Women, Kids – and Men! – in Shul on Simchas Torah

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Dancing children silhouettes.
20 Sep 2018

Recently, I wrote about parents bringing kids to shul and trying to navigate the interplay of their own needs, their kids’ needs, and the needs of those around them. Predictably, reactions varied widely, ranging from “Yes! I relate to this so much! Every word!” to polite but firmly worded expositions on the reasons not to bring kids to shul, and the availability and value of other options for parents.

I agree with all of them, because I like balance and balance involves taking multiple sides into account – which is really what the article was about.

And there is plenty more to say on the topic(s), but not yet. (Stay tuned!) For now, I’d like to pull out one piece of the discussion to discuss in a particular context: the piece involving kavod in shul tefilah, and specifically on Simchas Torah.

I’ve always loved Simchas Torah. One of my fondest teenage memories is of one year my friend and I really danced up a storm, getting all the kids to dance with us. For the past several years, I’ve been writing up a storm, doing my best to get all the women to dance with me.

I’ve written to argue that Simchas Torah isn’t only for men, that women have a firm portion in Torah that is worth celebrating, and that there is good cause to express that celebration specifically through dancing – regardless of whether or not there is a Torah on the women’s side. I’ve argued, too, that our kids need to see our joy in our equal portion in G-d’s Torah, on this day of almost universal acceptance of children’s presence in shul. (See here and here for two examples if you’re interested.)

Of course, all this dancing, and all those kids, can sometimes contribute to all that hefkerus – chaos. In many shuls, there is a sense of letting loose on Simchas Torah: the mechitza might be moved a bit (so women can watch the men dance instead of dancing ourselves, I guess); candy abounds; people of all ages mill around chatting through hakafos and even afterwards, during Torah reading and mussaf. Many congregations engage in extra silliness during mussaf itself, tying up the chazzan or switching sides of the mechitza just for fun.

V’nahafoch hu. There’s a reason people often compare Simchas Torah, somewhat disparagingly,  to Purim and its revelry. But contrary to another common Simchas Torah practice, there is no mitzvah to get drunk on Simchas Torah. (We’ll leave drinking on Purim – and the question of bringing kids to Megillah reading – for another time.) And though I appreciate the unity-building aspects of a little congregational silliness, I can’t help wondering what it has to do with Simchas Torah.

Simchas Torah also seems to have evolved as a time to honor community members – to the extent that I see more and more questions raised about how to find ways to honor women as well as men. Men are leading hakafos and getting aliyot and serving as Chatan Torah or Chatan Bereishit, and it seems we view these things as such honors for them that people have begun to notice the gender discrepancy and look for ways to honor women as well, coming up with ideas such as dedicating each hakafa to a different man or woman.

Recognizing the women and men who serve our communities is another goal I can get behind, but also one whose connection to the day confuses me.

In the course of the research that led to last year’s article about women dancing on Simchas Torah, I came across various texts that reminded me our celebrations might actually have room to improve on all sides of the mechitza.

For instance, I found it sobering to read a teshuva of the Maharik, Rabbi Yosef ben Solomon Colon (France, ca. 1420-1480). The questioner described a custom in which a community member would donate money to the shul lighting fund in exchange for being the first to read from the Torah on Shabbos Bereishis. They were careful that if there was a kohen in the congregation, who technically should get the first aliyah, he would either be the one to buy it or forgo his priestly kavod and leave the shul while someone else read. The question posed to the Maharik involved a kohen who refused either to buy the mitzvah or to leave, though another local shul did not have this custom and was willing to give him the first aliyah at no cost. The kohen’s fellow congregants had decided to bar him from entering their shul, so as to preserve their longstanding minhag, and the questioner wanted the Maharik’s view of the situation.

There’s a lot to talk about in both the scenario presented by the questioner and the Maharik’s response, but I’d like to share this one line in particular that caught my eye:

…מנהג הזה שהוא כבוד התורה ועלויה דפשיטא שהיא מתעלה כשקופצים לקרות קריאת פתיחתה בדמים אין לך חביב התורה גדול מזה.

…this minhag, which honors and exalts the Torah – for it is obvious that it is exalted when people jump to read its opening, with payment; there is no greater [expression of] endearment for the Torah than this.

(With thanks to those who helped me brainstorm this translation.)

It was jarring to me to read the Maharik’s description of bidding for the privilege of Chatan Bereishit as the highest expression of honor for the Torah.

