Leading Hoshanot

Mon, 09/23/2013 - 12:33pm -- Anonymous (not verified)

By Arwen Kuttner

I was raised in a non-Orthodox home, but over the years have felt the desire to learn and observe more and more. For many years I've been part of the Orthodox community because I've wanted to "do Judaism" in what seemed to me the fullest way possible.

Sadly, these two desires -- passion for more and a desire to be within the Orthodox community -- sometimes collide painfully.

This is most apparent for me at Sukkot and on Simchat Torah. These are times of celebration when all our strict observance throughout the year--and especially the intense observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--suddenly transforms into celebration. After the hard work of standing in synagogue for three days, one of them while fasting, we finally come to Sukkot. We hold the lulav (palm fronds) and etrog (citrus fruit) and circle the Torah for Hoshanot. Then on Simchat Torah we dance joyously with the Torah in our arms and sing until we're hoarse… except that “we” so often excludes women.

Every year the crescendo of the year grows, and then suddenly, as we reach the peak, women simply step aside. As I’ve grown in observance over the years I’ve often felt that the women whose observance of Torah most reflects a commitment to and love for it, are expected to be the most contained from it at these celebrations, standing behind a mechitzah (partition) and merely watching.

Now, in my community there is an alternative minyan. Minyan Tiferet meets about every four-six weeks and follows the model of Shira Hadasha minyanim in which women and men both participate in the service within halachic bounds. Years ago when it began, I wasn't sure I wanted to become involved. I was nervous about whether it really would be halachic and even wondered about the motivations of others involved. I wondered if they wanted some kind of less serious version of Judaism. Then something happened that left me feeling utterly isolated within my own community.

That year at Sukkot our rabbi eagerly led the men of our synagogue outside for Hoshanot. I had anticipated this and asked ahead of time if he could also announce a circle for women. He agreed and announced that we could walk in our own circle. I stood alone for a moment meekly holding my lulav and etrog, but no one joined me. No precedent had been set. Our community was completely unaccustomed to including women. I felt embarrassed and alone. Gone was the prescribed joy of the holiday and I wanted to go home.

So that's when Evan Hochberg, the founder of Minyan Tiferet approached me. He told me how years ago he had been in synagogue and saw something similar happen. There were several women who had enthusiastically been praying throughout the service. When it came time for the Hoshanot, they quietly finished praying and left as the men joyously circled the synagogue. Evan told me he couldn’t imagine celebrating as a community when half the community could not participate.

So I decided to give Minyan Tiferet a try. I asked a lot of questions that helped me feel more confident in the halachic nature of the minyan. I found quickly that on the weeks it met, I enjoyed being there more than I enjoyed being in synagogue. Soon Evan asked me to join the Board. Before long, I helped plan a meaningful Torah learning event during the summer, learned how to leyn (read Torah) and I became the coordinator for Torah readings. In short, I got hooked.

Last year, we had our first Sukkot service and I was given the opportunity to lead the Hoshanot service. Evan held the Torah between the men's and women's sides. The men circled on their side, the women circled on theirs, and everyone participated while I called out the Hoshanot in my loudest, proudest voice. Let me say that again... everyone participated. Even my five-year old daughter walked beside me carrying her toy lulav and etrog and didn't once interrupt with a tug on my sleeve. She could feel the importance. That night when we talked about the good and bad of our day she named the Hoshanot as one of her most important things.

The Torah actually prescribes us to approach Sukkot with joy. Yet how often do we hear laments about a lack of simcha (joy), a lack of passion, a lack of participation?

I’ve had the simcha and the passion for a long time. It only gets shaky when I can’t express it. Now that I can fully participate I can once again follow what the Torah asks of me on Sukkot, to rejoice and be completely happy.

Originally from Oregon, Arwen Kuttner currently writes and teaches in Bergen County, NJ. Publications include articles at http://www.aish.com,  blog posts at Powerful Learning Practice, fiction at Fiction365 and an anthology of poetry called Gathering Pieces.


Submitted by Charles Kuttner (not verified) on
...OK, I am biased...I'm Arwen's father. I went to my Orthodox shul this morning--yes, our daughter led us into Orthodoxy--and joyously joined in Hakafot with the other men. Not a woman was in sight, or for that matter, out of sight, on the other side of the mechitzah. In shul over the coming two holy days, there will be women there, but essentially excluded from celebrating Simchat Torah. I am so delighted to know that minyanin like Tiferet exists. When the women I love (daughter, granddaughter, wife) and care about (my many friends) are excluded, my joy is diminished. Hashem made both genders from one person and we can't be complete without all being able to join in.

Submitted by Jennifer Seligman (not verified) on
yashar cochech! I am thinking of asking people in my community if they're at all interested in a similar minyan..let's hope there are good results:)

Submitted by Rachel Diamond (not verified) on
I live in Israel on a religious moshav in the Jordan Valley (previously a graduate of the Joint Program). I can accept women dancing in their minyan with Sifre Torah on Simchat Torah. But the mitzvah of the "Arbaat Haminim"(lulav and etrog)is only on men- so is Hoshanot.It's the same thing with the "Women of the Kotel"-if they weren't looking all the time to make a spectacle of themselves, and just came as everyone does on Rosh Chodesh, they wouldn't have so much trouble.I'm sorry that I don't agree with you on this.

Submitted by Miriam Oles (not verified) on
My mother, Rebbetzin Dr. Chava Oles a"h, who passed away a year ago at the age of 88, organized a hoshanot procession for women at our Orthodox synagogue for several years, until the rabbi asked her to stop a few years ago. She used to call some of the women members of the congregation before yontef, to remind them to get to shul in time with their lulavim and etrogim, so that they could participate. The rabbi asked her personally to stop this practice. Though she was an ardent and knowledgeable Orthodox feminist who did not hesitate to argue for her point of view, she told me that she felt had not choice but to respect the rabbi's wishes in this case. In light of the information about how your rabbi handled it, it may be worth re-visiting with the rabbi of my mother's (and my) congregation.

Submitted by Zmira Cohen (not verified) on
I feel exactly like Arwen about creating the opportunity for participation of women in all shul rituals., including dancing with the sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah , circling the bimah while chanting Hoshanot etc .Not surprisingly I can do none of this in any of my local orthodox shuls. Some of us have formed a group who meet once a month on an Erev Shabbat to hold a service and for the past 3 years we have held a service on Simchat Torah at night The only way to achieve some measure of parity , is to keep on informing ourselves with knowledge and not giving up! Incidentally , we also have a group of women who hold a Megillah reading on Purim each year , for about the past 20 now. No matter how many times I attend shul services ,and I have all my life since I was a small child, the only times I feel a real benefit , feel part of it , is when I am part of it,. The converse is also true..... Surely that should resonate with every fair minded person? Kol ha kavod to you Arwen . Long may you continue and bring back meaning and purpose into the lives of women, men and families within Jewish communities, who want to live and celebrate their Jewish identity, within a synagogue setting.

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