Dancing With the Torah
Women of faith and feminists have more in common than they have differences.
While popular wisdom has it that being a feminist and a woman of faith are incompatible my experience as an Orthodox Jew tells a different story. Some of the most ardent feminists I (Susan) ever met were Orthodox Jewish women in my community. Some considered themselves feminists and some did not, but when I think about what it means to be a feminist these women fit the bill.
Like all good feminists they are committed to affirming the full humanity of women but they do so within the context of their religious belief system. They strive to build a community that treats everyone fairly. They do not view their gender as an obstacle but embrace it and live a full life as a woman and as a believer in their faith.
Today almost every major and minor religion has a growing and active women’s movement within it. From Mormonism to Catholicism to Judaism religious women are seeking to address issues of inequality. They are pointing out how discrimination is not consonant with deeper ideologies, questioning how, why and who made the rules that disenfranchise them. Women are pointing to scripture and other religious teachings to make their case and ask for change. These religious women are not walking away from their faith but are working within its structures in order to make change happen. They are feminists.
In my Orthodox years I ran up against a number of laws that I felt were discriminatory. Women couldn’t sing or dance in public. Women couldn’t participate in certain rituals or prayers. Many of these rules were explained to me as ways to safeguard women against bad male behavior, i.e. the sound of a woman’s voice could arouse a man and distract him from prayer. I was taught that these laws were not devised to oppress women but to elevate them and prevent them from being regarding as sex objects and thus devalued.
Many of Judaism’s laws appear discriminatory by secular standards but understood within the religious context may give women more chance at true equality. By downplaying a woman’s physical appearance she has more opportunity and encouragement to develop herself and self worth in other ways.
These arguments were a hard sell for me. Having been brought up in a very liberal, secular home the idea that a restriction could be a freeing force was an entirely new concept. One restriction that particularly bothered me was a law prohibiting women from dancing with the Torah on a special holiday called Simhat Torah. Once per year, on this special day, the Torah was paraded around as men and boys hugged it tight and danced with it in their arms, shouting, sweating, vying for their special moment with the sacred parchment while we women were shut out. Women didn’t touch the Torah much less dance with it. It wasn’t allowed, it wasn’t done, end of story.
I asked but did not receive an adequate explanation. I was angry. I became determined to find out where this law came from and why. If I had to accept this prohibition, I needed a reason, an argument, something to take the sting out of it. And it had to be a damn good one.
Four of us formed a study group and began learning the laws that prohibited us from touching the Torah. We met every Sunday morning for over four years and educated and empowered ourselves about this issue and many others pertaining to women in Judaism. We learned that the prohibition of touching the Torah was on precarious legal ground and was more a matter of precedent and custom than hard and fast law. The more we studied, the more we came across leniencies and examples of Orthodox communities that allowed women to touch and dance with the Torah. Eventually, we were able to convince others in the community that women should be able to dance with the Torah.
Religions and secular societies do adapt and change. For us — women of faith AND secular feminists, we can more effectively foster that change together than apart.