‘Joy shatters barriers,” says a well-known Jewish aphorism. It’s a phrase that many Orthodox synagogues will take literally Tuesday evening with the beginning of Simchat Torah, one of the Jewish calendar’s most joyous days. When the yearlong Torah-reading cycle comes to a close, all Orthodox congregations will dance with their Torahs. But some will do so in a sanctuary that’s been altered temporarily. In some communities, the mechitzah (the barrier separating women from men) will be taken down.
Miriam Hoffinger, 70, remembers the mechitzah coming down in the Hasidic shtibl (prayer house) her family attended in Paris in the mid 1950s. “It was the one time during the year when the mechitzah came down and we were all together, celebrating in the same space,” she said.
The tradition of removing the mechitzah when celebrating the Torah would seem to stretch back at least a century. A YIVO archival photo (circa 1900) of a celebration in honor of the completion of a Torah scroll in Dubrovno, Belarus, shows women and men in the same room looking on as the rabbi dances with the freshly penned Torah.
But as with everything in Judaism, there are gradations. Among the more stringent, women are not allowed to take part in the actual hakafot (the seven circuits made with the Torah). But more liberal Orthodox communities have found ways to accommodate women in the celebration of the holiday.
With the increased demand in recent years for greater ritual opportunity for Orthodox women, rabbinic authorities have been pressed to examine the tradition barring women from dancing with the Torah. Their findings showed that “from a purely halachic point of view, there is no prohibition at all preventing a woman from touching a Sefer Torah or even from reading from it — even while she is menstruating,” according to Shlomo Riskin, founding rabbi of New York’s Modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue and chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. This position opened the way for women’s hakafot in many synagogues.
Those opposed to women’s hakafot — like Rabbi Herschel Schachter, professor at the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary — argue that the movement to allow women to dance with the Torah springs from the “impure motivations” of rebelliousness and self-aggrandizement rather than a pure desire to connect with God. Another issue of contention is the fact that according to rabbinic tradition, a long-held Jewish custom attains the status of a halachic ruling.
Women’s hakafot, along with women’s prayer groups, have been performed at a number of liberally minded Orthodox congregations for decades. But when Riskin introduced them in Efrat, the move was accepted in only five of the settlement’s 28 synagogues. In one of these, the controversy caused a rift that led to a part of the community breaking away and forming a congregation of its own.
Rabbi Basil Herring of the Rabbinical Council of America, the primary Modern Orthodox rabbinical union, said that the RCA “takes no stance on the issue” of women’s hakafot. The ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Avi Shafran said that while the organization does not make policy, “it would be safe to say that no Agudath Israel-affiliated synagogue has women’s hakafot.” London’s Beth Din thwarted efforts years ago to begin women’s hakafot in Anglo-Jewry’s 65 Orthodox synagogues. Some have persisted, but maintain a low profile. For those walking the tightrope between a stricter Orthodoxy and greater openness, dealing with issues in the gray zone requires finding compromises. In some Chabad synagogues women dance around, rather than with, the Torah scroll. And while a few do allow women’s hakafot, most Chabad synagogues are more traditional in their approach.
Today, the notion of Simchat Torah as a man’s holiday no longer holds true. With a fairly wide range of options available, women from across the Orthodox spectrum have found a way to make the holiday their own.
Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer living in New York.