Sunday, October 30, 2005

Dancing Around a Delicate Issue

Fast Forward

By Shoshana Olidort
October 21, 2005

'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.

Copyright 2005 The Forward

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