As somewhat of a critic of organized religion (despite converting to an organized religion), one of my biggest complaints has always lied within some religions’ problem of misogyny. Religious texts placing questionable constructs on women have shaped civilization throughout the centuries, with the 19th and 20th centuries seeing a sharp and necessary advent in women’s rights, paving the ground work of creating equality with men. This has been seen in both secular and religious settings, the former providing women with access to education, jobs, and civil rights, and the latter encouraging egalitarianism in liberal synagogues and even rabbinic certification.
Regardless, more work needs to be done, and this is clearly evidenced by the recent actions of the Orthodox Jewish Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland. According to a Haaretz.com article, two female students, Lea Herzfeld and Yakira Zimand, wanted to carry their school’s Torah scroll around the sanctuary like their male classmates.
“We just felt like we were sitting in davening and didn’t have a meaningful experience. We don’t participate with anything with the Torah,” said Herzfeld. “We go to the back of the room whenever the Torah is being passed around and kiss it from a tiny spot behind the mehitzah.”
“It feels really uncomfortable to have a ton of girls try and squish into that really small spot to have any contact with the Torah,” said Zimand.
The students’ request was denied by the school’s headmaster, Joshua Levisohn. He stated that if the students acquired enough signatures on a petition, the issue would be reexamined. However, since their Change.org petition is “public” and not within the “school community”, the signatures are invalid. This controversy comes a decade after the school finally allowed boys to carry the Torah to the girls’ side of the sanctuary, permitting them to touch or kiss it.
Some may argue, “Well, it’s Orthodoxy. They’re obligated to follow all 613 mitzvot.” True, except there is no rule that says women cannot carry the Torah. Anywhere. It’s a social construct with ZERO halachic value. Still, the headmaster asserts that allowing girls to carry the Torah “narrows the separation between men and women in davening” and creates a “slippery slope, of using unorthodox methods for change in Orthodox practices.” I wholly disagree.
Women carrying the Torah around their sections do absolutely nothing to break the congregational divide of women and men in shul. It gives them the right to actively live and breathe their Judaism, to celebrate the physical evidence of their bond with God and Israel.
Additionally, women are carrying the Torah in more Orthodox congregations than ever now. Levisohn stated that “only” 20% of Orthodox congregations in the D.C. area allow women to carry, as if that’s supposed to justify his ruling. 20% is not a majority, but it’s also not scant. That’s a solid 1/5th of D.C. Orthodox Jewry openly saying that women have just as much a right to carry the most sacred of Jewish objects as men do. That number needs to grow, but it’s a damn good start.
But let’s put aside that this rule is clearly based on misogyny and has nothing to do with halacha. It’s giving Jewish girls and women a clear message that they aren’t good enough to embrace the Torah; and that, of course, drives them away from Judaism.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, weighed in by saying, “I’m not sure why it should be problematic to give women a moment with the sefer Torah, our holiest object,” adding that because of this baseless rule, “women aren’t showing up” to daven due to alienation. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like a pretty big responsibility of congregations is to NOT lose members.
Judaism, no matter the branch, is supposed to encourage all Jews to “do God” without judgment or shame, particularly by performing a ritual that honors their sacred yoke without breaking it. Forbidding an act solely for being “unusual” halts progress and contradicts the very values that make Judaism such a rich and beautiful religious civilization.
I encourage all Orthodox clergy to reexamine this rule, and more importantly, to ask their girls and women what they think. They may very well be surprised at how many people want to see a change take place; a change that can and will bring even more female congregants closer to their Judaism, and in turn, could very well change the world.