Naomi Ragen: An Orthodox Woman on the Bima

November, 01 2012

Our columnist leaves her comfort zone and accepts an aliyah for the first time.

While the media persistently shout out fear-mongering headlines about the rise of fanaticism among Orthodox Jews, be it Jewish women in burkas, black-suited draft dodgers or bearded vigilantes herding women to the back of the bus, the truth is, something good is happening in Orthodoxy.

It’s not making headlines, and it’s not moving along at a breakneck pace, but rather, slowly and quietly, Orthodox Jewry is asserting its will to foster more gender equality in ritual and greater tolerance for diversity of opinion and practice.

Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan, is head of an organization called the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and one of the prime movers of the Orthodox Spring. Without much fanfare, the Institute has been publishing an influential journal called Conversations, in which distinguished Orthodox rabbis and personalities express a wide cross-section of eye-opening opinions on subjects ranging from Orthodox religious education to the state of Orthodoxy in family and gender issues, encouraging a new kind of leadership.

In its Autumn 2012 edition, for example, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow made a spirited case for reconciling the seeming contradiction between Jewish tradition and democracy: “The Torah recognizes that what is accepted by the enlightened nations of the world is something appropriate for emulation by the Jewish people.” Cherlow, a retired IDF major, heads a Yeshivat Hesder in Petach Tikva that combines Torah study with army service. In the same issue, MK Rabbi Chaim Amsellem argues passionately against the ultra-Orthodox war on conversions: “No one person has a monopoly on the Torah and the interpretation of halacha…a conversion judge must be lenient and not afraid to make the difficult decisions.” Similarly, Orthodox attorney Susan Weiss, head of the Center for Women’s Justice, outlines the problems in Israeli law and the rabbinic courts, arguing for sweeping reforms and maintaining that “we Israelis and Jews of all denominations, including the ultra-Orthodox, deserve a more hopeful, pluralistic and tolerant reality.”

To those who say that these are still just words, I present here my own personal Orthodox Spring.

For years, my husband and I have joined my eldest son Asher and his wife Anat at their self-defined Orthodox egalitarian minyan in Modi’in, a city halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It has the traditional mechitzah separating men and women down the middle, except that their mechitzah goes right through the bima, thus both virtually and symbolically allowing for the equal division of conducting the synagogue service between women and men, something I originally found shocking, as did some other Orthodox congregations in their neighborhood. Women read the Torah, are honored with aliyot during the Torah reading and even give the Sabbath “speech,” tasks that for my entire life I considered exclusively male.

I admit that at first all offers to hand me a sacred scroll, or to honor me by calling me up to the Torah, were met with an almost panicked refusal. What, me, a mere woman, hold a sacred Torah scroll that I have all my life only seen from a distance?  I might drop it! Or profane it. But then I thought: It’s not heavier than a child, and I’ve never dropped one of those. And what about me was less worthy than the average male shul-goer?

While I gradually became convinced that there was no halachic reason prohibiting my participation—the only reason given by the sages for any prohibition was that it would “dishonor” the congregation, something that certainly isn’t valid anymore—still, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Years of attending male-dominated synagogue services had atrophied some part of me. It was just too late for me.

“Maybe next year, Anat,” I’d apologize to my daughter-in-law.

“That’s what you say every year,” she’d sigh.

But after years of reading Conversations and meeting with Rabbi Angel, something happened to me this Simchat Torah. For the first time in my life, I accepted an aliyah to the Torah.  As I walked to the bima and saw the Torah scroll spread out, I realized that I had never in my life seen the inside of this most sacred object in Jewish life. I was surprised at the beautiful writing and the lack of any pointing. It had to be memorized to be correctly read. I was told to use a velvet cloth to touch the letters and then to kiss it. I was given the words of the bracha to read, which I did with surprising ease, the words being familiar to me from a lifetime of listening to the men say it. Grasping the wooden handle of the scroll, and then moving aside, I felt for the first time a sense of being worthy enough to enter the realm of familiarity with the most sacred rituals of my people. It was an unforgettable experience.

Anat, also brought up in a traditional Orthodox environment, surprisingly feels no such barriers. She’s learned not only how to read the Torah for the congregation but how to deliver Sabbath sermons, providing a wonderful role model to my three granddaughters.  Aviyah, the eldest at eight years of age, has already taken on the little boy’s role of leading the congregation in the Anim Zemirot chant that closes the service, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And for my granddaughters, and their daughters, it will be.

One thought on “Naomi Ragen: An Orthodox Woman on the Bima

  1. Beth says:

    I’m eagerly waiting for the series of novels about ortho-egalitarian communities, Naomi Ragen.

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