in his Foreword that he does not). I am suggesting that if an explicit quote in this book in R. Soloveitchik’s name was incorrect, in all likelihood he would have made it known. I am not aware of any claim that this specific depiction of his view is inaccurate.

R. Moshe Meiselman, Jewish Woman in Jewish Law (New York, 1978), p. 146:

An associated issue, although technically totally different, is the permissibility of women dancing in the synagogue with Torah scrolls during hakafot on Simhat Torah. This practice has been opposed by all contemporary rabbinic authorities. My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, told me that he opposed this practice when questioned by synagogues in Brookline, Massachusetts, and New York City. The basis for this ruling, he told me, is that the Talmud in Berakhot [63a] which says that just as there is an etiquette that regulates one’s behaviour when visiting someone else’s home, so too there is a tradition that regulates behaviour in the synagogue. Thus, for example, eating in the synagogue is not permitted. An element of proper synagogue behaviour, such as the prohibition against eating in the synagogue, is explicated in legal detail by the Talmud and by subsequent codes of Jewish law. The same applies to the introduction of innovations which our ancestors considered to be in conflict with the feeling of respect and awe owed to the synagogue. Proper synagogue behaviour is determined by practice and tradition. Since it has been the age-old practice of synagogues that women do not dance with Torah scrolls during hakafot, the introduction of this practice would be a violation of synagogue etiquette.

R. Menachem Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote a 1975 letter to R. Shlomo Riskin, voicing his opposition to women’s dancing with a Torah scroll on Simchas Torah. You can see the letter in Hebrew here: link. He argues that:

  1. We may not create new synagogue customs
  2. We may not change existing synagogue customs
  3. The Rema only permits menstruating women to attend synagogue and pray with the community–responding “Amen” and “Yehei shemeih rabbah“–because of “great sadness” if they are prevented from attending synagogue. R. Schneerson infers that only attending synagogue is permitted and not other changes.

More recently, R. Yaakov Ariel opposes women dancing with a Torah scroll (link). He points out that celebrating the Torah does not require dancing with a Torah scroll. Some communities have the tradition that even men do not dance with Torah scrolls. Women are right to want to celebrate the Torah but they should do so creatively, finding their own way to do so rather than imitating how (some) men celebrate.

R. Dov Lior (link) writes that throughout the generations, women have not danced with Torah scrolls. The differences between men and women are real, each with their own religious roles. When women act in ways that men traditionally have, they detract from the respect due their own roles. Therefore, women certainly should not dance with Torah scrolls.

I don’t claim that this list is comprehensive. I appreciate if readers post in the response section what other halakhic authorities have said or written on the subject. In the end, it is up to the synagogue rabbi to consult with his posek and decide what is permissible and appropriate.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

4 comments

  1. A lot of the discussion is centered on new practices.
    It might be interesting to note that in was actually the tradition in some communities to have the women dance with the sefarim on simha torah. As I read today, this was the custom in the city of Meknes in Morocco where every woman would participate as it would be considered a great honor. (http://www.modernorthodox.fr/tichrimaroc/).

  2. I find the whole thing ironic. Simchas Torah itself was once a new practice. And its common observance raised non-trivial halachic questions that today are only answered in the affirmative because of the assumption that anthing that caught on across the observant world must be justified. I do not know strong theoretical arguments to permit the men’s dancing either, for sitting while others dance, or for reading Torah at night.

    Hakafos date back to the 16th cent, dancing to the 17th, chasan Torah, chasan bereishis and turning those hakafos into dancing are late 17th, early 18th.

    So now, we’re going to say “that’s the blessed tradition, and we can’t change anything because synagogue norms are sacrosanct”?

    As I opened, I find it ironic.

  3. I think it is at least a little misleading to simply state that R’ Rabinovitch “permits” the dancing. He does so, but with an important caveat that should not be ignored:

    (translated from the responsum summary)

    “There is no prohibition for women to dance with a Torah Scroll, on condition that they act with appropriate respect. However, there is another issue (side): not to change the minhag of a congregation (“kehilla”) without the agreement of a majority of the congregation (“tzibbur”). In most congregations the minhag is for women not to dance with the Torah Scroll on Simchat Torah, and if they wish to change the minhag, they need to ask the opinion (“daat”) of the congregation. Obviously, if there is a Rav of the congregation, nothing should be done without his approval.”

    With the controversy that usually follows an attempt to have women dance with the Torah, I think R’ Rabonovitch’s caveat is very important, and also extremely wise.

  4. I am not passionate about this subject either way, but one thing to think about is: What is more modest: Women behind a mechitza dancing with a sefer Torah versus women with the mechitza curtain up, not dancing, but watching the men dance and the men being distracted by the women?

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