Simchas Torah and Women

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by Sarah Rudolph

I. Dancing With A Torah Scroll?

Often, when people talk about women and dancing on Simchas Torah, what they mean is women dancing with a sefer Torah. I think it’s important, though, to take a step back and consider not just dancing with a sefer Torah, but dancing itself. [1]Note that I have already published pieces on this topic here and here. This one, however, comes with sources and tries not to be one-sided. After all, the original minhag seems to have been to dance in honor of the Torah; as reported in the name of Rav Hai Gaon (see Maharik siman 9), the custom was “to dance…when saying praises to the Torah.” [2]The question of dancing on Yom Tov in general is beyond the scope of this essay; suffice to say that multiple halachic authorities acknowledge the question but determine it is acceptable on Simchas … Continue reading The practice of dancing with Torah scrolls apparently developed later, and has actually been met with significant objection out of concern that the festivities will become too frivolous and lead to disrespect, rather than respect, for the Torah. (See, for instance, Sdei Chemed 131, cited in Siach Nachum 40.)

In fact, a recent teshuva often cited to permit women’s dancing with a Torah seems, on careful reading, to be at least as interested in addressing those general concerns of respect for the Torah as in permitting women to dance with a Torah. After citing the Sdei Chemed’s objection to the way festivities would deteriorate when youth were allowed to dance irreverently with the Torah scrolls, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch (Siach Nachum 40) goes on to state:

It seems to me that if the congregation… comes to establish that in the women’s section, one of the esteemed women will hold the scroll, and other women will dance before her in a manner of kavod and hidur – certainly this is a tikun…with no prohibition, for women were never prohibited from holding a Torah scroll. And perhaps the men will also learn from this how to behave with appropriate kavod.

Reading this paragraph on its own, it is easy to place the emphasis on “no prohibition, for women were never prohibited from holding a Torah scroll.” However, in the context of the Sdei Chemed’s concerns, the details take on greater significance: “one of the esteemed women will hold the scroll, and other women will dance before her… And perhaps the men will also learn from this…” It seems to me that Rabbi Rabinovitch is suggesting we take women’s interest in dancing with a Torah as an opportunity to rethink the way all of us, men and women, demonstrate our joy on Simchas Torah.

In a similar vein, I would like to remove the scroll itself from the discussion and address some more fundamental questions. Assuming the presence of an adequate mechitza, and removing any nebulous issues with regard to menstruating women touching a Torah scroll [3]See Shulchan Aruch 88:1, especially in the Rema. from the equation – Is there any reason women shouldn’t simply dance on Simchas Torah? Is there any reason we should?

II. Is the Simcha of Torah Relevant to Women?

The first fundamental question to address in this context is whether Simchas Torah celebrations hold relevance for women, or whether this is simply a “man’s holiday.” The Mishnah Berurah (669:12) explains the custom of increasing the number of aliyot on Simchas Torah: “For the honor of the Torah, and also so that everyone will have a part in the rejoicing of the Torah.” (כדי שיזכו כולם בשמחת תורה) To an Orthodox woman who does not get called to the Torah, on Simchas Torah or any other occasion, this might seem like a statement that the joy of Simchas Torah is not relevant to women: The Mishnah Berurah says the aliyot are intended to include “everyone” in the rejoicing; since I don’t get an aliyah, perhaps I am not part of this particular “everyone,” i.e. not part of those who are to be included in the joy of the holiday.

This reading of Mishnah Berurah, however, doesn’t really make sense. First, like all halachic authorities until very recent times, the Mishnah Berurah was writing for a male readership. He wrote “everyone” at a time when it would not have occurred to him that anyone but those who are traditionally called to the Torah (i.e. men) would be reading his words, and in that context, “everyone” makes sense even if it doesn’t really mean “everyone.” Moreover, other sources seem to indicate pretty clearly that there is something to celebrate on Simchas Torah for those who do not get aliyot as well.

What, exactly, are we celebrating? Most immediately, it is that we have completed the annual cycle of Torah readings. So perhaps we might ask whether Torah reading in general is relevant to women. This, of course, is a matter of some debate; see, for instance, Magen Avraham 282:6. While a full treatment of the topic is beyond the scope of this essay, I would like to draw attention to two points.

First, the Magen Avraham indicates that Torah reading was established as a function of the mitzvah of Torah study, in which women are not obligated; yet, there are those who argue women still have the obligation to hear this reading, in the same way women were obligated to attend the ceremony of Hakhel (Chagigah 3a). Women’s obligation to hear the reading at Hakhel, and the possibility of our obligation to hear Torah reading, underscore the fact that one can have a portion in Torah which is not defined by the obligation, or lack thereof, to engage in immersive “Talmud Torah.”

