What Irks Me About Simchas Torah As An Orthodox Woman (And It’s Not What You Think)
Unlike a lot of women I’ve spoken to, I have always loved Simchas Torah.
As a child, I loved it for the dancing and excitement. I loved my shul’s longstanding tradition of giving out candy apples to kids on Simchas Torah night; it was the only food with caramel and nuts that I ever liked. When I was young enough to join my father on the men’s side, I loved how he would let me hold a Torah with him – and when I was old enough to stay on the women’s side, I felt such a deep connection to Torah and to the joy of the day that I never minded not holding one anymore.
As an adult, that connection to Torah sustained the joy I felt in the day. Other women, I knew, hated it: they hated it for the candy and chaos the kids love, they hated it for the way the celebrations seemed to center on the men and left nothing for us, they hated it for lots of reasons. But I still loved it. I refused to see chaos, and instead saw joy. I refused to see women as sidelined, and made a point of dancing with however many women would join me, even if it was just my own reluctant toddler and even if it was just me – because I knew that appearances aside, Torah is as much mine as it is any man’s. That knowledge carried me for years, as I campaigned to get other women to join me in joining the festivities with a full heart.
In more recent years, I’ve begun to worry that I might lose my connection to Simchat Torah. It has nothing to do with being a woman, though, and everything to do with being a lover of Torah.
Maybe I’m just getting to be an old fogey, but the chaos is catching up with me. I can’t ignore it anymore.
(Before I go on, let me be clear that I’ve been to multiple shuls on Simchas Torah, sometimes more than one in the same year. It doesn’t matter which, and I hope readers will not try to guess which shul(s) I’m talking about, turning my pleas into nothing but lashon hara. Instead, we can all consider how much of what I’m saying might describe any shul in any of our communities, and what we can do about it.)
I used to get such joy from dancing during hakafos, even with a small and/or empty women’s side. I was energized from responding to the pesukim recited at the beginning of each hakafah, from absorbing the words and vibrations of the singing. Lately, I can barely hear the pesukim and often don’t even know what song is being sung. Hard to hear over all those milling around and chatting.
I used to cry at the beautiful words, the sheer pomp and circumstance with which the chatan Torah and chatan Bereishit would be called up. “Amod, amod, amod!” Now, I’m more likely to cry because I can’t even hear the gabbai over all the talking, and because some gabbaim hardly even seem to try anymore to convey that excitement. “With the permission, blah blah, honor of Torah, yada yada…” Where’s the pomp and circumstance that befits the Torah?
I’ve always had trouble relating to poetry, but somehow hearing the brachos to each tribe at the end of V’zot Habracha, even the ones that are harder to understand, always moved me. Maybe because I heard it so many times over that the words began to feel like treasured friends; maybe because I knew it was the beginning of the end for Moshe. Every year on Simchas Torah, I would be touched once again by Moshe’s death and the nation’s tears for him. And now, I cry as I wonder what it is, exactly, that’s so important it must be discussed louder than the Torah’s final words can be read.
I used to be awed, each year, reading about the days of Creation. “And G-d said, Let there be light. And there was light.” It’s beyond amazing, if we pay attention. And when I first encountered shuls that would sing a pasuk in between the descriptions of each day, those interruptions actually seemed to escalate the joy and honor of the Torah reading, a little higher each time. But lately, it all feels like just so much noise. A bunch of people calling out a bunch of words by habit. Where’s the energy? The excitement? Maybe it’s in the social hall, pouring another shot.
I don’t want to seem to be giving mussar. I’m not perfect; who am I to criticize others?
At the same time, when any of us perceives a problem in our communities, we are dutybound to speak up.
The people talking through davening on any Shabbos or chag, chatting through hakafos, joking around during Torah reading and Kaddish –many of them are the finest, most upstanding, dedicated members of their communities. I can only assume they just don’t realize how loud they are and how it ruins tefilah for others. That they just don’t realize how their conversations diminish the atmosphere of kavod for G-d and Torah that we all want to create and maintain, for ourselves and as a model for our children. So, I have to speak up.
Simchas Torah is particularly challenging because we celebrate Torah in a different way, one that feels freer than our usual religious conduct. That joyous freedom is good – but we all know it has to have purpose, and parameters. It’s not freedom to get drunk, to forget ourselves, to forget what we’re doing there in the first place. We’re there for Torah and for each other, and we have to maintain respect for both within our joy.
if I ever join the ranks of the angry women who avoid shul on Simchas Torah, it won’t be because I’m frustrated, as a woman, at not being invited to join the festivities; I never doubted my right to join, and would simply invite myself if others forgot to.
If I ever give up on Simchas Torah celebrations, it will be because I’m no longer sure what it is I’d be joining.
I pray it (I) will never come to that. I pray we can restore our focus to joyful kavod haTorah – all of us: men, women, and even the children we hope to inspire, together.
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