Women, Song and Dance

Q: Dear Rabbi Simon,

In this week’s Torah reading, Miriam leads the women in song (and dance), and in the haftarah Devora near enough leads them in battle as well. She definitely sings about the victory which followed. Against this backdrop, I don't understand the problem concerning women parading with the Sefer Torah on Shabbat or dancing with it on Simchat Torah. Another rabbi I know has quoted the following passages, in response to a query on this subject.

The Talmud states, “Words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah (ritual impurity)” (Ber. 22a). Maimonides says, “All who are tamei (ritually impure) and even niddot… may hold the scroll of the Torah and even read from it, because the words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah. All this is permissible with the proviso that one’s hands should not be unclean…in which case one should wash his hands and afterwards touch it” (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 10:8).

Sounds okay to me. What do you think? I need your guidance on this women stuff – it's an increasingly hot potato and one which I'm ill equipped to assess.



A: Dear Shmuel

Thank you for your question on a topical, not to say controversial, issue.

I agree with those who seek to expand women’s role in Jewish life, including synagogue ritual and participation – up to a point. The problem is that one has to take a broader view of such socio-religious trends than just to cite the opinion of the Rambam, as above.

In the 1920’s, the Chofetz Chaim and the Belzer Rebbe supported Sara Schneirer, founder of the Beis Yaakov movement (Torah education for women and girls, a radical innovation in its day) because they recognised the problem she sought to address/ameliorate and they respected her G-d-fearing nature and impeccable motives. Within a single generation she brought about a bloodless revolution in Orthodox Jewish life which continues until this day. However much of contemporary (Orthodox) Jewish feminist aspiration (agitation?) is more a product of a “me-too” impulse and general cultural animus to any and all gender distinctions (including, increasingly, biological and even anatomical ones) than a desire to deepen a woman’s relationship with Hashem. While this characterisation is necessarily a generalisation which inevitably impugns the pure motivation of some individual women, matters of communal policy in the public sphere must take account of widespread perception and implications as much as the specific intent of exceptional individuals. (This is essentially the thrust of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s 1976 responsum on “Women’s Liberation” OH 4:49.)

rabbi rashi simon