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On Women Reading Torah and Drinking Beer

Jews all over the Diaspora loosened their belts and let out a collective sigh of relief Sunday evening as the holiday of Simchat Torah came to a close, marking the end of the fall Jewish holiday season — or as I like to call it, gefilte-fest. (The verdict is still out on whether it or the concurrently running Oktobefest causes more bloat.) With all of the Torah being read on this particular holiday, it’s surprising that the passage including the injunction ‘Thou shalt stuff oneself to the bursting point’ is omitted, so I guess we can chalk the practice up to tradition.

But speaking of Torah and tradition, I’m glad that Nathan Jeffay brought up what’s become a new tradition of women’s Torah readings on Simchat Torah. Though I disagree with his analysis that boredom is at the bottom of their popularity. Rather, the practice has more to do with the spirit of inclusion that’s become integral to the holiday — and women’s insistence on being included in that inclusiveness.

While it certainly can be boring for women to wait around for all the men to get called up to the Torah, I imagine it is just as boring for men waiting their turn for an aliyah, or, especially, for men who’ve already had their turn at the bimah and are waiting for others to have theirs. (That’s why many shuls put out a special kiddush, so people can sneak out for a snack, and even a beer — a rare instance of gefilte-fest meets Oktoberfest). In short, boredom is an equal opportunity offender on this particular holiday.

What is not equal opportunity in Orthodox shuls that have not yet adopted the women’s Torah reading phenomenon, however, is the free-for-all getting of aliyahs that causes the service to be long and boring. Simchat Torah is the one day of the year when everyone is supposed to have the opportunity to be called up to the Torah. Even in shuls where that honor is usually reserved only for the biggest donors, on this one day, even the poorest man is supposed to get his turn. Stress on his. This spirit of inclusiveness does not extend to Orthodox women, who, even on this day, are still not allowed to get an aliyah in an Orthodox minyan. It’s no wonder, then, that, while waiting around and watching over the mechitzah (if they can even see over the mechitzah), as one by one every single man — no matter how lowly, infirm, irreligious, unstable or inept — gets called up to the Torah, even those women who might not usually care much about Feminism with a capital F tend to feel a tad left out, if not downright alienated from their religion.

And so, if a synagogue chooses one occasion on which to have a women’s Torah reading, if there’s one occasion on which women demand their own Torah reading, it makes sense it would be Simchat Torah, so that all the women — no matter how lowly, infirm, irreligious, unstable or inept — have their opportunity to get called up to the Torah, too.

Because beer might take care of the boredom, but no amount of nosh can repair a wounded neshama.

Especially not gefilte fish.

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