Moreover, less widely-known than women’s exemption from the immersive mitzvah of Talmud Torah, the Rema (Y”D 246:6) states that women are in fact obligated in a type of Torah study; namely, to learn relevant mitzvos. It should also be noted that women are subject to the obligation to love G-d (in case this is not self-evident, see Sefer HaChinuch mitzvah # 418) – and in Rambam’s beautiful analysis, this mitzvah is accomplished via Torah study (Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment #3; Hilchot Yesodei haTorah, end of chapter 4). Thus, even without a formal mandate to engage constantly in Torah study, women indeed have an obligation and connection to the study of Torah – including the type of public Torah reading celebrated on Simchas Torah.

This comes to poignant expression in the writing of the Rabbi Mordechai Ze’ev Ettinger (Shiltei Giborim siman 47), who addresses the question of why women are obligated to recite birchot haTorah despite not being obligated in the mitzvah of Torah study. He suggests that these blessings are not really birchot hamitzvah but are actually birchot hoda’ah, acknowledging the greatness of G-d and the Torah he gave us. In that sense, he writes, we can understand that “women too, since they are included in any case in the overall corpus of Torah… should thank Him for the good that He did for us, in giving them the Torah…” One might extend this analysis to the celebrations on Simchas Torah and suggest that even though we are most immediately celebrating a mitzvah in which women may or may not be obligated, women certainly have a connection to the Torah at the root of the mitzvah. It is as relevant for us to rejoice in our portion in this Torah, in the spirit of a birkat hoda’ah perhaps, as it is for men.

III. Is Dancing Relevant to Women?

Returning to the Magen Avraham, the second point to highlight is that although the Magen Avraham himself supports the view that women are obligated to hear Torah reading, he concludes his comment by reporting that “here, the women have the custom to go out.” Apparently, there is precedent in our tradition for women to avoid Torah reading despite good halachic reason to participate; perhaps, then, one could argue that women who avoid dancing on Simchas Torah are in good standing. If there are women who feel a disconnect from the Torah reading taking place on the men’s side, do they have to celebrate that reading? Is there reason specifically to dance as an expression of that celebration?

This is an important question especially in light of the practice many shuls have adopted to arrange a learning program for women during hakafot and/or leining. Isn’t this an even more genuine celebration of Torah, expressing more inherent kavod haTorah than the frivolities against which the Sdei Chemed and others have protested?

It is hard for me to argue against programs of Torah study for anyone, women included. In particular, I think it is an excellent way to pass the time while the men are being called for repeated aliyot (much more meaningful than other ways many of us have found) – assuming care is taken to ensure the women participating have time to hear the full Torah reading one time through. However, organizing alternative programs for women during hakafot reinforces the idea that the dancing, the unbridled (though respectful!) expression of inner joy in Torah, is not relevant for women. Is this true? Is dancing in particular a mode of expression in which Jewish women do not, or should not, engage? Would women’s dancing, even without holding a sefer Torah, constitute a change in minhag that must be discouraged?

I have not found any halachic sources addressing this question; as mentioned at the outset, the vast majority of discussions about women and Simchas Torah seems to focus on Torah scrolls. However, I offer two stories from Tanach as a springboard for further analysis.

First, we have the account of Miriam leading the women in song after the splitting of the sea (Shemot 15:20-21). Here we are told that Miriam took a tof, some sort of instrument, in her hand and that “all the women went out after her with tupim and mecholot.” Some translate the word “mechol” as “dance,” which would provide a clear precedent for Jewish women expressing joy and gratitude to G-d through dance. Others, however, believe “mechol” refers to a type of musical instrument, which would leave us with no information about women and dancing. (See here for further discussion.) On the other hand, Shadal makes a comment that shows he assumes Miriam and the others were indeed dancing even if the word “dance” is not mentioned explicitly in the pasuk. At the same time, he also informs us that in any case, women certainly danced, likely religiously, in 19th century eastern communities:

Thus is the way of the people of the East until today, that the women sing by themselves – not with the men – and the greatest, most respected young woman leads and sings and dances, and the others follow her and dance like her and respond in song after her.

For our second biblical example, one might suggest that Michal’s disgust at seeing King David dancing in the streets (II Shmuel 6:16) implies that spiritually ecstatic dance is more of a guy thing, to which a woman wouldn’t relate. However, her remarks about it to David indicate that her reaction had to do specifically with his status as king, as well as with some sort of exposure (ibid. 20); perhaps she would not have objected to others dancing in a respectful manner. Moreover, in the course of the celebrations, David gives food “to all the masses of people, man and woman” (ibid. 19) – implying that even if Michal herself didn’t approve and stayed home, other women were present in celebrating the return of the ark alongside the men, and perhaps even danced. Perhaps, then, we could simply say that dancing is not particularly gender-specific, but subject to some degree of personal inclination.

