Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is dancing with the Sefer on Simchat Torah over the top?

Rabbi, I have a problem


Question: My wife has a thing against Simchat Torah and doesn't like coming to shul. She thinks the dancing has got over-the-top and become a kind of Torah worship. Is this just English reserve or does she have a point?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

I detect two different points in your wife's criticism. That the dancing is over the top is a matter of personal taste. That such enthusiastic dancing represents Torah worship is a matter of theology.

Having distinguished between these two points allow me to respond to each individually. The atmosphere in synagogue on Simchat Torah can be quite unwieldy and this is nothing new. Samuel Pepys, who for some odd reason decided to visit a synagogue on Simchat Torah of all days, records in his diary his shock and revulsion at the antics he observed. There is a clear line between simchah shel mitzvah - the genuine joy of celebrating in God's presence - and some of the crasser behaviour masquerading on Simchat Torah under the thin veil of religiosity. It is more than likely that your wife is reacting to the latter and if so her criticism is valid. As such, she should discuss it with the synagogue's leadership well in advance of the festival so that they can address it constructively.

As to the question about Torah worship, why does dancing with a Sefer Torah cause more difficulty than rising in its presence, kissing it, following it in procession and bowing in its direction when it is taken from and returned to the ark? No Jew I know would confuse these practices, which demonstrate reverence and love for the Torah, with the actual worship of it. Dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah is just another way of expressing our deep love for this most precious gift.

I may be going out on a limb here but I think it's instructive that it is your wife rather than yourself who is less than enthusiastic about the way Simchat Torah is celebrated. Might it have something to do with the fact that as a woman she is essentially an outsider to all these celebrations? Women in traditional Orthodox synagogues are relegated to the sidelines on Simchat Torah as passive spectators and it is little wonder that many of these women would rather give synagogue a pass on this festival.

Fortunately, things are beginning to change as more synagogues are creating separate women's hakafot where they can dance with the Torah. Contrary to widespread belief, there is no halachic impediment to women touching or holding a Torah and synagogues that are in the forefront of inviting women to experience the intense joy of dancing with one are to be commended.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

If your wife goes to a restaurant and the food is poor, does she never go to restaurants again or just give that particular one a miss?

In the case of Simchat Torah, the problem may not be dancing itself, but the way your shul does it. If the dancing is self-indulgent or distracts from the meaning of the day, then it can be very offputting, but not all shuls are like that.

Or maybe, as you do not specify what options there are for women in your shul, if women are given very little space or no opportunity to dance but have to just stand around watching the men, then go to a synagogue that does give women equal freedom or that does not segregate men and women in the first place.

It could also be that part of the problem is not so much the dancing, but any drinking that accompanies it, and what is fine in moderation is anti-social in excess.

There is no reason why we should treat synagogues like banks, with many people being dissatisfied with theirs, but not bothering to switch to another one.

If you live in an area with other shuls nearby, why not shop around, see what is on offer - they can differ enormously, even within the same movement, varying according to the personality of the rabbi or tradition of the community - and join one that fits your values and approach.

The other option is for her to speak to the rabbi and make her opinion known. It may be that others feel the same, or the rabbi agrees with her, and it can lead to changes in the way that services are conducted.

As for dancing itself, although it can get out of hand, it can also be very meaningful in two ways. First, in helping to give the festival its special feel; second, in contributing to the different characteristics of the Jewish year as a whole.

Fasting at Yom Kippur, building a succah, dancing at Simchat Torah, lighting the chanuciah, booing during the Megillah reading, gathering around the Seder table: the varying rituals, unique to every festival, provide a special flavour to each moment and distinguishes one from the other.

Most of the time we express our Jewishness through our prayers or our tastebuds, so it can be good to do it with our feet once a year.

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