10/22/2006

Simchat Torah and Egalitarianism

One of the central messages of Simchat Torah, if not the central message, is that every Jew has a stake in the Torah. The Gr”a used the verse ‘ve-haya ba-yom ha-hu, hinei Elokeinu zeh’ and the Talmudic drasha of that verse, namely, that in the future all of the righteous will form a circle around God and point toward Him, to explain the idea of hakafot. He explains that hakafot look forward to a time when hierarchies are no longer necessary and we can all participate in a circle, geometrically defined as the set of points in a plane where each point is equidistant from the center. None are closer or further from the center in a circle. Because of this rationale, there are those who insist that during hakafot no person occupies the center of the circle, the space symbolically reserved for God. We demonstrate the everyone’s access to Torah by giving aliyot to everyone, even children. All is symbolic of a time of future redemption, when this vision will come to fruition.
In this sense, Simchat Torah is the Jewish holiday which best lends itself to egalitarian practice. Equal access to Torah is something to be celebrated by all – men, women, and children. The desire by those, especially women, who feel sidelined by the traditional celebration to take a more participatory role can be seen to be very much consistent with the theme of the day. R’ Yehuda Herzl Henkin points to Simchat Torah as an example of where giving aliyot to women might be appropriate even if inappropriate at other times (it stands to reason that if every male already had an aliyah, the issue of kavod ha-tzibbur wouldn’t be of concern, similar to the Mahara”m Mi-Rottenberg’s case of a city entirely of kohanim).
On the other hand, not every Simchat Torah practice is ‘egalitarian’. The honoring of ‘chatanim’ singles out particular worshippers for special celebration. The impulse to extend that singling out to a woman as well actually de-emphasizes the egalitarian nature of the holiday. Abolishing the idea of the chatanim altogether, with all of the pomp and circumstance they have accumulated toward the celebration of a single individual, is probably more consistent with the theme of the day than extending them to include kallot. That’s probably not a realistic option in any community, though.
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