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(This first appeared on the Times of Israel in April 2013)

I have been called a pseudo-feminist. I like to talk the talk, but don’t really walk the walk. I fulfill the traditional female role and am happy with that. I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister and a friend. Yes, I am a woman too, but that is just part of who I am.

I follow the happenings with the Women of the Wall, but I don’t really discuss it that much – personally I believe politics and religion shouldn’t mix, and everyone has the right to serve God in the way that’s most meaningful to them, but that’s a blog post for a different day.

I complain regularly about the shul which we attend – unless you are sitting in the front row of the women’s gallery you cannot really see anything that’s going on. But instead of trying to change things, I just don’t go often to shul. I have enough on my plate without pushing to change things that will never be changed. Plus I enjoy my Shabbat morning lie-in, snuggled up with a good book.

We spent part of Pesach with family in Maryland. While the family aspect is always a major draw for me, I also love their shul. The sanctuary of this Orthodox shul is split down the middle – women on the right, men on the left. The mechitza is kosher, but also enables one to see everything that’s going on. When the rabbi speaks, he addresses the entire congregation.

After the Torah reading, when the Torah scrolls are being returned to the Aron Kodesh, they are carried through both sections so that everyone present can touch / kiss the Torah. Obviously we cannot have a man walk through the ladies’ gallery, so each week one of the women present is chosen to carry the Torah through to the front. There is no Halachic prohibition to this, despite any rumors you may have heard to the contrary. Those that say a woman cannot carry the Torah because she could be impure are wrong, as a Sefer Torah cannot become impure. The most important thing for anyone holding a Torah is that their hands should be clean.

When I was there, I was asked if I wanted the honor of carrying the Torah. Of course I jumped at the chance – when else am I ever going to have the opportunity to do something like this? Certainly not in Monsey, that’s for sure.

I waited at the back of the shul to have the Sefer Torah handed over to me, and my knees started knocking together. What would happen if I dropped it? What would happen if I tripped in my high heels? The Sefer Torah was placed in my arms, and I was shown how to hold it securely. My heart was beating a mile a minute.

I walked slowly toward the front, stopping with almost every step to allow the ladies to kiss the Torah or touch it with the spine of their siddur. I felt like a bride walking toward her groom. I was filled with awe – I was holding our tradition in my arms, carrying the future, the present and the past. All too soon my walk was over, and I had to hand the Torah scroll back so that it could be returned to the Aron Kodesh.

It may not be a big thing – after all, so many people get to carry a Sefer Torah, but for me this was a huge deal. Yes, probably part of me enjoyed the rebelliousness of it. Not that it was a rebellious act at all, but when you live in a very religious enclave, some “normal” acts can seem like rebellion. But mostly I appreciated being part of the service, participating in some way. Orthodox Judaism does not have much opportunity for women to be involved during prayer services – this is a wonderful way for women to be included.

I wish there were more ways for women to feel involved at an Orthodox shul during the prayer services, but honestly, most of the time I am accepting of the status quo. There are bigger issues to be fighting for.

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  1. Abe Kohen says:

    What are the “bigger issues [worth] fighting for?” When you see an accident, do you wait for others to call Hatzalah/ambulance? It’s time to step up to the plate.

  2. Risa says:

    I am a card carrying orthodox feminist and have been in this game since before you (and many of the WOW gals) were born.
    Thing is that it’s not the same as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King desegregating the busses or winning voter registration reform. Judaism isn’t a democracy or even a representative government. And it’s not about what ‘we’ want. Judaism has its own rules and change doesn’t come about by force or even by majority votes. It happens gradually and by an evolving consensus in places like that shul you visited.
    In the best of all worlds it wouldn’t even be a fight, it would be a recognition of the nee to nurture our genuine feelings of closeness to Tora and mitzvot and find a place for us in the ritual.
    So for the meantime we take what is offered because although it’s wonderful to feel that inclusion there really are bigger issues that demand our attention. (That by the way, IMHO, is the walk and the talk of orthodox feminism.)

  3. Abe Kohen says:

    And what are the bigger issues you refer to? Agunot? Do you think that male rabbis will solve that one without any action by feminists? Can I sell you the Brooklyn Bridge? Someone once told me (I did not ask his permission for attribution) that he asked the Rav, when will women get aliyot (aliyas) in shul? The Rav answered: when they write the checks!

    • tesyaa says:

      Plenty of women are underwriting their families’ lives while their husbands learn in bais medrash, yet they have no decisionmaking power whatsoever.

      Why a woman would let herself be in this situation, I have no idea.

  4. Otir says:

    I find it very meaningful to be allowed as a woman to participate in the service where I worship.

    Women are often doing more than men in terms of supporting their families, especially when the man has decided to leave the family behind: it is the case in my family. But even if there had been a pious man to stand by us, I would still find it meaningful to be allowed to participate in the holy service. It helps me tackle the more mundane responsibilities that I have.

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