Is that how we think of Chatan Bereishit today? Or do we view Chatan Bereishit more as an honor for the individual who gets it?

And what about other roles, such as leading each hakafa? According to the Mishna Berurah (669 s.k. 5), dancing on Yom Tov is only even permitted because it’s for kavod haTorah. What does it say about the kavod in our Simchas Torah dancing, if we can talk about dedicating each round of it to a person?

What does it say about any of our expressions of honor for Torah on Simchas Torah, if we find ourselves worrying about equalizing honor among people? Is this really the best occasion on which to honor individuals, or does it detract from the actual point of our celebrations?

For years, I had a single-minded focus on encouraging women to dance on Simchas Torah – and then a friend pointed out to me last year how many men were also hanging around chatting instead of dancing. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about the women.

Has the whole institution of hakafos on Simchas Torah become rote? Have we become so focused on the honors, or on the silliness, that we’re forgetting why we dance?

Do people just not like dancing anymore? Do we need to find new ways to show our kavod haTorah, to express our joy at completing the yearly cycle of Torah readings and starting it anew?

A tricky prospect, given how established the minhagim of dancing on Simchas Torah have become. The Mishna Berurah (s.k. 6) cites the Maharik’s extreme concern for maintaining practices which have been adopted on Simchas Torah for kavod, as well as the following poignant line:

ולכן רעה עושין בהרבה מקומות במה שביטלו מקרוב שלא לעשות משתה ושמחה בשמחת תורה אף גם ששמחין בשארי ימים וכל ימיהם כחגים ובעו”ה ביזוי כבוד התורה גרם זה שהתורה מונחת בקרן זוית ואין דורש ואין מבקש…

Therefore, what they do in many places is bad, that they have recently nullified feasting and rejoicing on Simchas Torah, though they rejoice on other days and all their days are like holidays, and in our many sins, disgrace for the kavod of the Torah has caused this, for the Torah is left in a corner and no one seeks it…

We haven’t (yet) officially cancelled our Simchas Torah celebrations, but one might wonder whether we sometimes abandon the Torah in a metaphorical corner while we hang out and chat and wonder when we can make kiddush.

(I’m all for kiddush breaks, because I’m generally in favor of food – but food is of course not (supposed to be) the reason we’re in shul. Neither, it should go without saying, is alcohol.)

And to return to the question of kids in shul: While I am a proponent of bringing children who can behave reasonably appropriately to shul within reason, and fully support defining those terms more loosely on Simchas Torah and having fun – even on Simchas Torah, our choices have to be made carefully, regarding our own behavior as well as that of our children.

Perhaps we can take some guidance from a line my mother once noticed in a haggadah, advising that the Pesach seder should be conducted in “joyous solemnity.” We thought that was a funny phrase, and enjoyed trying to arrange our faces in appropriate expressions – which probably detracted from the solemnity we were supposed to be aiming for. It is, however, really an apt description of much of our holiday observance. We are commanded to rejoice on the holidays, but it should never be purely about our own enjoyment.

(See, for instance, the Netziv’s commentary on Devarim 16:15, where he suggests the requirement of heading to the Beis Hamikdash was designed to ensure that our holiday celebrations – which he understands specifically to involve dancing – do not become too personal. Instead, they must be focused on “eternity … the nation’s existence and its behaviors in holiness” and must be conducted in the spirit of “gilu b’r’adat kodesh” – “rejoice with trembling of holiness.” Interestingly, he also comments that there is a mitzvah to dance even if one does not feel joyful in his heart.)

Of course, I could be wrong. Who am I to judge? Maybe roles are indeed parceled out with the goal of honoring the Torah through connection with esteemed community members, even when it begins to look like we’re more interested in honoring the community members themselves. Maybe the silliness and even chaos we often see is all coming from a place of pure unbridled love and joy for Torah, even when it looks like we’ve let our hair a little too far down.

Long ago, King David danced through the streets with such unreserved enthusiasm that Michal thought to rebuke him for his display. The king, however, rebuked her right back: What looked to her like inappropriate frivolity was really an expression of David’s pure joy “before G-d”; he explains that he is perfectly willing to forgo his personal honor for the sake of G-d’s – for that is the true honor. (Shmuel II 6:21-22)

Of course, it must have been hard for Michal to resist judging by appearances, as she was a spectator rather than a participant. The best way, perhaps, to avoid judging others is to get off the sidelines and into the fray. To join the dancing – with joy and just the right touch of solemnity.

I’ll see you there.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.