Why women are raising their voices on Purim

What lies behind the growing trend of Orthodox women's Megillah readings.

By Lindsay Simmonds, March 1, 2012
Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue first women’s Megillah reading last year: (from left) Jo Grose,  Helena Freedman and Charlotte Cohen

Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue first women’s Megillah reading last year: (from left) Jo Grose, Helena Freedman and Charlotte Cohen

Women's Megillah readings have become increasingly popular over the past decade, reflecting the growing interest of women in their religious development. I know of at least half a dozen that will take place next week in United Synagogue communities at Purim including Radlett, Borehamwood and Muswell Hill. One girl this year will be reciting the Megillah with members of her family in celebration of her batmitzvah in a home in Mill Hill. At Radlett's 10th anniversary reading, my daughter and I likewise read for her batmitzvah.

I have been asked by those uncomfortable with the trend, "Isn't it just a slippery slope?" They mean of course, a slide into radical feminist rhetoric: the presumption that women want to be like men and perform their lives just as men do.

I have found that Megillah readings have indeed been a slippery slope: the women participants are often inspired to commit to the other mitzvot of the day: eating a festive meal, delivering food gifts to a friend and donating money to the community's poor. It becomes an open door for them to study Torah both in terms of halachic obligation and the Megillah text itself.

In the UK, Orthodox Jewish women's religious experience is very different from their Israeli or American sisters: in education, ritual participation and leadership opportunities. It is absurd to imagine that intelligent and motivated women, articulate and literate in secular and professional life, should not feel the same way about their religious heritage. As Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, a Jerusalem yeshivah head, said: "No authorities ever meant to justify the perverse modern day situation in which women are allowed to become sophistically conversant with all other cultures other than their own."

Indeed, the reading of the Megillah on Purim is an obligation for both men and women. The Gemara quotes Rav Yehoshua ben Levi's reasoning for the obligation on women, who are usually exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot, in this one: "even they were included in the miracle" (Megillah 4a). Similar reasoning is used in the Talmud for the parallel obligations to drink the four cups of wine on Seder night and light Chanucah candles.

The Jerusalem Talmud suggests that they were in particular danger, citing the example of the rape of engaged women by Greek soldiers (Megillah 2:5). The commentator Rashbam states that women were instrumental in these three miraculous events. At Purim, Esther is the heroine; at Pesach, it was the persistence of the "righteous women" during Pharaoh's regime; and at Chanucah it was Judith, who ensured our military success (Pesachim 108b).

The Tosafot comment, "It is understood that women relieve others of their obligation… even men" (Megillah 4a). The Gemara and commentators are clear: women not only have the obligation to read the Megillah, but because of the equity of the obligation, may fulfil it on behalf of men.

Furthermore, the Rambam states: "Everyone is obligated in the reading of it [the Megillah], men and women"  and "both the reader and the person who listens to the reader have fulfilled their obligation; and one needs to hear from someone who is obligated."

There are of course dissenting views. Bar Kafra is recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud stating that men must read the Megillah to women since their level of obligation is not equal to that of men.

Halachah is a tripartite system: it venerates past texts, acknowledges the present cultural climate and assesses a specific concern. Eternal halachic principles form its framework, but it thrives on innovation. It is not possible to ignore the changes in society and halachah reflects its contemporary culture.

Halachah is always contemporary, that is the point. It both feeds into and acknowledges local custom and modern "isms". To quote Rabbi Harvey Belovski's phrase, it is a system of "responsive evolution within those eternal halachic parameters".

It is therefore unfortunate that some rabbis use meta-halachic concerns to ban women's Megillah readings in their communities, yet use terms like "traditional" and "authentic" to defend their position.

The reading of the Megillah and the reading of the Torah scroll in synagogue every Shabbat fall into very different halachic categories: one is obligatory on every adult, while the other is a communal responsibility; hence the very different halachic questions which need to be considered for women to leyn in shul.

Commenting on a psychologist's assertion that "girls like to climb trees because they want to be like boys", Simone de Beauvoir suggests, "It never occurs to him that they like climbing trees." Women participate in mitzvot in order to build a relationship with God and with other human beings; they do not sanctify Shabbat because men do, but because they must; they do not read the Megillah because men do, but because they must.

In focusing on the dissenting halachic opinion or prioritising one's own discomfort with women's ritual participation, communal rabbis mistakenly presume that feminism motivates religious practice. The civil rights movement did not change our ethical stance on inhumanity, but it may well have heightened our awareness of our own religious complacency.

Lindsay Simmonds is a graduate of the Susi Bradfield women's educator programme at the London School of Jewish Studies and lectures on Judaism and gender

Last updated: 11:54am, March 1 2012