This brings us to a final avenue of exploration: Does it matter if women do or don’t dance on Simchas Torah? Why not just leave the status quo as is, with each woman choosing whether to dance or chat or learn or stay home? Is there any reason to actively encourage more women to dance, with or without a sefer Torah? I offer a few sources and thoughts for consideration.

IV. Should Women Dance?

First, as quoted by Maharik (cited above), Rav Hai Gaon specifies that “it is customary by us that even some of the elderly dance on [this day] when saying praises to the Torah.” The specific mention of the elderly highlights that even those who might not generally express enthusiasm in this particular physical manner did so for Simchas Torah, as an expression of praise for the Torah. Along these lines, the Mishnah Berurah expands on Rav Hai Gaon’s description to state “therefore, one should strengthen himself in this, to dance and sing praises for the honor of the Torah – as it is written regarding David HaMelech….” (669 s.k. 11). The Mishnah Berurah also echoes the Maharik’s emphatic stance against abolishing “any custom that was practiced in honor of the rejoicing of the Torah” (ibid. s.k. 6). One would of course be hard-pressed to say there is any established practice of women dancing, such that we would be in danger of abolishing it. [4]On the contrary, reading the Maharik’s full teshuva, which takes established communal minhag extremely seriously, leaves one with the sense that he might very well have objected to encouraging … Continue reading However, in contemplating the image of women standing around chatting while the men are engaged in full-bodied expression of joy in Torah, one would also be hard-pressed not to consider the Mishnah Berurah’s next words:

Therefore, what they do in many places is bad, in that they have recently abolished, not to do feasting and rejoicing on Simchas Torah – even though they rejoice on the other days, and all their days are festive. And in our great sins, the disregard of the honor of Torah has caused this, that the Torah is left in a corner and no one seeks it or requests it.

Certainly, some women’s “request” for a Torah scroll with which to dance represents a sensitivity to this concern of neglect for the honor of Torah. However, I don’t think we need to take the Mishnah Berurah’s portrayal quite so literally. With or without a physical scroll to hold, the image of the Torah lying dusty and abandoned in a corner serves as a powerful metaphor for the message sent by those who stand idly by while others, even the frail, engage in physical rejoicing for the honor of Torah.

In particular, though I have no particular makor to offer for this point, I think it is obvious that we must consider the message our actions – or lack thereof – send to our children. Those of us who grew up in shuls where the men danced and the women didn’t might consider what messages we internalized about Torah, about how women should or do relate to it, and about our communities. And all of us would do well to consider whether those are the messages we want to perpetuate for future generations.

We might further want to consider the difference between personal inclination and communal norms. While it may be perfectly acceptable for any particular woman to choose to express her honor and love for the Torah in some way other than dancing, there might be other women who do wish to dance but won’t if the community does not explicitly welcome and arrange for women’s dancing.

V. A Concluding Thought

The Or Zarua (section 2, Hilchot Sukkah siman 320) finds precedent for rejoicing on Simchas Torah in a midrash in Shir Hashirim Rabbah regarding a party Shlomo HaMelech threw:

Behold, when Hashem gave him wisdom, he made a party in honor of the wisdom – and from here, Rabbi Yitzchak learned that one who completes Torah, which is all wisdom, that he must make a feast and party.

It is striking to me that our original model for making a “siyum” celebration is not someone who engaged in immersive talmud Torah, struggling through the texts and logic of our tradition until achieving an accomplishment worthy of marking with feasting and joy. Rather, it is someone who simply knew the value of wisdom and to whom it was handed on a silver platter, with no more effort on his part than a dream. So, perhaps women do not typically engage in immersive Torah study (though it should be noted that today, many do). On a basic level, however, we are – I hope – wise enough to know the value of the Torah wisdom which was handed to us at Sinai and which shapes our lives in so many integral ways. So, perhaps, we might also recognize our part in the joy of completing and restarting the reading of that Torah, even if we did not ourselves actively engage in its study but relied on G-d’s having handed it to us. We might consider the fact that being handed wisdom from G-d  was enough of a reason for Shlomo HaMelech to rejoice, and perhaps it could be enough of a reason for all of us – with or without a physical scroll in our arms.

Endnotes

1Note that I have already published pieces on this topic here and here. This one, however, comes with sources and tries not to be one-sided.
2The question of dancing on Yom Tov in general is beyond the scope of this essay; suffice to say that multiple halachic authorities acknowledge the question but determine it is acceptable on Simchas Torah out of respect for the Torah. See, for instance, Darchei Moshe Orach Chaim 669, in the name of the Maharik.
3See Shulchan Aruch 88:1, especially in the Rema.
4On the contrary, reading the Maharik’s full teshuva, which takes established communal minhag extremely seriously, leaves one with the sense that he might very well have objected to encouraging women to dance in communities where they have not always done so.

About Sarah Rudolph

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world via TorahTutors.org and WebYeshiva.org.

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