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Simchas Torah

What Irks Me About Simchas Torah As An Orthodox Woman (And It’s Not What You Think)


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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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  1. I’m a Catholic who follows Jew in the City because I find her religious exegesis refreshing and original. As an outsider, however, I rarely comment because I know the site isn’t directed at me. I would like to comment on this post however.

    I lived in Israel for a year and I attended several bar mitzvahs and a number of other religious celebrations. There were many aspects of the service that were quite beautiful and moving but there was a massive cultural gap that I never got used to. In a Catholic church (in any church) there is total silence and attention to the service (except for the occasional little kid crying, etc). People would no more hold conversations in church than they would at a lecture hall or a concert. By contrast, the atmosphere in the synagogues in Israel was so very, very strange to me. People chatted with one another or walked in or out as they felt like it — like they were all gathered to watch the Superbowl at a friend’s house, some paying close attention to the game while others barely watching.

    Has it always been this way? If so, why?

    • Sarah C Rudolph : October 24, 2019 at 9:57 pm

      I recently read an account by Samuel Pepys, I believe, describing with horror what he observed when he decided to visit a new synagogue and it happened to be on Simchat Torah. He clearly was not impressed by the lack of decorum! A regular service is at least better, but I’ve heard a number of anecdotes of non-Jews visiting synagogues and being shocked by those cultural differences. It does depend on the synagogue, and I have no idea whether it’s always been this way, but it is true that many of us don’t have great habits as far as maintaining silence. One issue might be the length of the service – correct me if I’m wrong, but I think our 2-3 hours on a Saturday morning is longer than a typical church service? I haven’t done a study, but my impression is that there’s less talking during other Jewish services, maybe because they’re shorter. Our prayers also have a wide range from private to communal and in between (am I right that that’s a difference?), so maybe that makes it harder to stay focused – e.g. if a few people finished their silent prayer and are waiting for the rest of the congregation, it can be hard not to start chatting. There are definitely different norms in different synagogues, though – and many of those with more talking are not proud of it!

      • So you are right that a typical Sunday church service is much shorter, usually around an hour — except for certain specific services like the Easter vigil (Saturday night before Easter Sunday) which can easily run 2 hours or more. However, these longer services are viewed as even more holy and special because they contain elements that only occur once a year, so the reverence is actually greater than at an ordinary Sunday service (or, for impatient types, you just wait until the next day when you can do the 1 hour thing :)). However, the type of prayer may actually make a difference (I never thought about this before). We only have very tiny sections where you’re supposed to be praying on your own (for example, we have a prayer where we ask God to welcome the departed into the light of his presence and then there is a pause where people pray for their own recently departed family or friends, but this is maybe like a 60 second pause). I’m still not sure there would be whispered conversations if this period were longer and more frequent though. One thing is (and this is where a Catholic church differs from a Protestant) we consider the sanctuary itself to be a holy place (for reasons I won’t get into). Meaning that people are quiet and reverent when there even if a service is not going on. It’s only been very recently that they’ll hold a meeting in the sanctuary if there’s no other room in the church available at the time. Even then they’ll start off the meeting by reminding you that you are in the sanctuary and please act appropriately. I might think that since the Torah is in the sanctuary of a synagogue, the same thinking might apply?

        • Oh, we’re for sure *supposed* to treat the sanctuary as a holy place! There are all sorts of rules, rooted partly in analogies between today’s synagogues and the ancient Temple but I think also simply because it’s a place of prayer (and maybe also Torah study). Alas, we’re not always very good about it, especially on Simchat Torah. As I saw someone point out in a Facebook comment on this article, that’s also expressed by the mess from the candies that tend to be given out! But she shared how she got a group of kids to do some cleaning for a prize, emphasizing to them the message of honor for the sanctity of the space. I like to hope efforts like hers, and even mine, might help us pay more attention and improve.

          • So it depends entirely on the congregation and if they’re set up with volunteers to do this, but in most churches kids under 7 (First Communion age) leave after the first 10 minutes or so of the service. They go off elsewhere to have a little “kid version” of the service covering the same themes, based on that week’s readings. So they are not the noise makers.

            After your First Communion, you stay, participate, and are quiet or basically your parents will kill you afterwards. My brother-in-law is one of four boys, very close in age. Once when they were all teenagers they were in church giggling and poking each other and whispering “trigger” words to make the others laugh more, in spite of looks of death from their parents (who, of course, could not raise their voices to tell them to stop it). When they got home their dad took four dining room chairs and lined them up in the living room and said “since apparently you can’t be quiet for one hour in church, we’re going to practice at home” and he made them sit there totally silent for one hour! If you get absolutely nothing else out of a Catholic upbringing, you do learn to sit quietly for one hour without talking or playing on your cell phone, which turns out to be a very valuable life skill, for example when attending corporate meetings. 🙂

  2. I feel exactly the same way you do. and I am a man.

  3. Talking is a huge issue and likely sociological explanations come into play. As far as Jewish women feeling more involved, there are choices of synagogues under the Orthodox denominational umbrella where women as well as men have a Torah to dance with, where women sing hakafot albeit on their side of the mechitza, not to mention separate women’s tefliah groups in some communities. Luckily this denomination isn’t monolithic and has choices.

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Sarah Rudolph is a freelance Jewish educator, writer, and editor. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, OU Life, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world, through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.