By Eden Farber
A crisp fall morning. A march of beautiful, resonating voices. Joyous celebratory dancing. Tears; tears of both simhah and longing for more. One Torah reading by women, for women.
For the first time ever, this year my shul held a for-women-by-women Torah reading for Simhat Torah. Practicing with the Torah the day before yom tov, I was excited to have the opportunity to leyn again—this was something I’ve done before and feel is one of my most connected religious experiences. Yet what made me emotional was not when I stood at the Torah—but when my mother did. Hearing her read from the Torah for the first time in her entire life—her perfect cantilation, her poise—I just stood there, in front of the entire group, and cried. My Ima, reading the Torah—it was then that I realized how important this really was. This was about mothers showing daughters, daughters showing mothers that religion is for us, too. Three generations of women would read Torah the next day—bonding and uniting with each other through this incredible religious experience of reciting the words of our God.
A religious experience it was indeed, as after the last hakafah the women of my shul danced through the streets singing songs of the Jewish nation with a Torah in hand to what we had transformed from a spidery, musty garage to a decorated prayer room. The room was clad with streamers in the colors of Israel, and on the wall was a large banner with the verse from Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs): Hashmi’ini et kolekh, ki kolekh arev—Let me hear your voice, because it is so pleasing. (This verse was specifically chosen to honor femininity—we are proud to be Jewish women, not ashamed to ceremoniously recite the words of our Torah.) The room overflowed with listeners—there was standing room only and women were even piled out of the garage, peering in through the windows and door just trying to get a taste of the beauty. Wonderful and inspirational divrei Torah were given by our trope teacher, a woman from the community who graciously dedicated her time to this project, and another amazing woman, who has seen this community grow from its start; it was quite an honor to learn from them. We had enough readers to go through the Torah reading twice, and everyone read so beautifully and differently—hearing the differences in age, dialect, and style really made me appreciate the diversity of women we had in our community who, for the first time, had a voice. Afterward, we paraded back to the shul to finish davening. Our march was proud and strong—I felt a genuine simhahfor the Torah, one I personally had never felt in this shul before.
One woman told me a beautiful thought at shul right before the reading, while her granddaughter held the Torah: “The first time I held the Torah, I was seventy; she is seven. My granddaughter is going to grow up without having to fight for her Torah.” She was right, of course. Some twenty younger girls who came to hear their mothers, babysitters, grandmothers, or friends leyn are not going to have to fight for their Torah—by the time they are b’not mitzvah, their recitation will never be tainted by taunts or ridicule. A little girl and her mom came up to me after the reading; the mom told me that her daughter came up to the Torah to peer in while I was reading. “I never knew what it looked like. Now I could even read it!” she said. How beautiful that this seven-year-old had the opportunity to see the Torah, what a connection she built.
This is not an egalitarian community, and that’s fine. The women reading Torah did not read it to say, “Hah!”—they read it to read it. These women, whom I am proud to know, wanted a genuine religious experience. They wanted to connect to God in a way they never had before—yet in a way they knew they must; they wanted their daughters to see their future as strong and independent talmidot Torah. They are building Am Yisrael.
Watching one of my own hanikhot (campers), who was too young to leyn at this reading (though she did learn to leyn with us) but got to watch her mother and grandmother read, reminded me of the other side of why this was so important. It's not only the mothers setting religious examples for their daughters, but entire communities creating new models. It was not just important to me; it was not about a personal opportunity to leyn. Because at the end of the day, I am an individual, and this was an event of a community—a community of women that wanted to learn and develop a skill, and teach unto their children, as the Torah tells us; a community that would defy gravity if they had to, just to learn. The message was loud and clear: We matter, our daughters matter, and this Torah is our Torah too.
What was your experience the first time you attended Women's Tefilah?
If you had never heard a woman read Torah before, how did you feel the first time you heard a woman leyn?