"You're doing it wrong": Finding my voice on Simchat Torah
At twelve (or sometimes thirteen), a Jewish girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah. Bat Mitzvah means daughter of the commandments, which, for a religious girl, means taking on the obligations and traditions of the Jewish religion. The Bat Mitzvah celebration and ceremony is a relatively new invention, as compared to an equivalent ritual for boys, but it is important and beautiful nonetheless. After my Bat Mitzvah, I was eager to participate at my synagogue as much as I could. I like to sing and I had gone to a religious day school my entire life, so in a religion where the line between song and prayer is often blurry, there were many chances to be involved. The problem, though, is that depending upon which part of the Jewish religious spectrum you lie, as a woman you may be limited to participating in certain services, only at certain occasions, or not at all. (I’ve posted previously on this topic.)
The Torah is a central part of religious Jewish life, and an important aspect of many Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. As a symbol, it represents the stories and laws that form the basis of Jewish practice and values. As an object, it plays a central role in many synagogue rituals. At my synagogue, women had the opportunity to chant full sections from the Torah only once a year, on the holiday that immediately follows Sukkot: Simchat Torah, which literally means Joy of the Torah. On this day, synagogue congregations celebrate completing a reading of the entire handwritten Torah scroll, having read one portion in synagogue each week all year long. It is tradition to take out all the Torah scrolls that belong to a synagogue, to sing and dance with them, and to give every member an opportunity to be a part of the reading by saying a blessing and listening to a section be chanted.
My synagogue sets up tables around the room, some for men and some for women, and for an hour or so, people can visit the tables to receive an honour. When I was thirteen, I stood at a table chanting. I was pretty proud of my skills, and glad of the opportunity to participate, until an older man came over to my table and told me that I was doing it wrong – that I had to wear a tallit, a garment historically been worn by Jewish men (much like tefillin). While in some denominations of Judaism both men and women wear tallit and tefillin (and some Barbies do, too!), this was rare at my synagogue. On that particular Simchat Torah, there were a few women wearing tallitot – the ‘radical feminists’ of my syngagogue community – but it was such a foreign idea to me at the time that I even cringed at the thought. The man continued to pressure me, slandering my skills and placing me in an uncomfortable position. My thirteen-year-old self had no idea how to handle the situation. I waited till he finished, excused myself to go to the bathroom, and didn’t return. I didn’t read Torah again, or act as a leader in religious services of any kind for several years. I hated being told that there was a way I had to be, or rules I had to obey, when I was still trying to figure things out for myself.
Today, I am much a much more liberal Jew in terms of religious ritual than my synagogue allowed me to be when I was thirteen. I believe wholeheartedly in both men and women leading prayer services and other religious rituals, although there are a lot of issues that I am still struggling with. But Simchat Torah, arriving this Friday, is still my least favourite holiday. I still do not wear a tallit, although I tried it once. I probably never will.