I’m about to log off, finish my cooking, and prepare for another 3 day Yom Tov, this time including the holiday of Simchas Torah. Simcha means joy and this holiday is all about the joy that Jews feel when it comes to the Torah. Other religions certainly have their holy books, but I’ve never seen quite the affection for them that Jews have for the Torah. Physically, they treat each Torah scroll as something precious and fragile, clothed in soft, rich velvet and crowned with silver and bells. They reach out to touch it, kissing their fingers or reach out a prayer book to touch it, considering it too holy for human fingers. If a Torah scroll is ever dropped, the entire community is commanded to fast.
The Torah is one of the gifts that the Jews believe was uniquely given to us, along with the Sabbath and a few others. It’s also called a “eitz chaim,” with eitz meaning tree in Hebrew and chaim meaning life. It’s a tree of life, something to cling to in the stormy lives we live, something solid to live by. Love of the Torah is encouraged from an early age with even tiny children being brought to kiss the Torah and their first learning of it accompanied by sweets. When disaster has struck Jewish communities, men have risked their lives to save Torah scrolls, smuggling them out under risk of death.
It’s safe to say that the Torah occupies a unique place in Judaism of joy, love, and reverence.
Simchas Torah is the end of the High Holiday season. It’s the day we both finish reading the Torah, the 5 books of Moses that are in a Torah scroll and begin right again. The entire holiday is essentially like a wedding reception, the community celebrating their union with Hashem and the Torah and, like any good wedding reception, there is singing and dancing, with the Torah scrolls brought out of their ark and danced around the Synagogue or, in some places, even out into the street. It’s a joyful day…except for many women who stare longingly at these celebrations, wishing they, too could join the men and dance with the Torah scroll.
While I’m sympathetic to these women, I’m not among them.
One thing that my long time in conversion has taught me is that we all have different parts to play. Even after conversion, converts, at least converts today, have a very different set of expectations than born Jews. I was discussing this with a newer conversion candidate some weeks ago, who was chafing at the inequality she saw. She realized that while a born Jew can vary in their observance and even simply choose not to observe some mitzvos, that option is not as open to converts. In our community, the majority of people who attend the Orthodox Chabad Synagogue drive on Shabbos to get there. Few married women cover their hair. Most men don’t wear a kippah outside of shul. Most families eat non-kosher food regularly. Yet, for a conversion candidate to do any of these would mean they wouldn’t be converted and, after conversion, if a convert decided to make these choices they might have their conversion questioned or they might cause those who were involved in their conversion to be tougher on future conversion candidates. It’s simply the way things are and I found that being upset about the double standard didn’t help me or my family at all.
Orthodox Judaism is not egalitarian, which is in stark contrast to modern sensibilities. In the Western world, we’re raised to believe that equality is our birthright and that everyone should be treated exactly the same regardless of their gender or family name. Orthodox Judaism is more nuanced. A man may be born a Kohen or Levite and have certain privileges that other Jewish men aren’t born to as well as other restrictions on his life that other Jewish men aren’t constrained by. Men have different privileges and responsibilities than women. There is the underlying idea that every human life is equally important and precious, but there is also the idea that what that looks like isn’t always the same.
Among the laws that impact the differences between men and women are the laws that a woman above bat mitzvah age may not sing or dance in front of men, besides very close male relatives. How strictly that is observed depends a lot on the community. In actual Orthodox weddings, there is often a separate area for women to dance together, cordoned off with a temporary barrier from the men and I have seen some Synagogues that do something similar for Simchas Torah as well. To me, having grown used to the idea that some things are not for me as a non-Jew, some things are not for me even after conversion as a convert, the idea that some things are not for me because I am a woman…really isn’t revolutionary. I am able to watch and enjoy my son and husband dance with the men without envy or jealousy in the same way I can watch my husband wear a tallis without envying him.
I do not need to dance to have joy or to express my joy, but I understand how it can sting to feel excluded from something, particularly when you are coming from a majority culture where exclusion is always seen as a negative thing.
So, as my online world as I scour for last minute recipes becomes filled with women lamenting the inequality of this holiday, I can pause and relate to how they are feeling, but I also realize that I’m not one of them. I live my life already in a tangle of restrictions and exceptions and I have learned to find joy and fulfillment within that framework. If I had felt similarly and remained in that place, I probably would not have lasted this long in the conversion process. Every week, my family, in ways large and small, are excluded and if I dwelled on just that, I would soon be overwhelmed with sadness and frustration. The same way I choose instead to focus on the joy that still is there in my life even now, I choose to focus on the joy of Simchas Torah, which goes so much further beyond dancing. There is the joy that of all the nations, the Jews were the ones to accept the Torah and to be given it as a gift. There is the joy that yet again, we have finished a year long journey through it, reading and studying it and that Jews have been doing this very same thing for thousands of years. There is the joy of watching new generations encounter the Torah, wrestling with it, and making it their own.
When I think of everything that the Torah represents to Jews throughout the world and generations, as well as to my family, in some ways, I feel more comfortable with just a reverent kiss than with dancing. There is a joy that is more intimate and personal for me that doesn’t need an audience to be real, that isn’t improved or made greater by any more movement than the movement of my siddur to the Torah and to my lips, as if everything I might have expressed in wild dancing is now concentrated and distilled down into this small act.
And in that act, I am perfectly content and envious of no one.