Trying to Find Simcha in Simchat Torah
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Trying to Find Simcha in Simchat Torah

A reflection on how to make Simchat Torah a holiday for everyone to celebrate equally

credit to Shulamit Seidler-Feller
credit to Shulamit Seidler-Feller

There are two holidays during our year on which we celebrate the Torah, Simchat Torah and Shavuot. And although the idea of  “celebrating the Torah” might be the same, the way in which we do it is very different. 

Shavuot is spent with our minds. We stay up as late as we can learning, delvinging deeper in Jewish text. Learning late into the night, during times where usually are not awake, let alone contemplating or comprehending a difficult text. 

Simchat Torah is celebrated with our bodies and souls. We hug and kiss the Torah. We take the Torah and dance with it. The Torah becomes something that is tangible. It is not about how much we can understand, it is about knowing the pure love and connection we have to the Torah and to God. 

Simchat Torah is celebrated with our bodies and souls. We hug and kiss the Torah. We take the Torah and dance with it. The Torah becomes something that is tangible. It is not about how much we can understand, it is about knowing the pure love and connection we have to the Torah and to God. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe talks about the differences of these two holidays.

…On this level, a person’s relationship with the Torah is determined by his individual talents and behavior: the more one studies, the more one knows; the greater one’s mind, the deeper one’s comprehension; and if one acts contrary to the Torah’s commandments, one is no longer worthy of it….But on Simchat Torah we celebrate our bond with the quintessence of Torah. So the Torah remains scrolled and covered—we are grasping it rather than its words and precepts. We dance with the Torah rather than study it, because we are relating to that dimension of Torah which embraces each and every Jew equally, regardless of knowledge and spiritual station. In dancing, we all relate equally to the Torah: the sweat of the scholar is no more profound than that of his illiterate brother, and the feet of the saint move no more piously than those of the boor.

On Simchat Torah we are all equal: equal in our inability to fathom the essence of Torah, and equal in our intrinsic and inviolable connection to it.”

In dancing, we all relate equally to the Torah: the sweat of the scholar is no more profound than that of his illiterate brother, and the feet of the saint move no more piously than those of the boor.

I am someone who loves Shavuot, but honestly, someone who  dislikes Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah is the day that has come to remind me that I am so far away from the Torah. Simchat Torah is the day that reminds me that most people think that the Torah “belongs” to men, and it will never be mine no matter how much I and others might fight. In many shuls, there is nothing for the women to do other than watch the men and children. In a shul I once went to often, on Simchat Torah the tradition was for the women to stand up in the women’s section and throw candy down at the children – that was their only simcha of Torah. 

In other places that do allow for women to participate in a meaningful way, the dancing (both with and without a Torah) becomes a political statement, rather than truly allowing women to feel joy with the Torah. We have come to a place where we are praising institutions that allow women to dance, we laude shuls that will allow a Torah to be put in the same room as the women dancing, and exalt those who allow the women to hold and dance with the Torah. 

It is great that every year there is a list of the shuls that have hakafot for women. It allows women to make choices of where they can go daven and celebrate the Torah. But I am longing for a day where that list does not have to exist. A time where it is not a big deal that the women will also be dancing and celebrating the Torah. A time where my interaction with the Torah is not a political statement. 

I am longing … for a time where it is not a big deal that the women will also be dancing and celebrating the Torah. A time where my interaction with the Torah is not a political statement. 

On Shavuot, the night of serious learning has been opened for women. We are now allowed to engage with the text of the Torah in a serious and somber way. Women are allowed to  engage with the Torah only if and when they show they are “intellectually capable”. 

Simchat Torah is supposed to be the holiday that allows every Jew, no matter their gender, to partake in the joy that is the Torah. Everyone should be able to partake in dancing, singing, and even the candy. 

Simchat Torah is not meant to be a children’s holiday. Simchat Torah is not meant to be a men’s holiday. Simchat Torah is supposed to be the holiday that allows every Jew, no matter their gender, to partake in the joy that is the Torah. Everyone should be able to partake in dancing, singing, and even the candy. 

Rabbi Eryn London is the JOFA UK scholar in residence

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