To Feel More Connected, Get Physically Closer to the Torah

When you see an adorable baby, a stunning gem, or an intricately illustrated medieval Hagaddah, don’t you feel a yearning to touch it? We connect with others and objects through our senses: seeing, hearing, and smelling to be sure, but most of all through our sense of touch. We feel closer to people and gain intimacy through physical contact.

Interestingly, this fundamental principle of the power of sensory perception isn’t well accepted in all areas of Orthodoxy — particularly in the area of women’s physical connection to the Torah. Time and time again, when gabbais (sextons) ask grandmothers, aunts or other close friends to carry the Torah before or after the Bat Mitzvah girl reads from it, they are met with a variety of responses: “You need to understand….I’m from a different generation,” or “That is so sweet of you….but I don’t feel comfortable”or “That is just not my thing.”

Interestingly, this is often the trajectory of any new mode of ritual or education. Perhaps these women can hearken back to the days when girls (such as myself) weren’t taught gemara in day schools, or days when computers were verboten in classrooms. My daughter’s ability to read and analyze the gemara is of great joy to me. Change is certainly difficult, but often movement in expressions of ritual actually enhance that ritual and our connection to Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture). In short, why aren’t we taught and why isn’t it understood from a communal perspective that women need to connect to the Torah in a physical way in order to feel connected spiritually, religiously, and communally? Similarly, why isn’t it pro forma that the Torah is brought into the women’s section in our schools, synagogues, college campuses, and camps every time the Torah is read — be it on Shabbat, holidays or every Monday and Thursday — giving women an adequate opportunity to approach the scroll and touch the Torah?  

This dichotomy struck me when I was at the Kotel (the Western Wall in Jerusalem) with my family, including three teenagers, straight off the plane the day before the eve of Passover. It was late at night and the Kotel area was fairly empty. My daughter and I were able to pray with our arms on the wall and I was able to kiss the wall as we prayed. Getting physically close to the Kotel and my ability to cry and pray directly at the Wall — the most sacred location in our deep tradition — was a more intimate and spiritual experience than praying several feet away from it. There is a strong expectation and value in our tradition that this is the case — that praying physically close to the Kotel will be a transformative spiritual experience. Why should this sentiment be limited to the Kotel? Why doesn’t it extend to women’s weekly interaction with the Torah?

This summer we received a letter from my daughter at a Modern Orthodox sleep-away camp in which she exclaimed, “The division head decided that the Torah could be carried into the women’s section on Shabbat, and I was the first one to carry it!” The sheer joy and sacred connection my 15-year-old daughter felt is truly heartwarming. I, on the other hand, did not come close to a “real” Torah until I was offered an aliyah at the Lincoln Square Synagogue Simchat Torah women’s service fourteen years ago. A keen mixture of fear, timidity, anxiety and covert desire enveloped me. I pushed myself to go up to the bima, podium, and was taught how to hold the yad, the pointer — as the parchment cannot be touched by human hands. The blessings over the Torah were written on a laminated card which I read out loud. Tears welled up inside me as I felt that sensory connection with our tradition, our powerful legacy — a text that I have pored over, studied, and held dear (without physically touching) for twelve years in day school and decades thereafter.  

Bringing the Torah into the women’s section of a synagogue by the cantor, or giving the Torah to a woman to carry within the women’s section will markedly enhance women’s connection to the source of our tradition. In the section of Deuteronomy commonly known as “the blessings and the curses” where Moses summarizes the rewards and punishments that await the newly formed nation he states that we are commanded “to love the Lord thy God, to hearken to [God’s] voice, and to cleave unto [God]; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days” (Deuteronomy 30:20, emphasis added). In expounding on the phrase “cleave unto [God]” the commentator Sforno explains that it means “that all your activities during life on earth should be dedicated to giving glory to [God’s] name.” Synagogues, day schools, college campuses, and camps that promote women’s involvement with the Torah will result in increased participation by women in the community, a feeling of empowerment and a compelling connection with ritual. The power of the sensory connection between women and the Torah will drive a closer “cleaving” to God and the commandments, a more intimate spiritual connection, and a path for women to own their spiritual legacy in a fuller way — all resulting in kiddush hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, in our everyday lives

In Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, the writer’s mother beautifully explains the power of sensory connection. She “always insisted that it was not enough to know the various names of objects but you should get to know them by….touching them…feeling them with your fingertips, to know their warmth and smoothness….It was not only we who had or did not have a desire for one thing or another, inanimate objects….also had an inner desire of their own, and only someone who knew how to feel, listen, taste and smell in an ungreedy way could sometimes discern it.” 

No approach to increasing women’s connectedness with the Torah is free from hurdles. But synagogues, schools, college campuses, and camps that realize that encouraging and facilitating the physical and tactile bond between women and the Torah will increase the transmission of our rich tradition for generations to come. Every marketer knows that the sense of touch is compelling, hence the wonderful commercials with the model caressing the car. Shouldn’t we seek a closer connection between women and the Torah? Let’s start encouraging women to get as close as halakhically (according to Jewish law) permissible to the Torah, by holding it, carrying it and reading from it.

Explore the primary sources through JOFA’s Ta Shma Guide, “May Women Touch a Torah Scroll?” by Devorah Zlochower.

 

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