“Please Do Not Pass Me the Torah.”

If it means that you will never allow a women on the board, please do not pass me the Torah on Simchat Torah.
If it means that you will not allow women to share Torah insights, please do not pass me the Torah on Simchat Torah.
If it means that you will not let me see the inside of the Torah at any point throughout this year, please do not pass me the Torah on Simchat Torah.
If it means that you will never allow women to make decisions and have true voices in our shul, please do not pass me the Torah on Simchat Torah.
If it means that you will not pass me the Torah any other of the 51 weeks of the year, please do not pass me the Torah on Simchat Torah.

The past number of weeks have been a blur in many ways. In the Jewish media world, including the blogosphere, there are now standard topics that are covered as each new holiday approaches. How should one ask for forgiveness – Rosh Hashanah. Should someone who is pregnant, nursing or struggling with an eating disorder fast and how so – Yom Kippur. As Simchat Torah approaches, the blogosphere is aflutter with pieces of hope and pieces of despair as Simchat Torah has the potential to be a highlight of the year for women or a rock bottom low point. I’ve experienced both.

While I would generally advocate for having the conversations with key players weeks if not months in advance of Simchat Torah to ensure that the experience is positive and meaningful, this year I cannot help but notice that having access to a Torah on this one particular day can, and often does, come at a high cost. That of the rest of the year. For one day your community may allow you to dance with the Torah, perhaps lain, and become enraptured with the blueprint of the way we live our lives on a daily basis. We are given the opportunity to celebrate what drives us, motivates us, and inspires us from one day to the next. But what happens the day after? What happens the following shabbat in synagogue?

Professor Daniel Effron of London Business School is one of the leading scholars in moral licensing. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, Gladwell interviews Effron to explain this relatively new concept in the field of social psychology. In the podcast, moral licensing is defined in the following manner: “Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic – behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” Gladwell explains, “When we do something good…sometimes we then, on occasion, give ourselves permission to do something bad.”

Gladwell makes the point by highlighting various examples of moral licensing as it relates to specific moments in modern and quite recent history. Gladwell focuses our attention on the first prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. While one would imagine that having a woman prime minister would be a step forward, what moral licensing, and for that matter history, teaches us is that “doing good,” in this case, breaking the glass ceiling in installing a woman prime minister, might allow one to “do bad”, such as taking a backseat to other feminist causes. Gillard was elected as the first woman prime minister of Australia in 2010 after 110 years of male prime ministers. Everyone saw this as a transformation in the nation that would be followed by more women in leadership positions throughout the country. But instead, she was regularly subjected to sexism by her opponents, the media and the like. Name calling, an obsession with her appearance and anything but her policies ensued. During her tenure, Gillard delivered a powerful speech to parliament after being accused of allowing for sexism because a man whom she had appointed as speaker from her party had sent sexist text messages. Gillard, who had been subjected to horrific discrimination and constant, harmful sexism, was audaciously accused of being sexist herself. Horrified, she gathered her bearings and delivered an epic speech to parliament staring those who had berated her in the eyes.

While the appointment of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister of Australia would seemingly be a step forward, the investigation and election of her vocally sexist opponent following her time in office is an example of moral licensing. By checking off the box of having elected a woman prime minister, rapid, vulgar sexism ensued. Gladwell concludes by listing the many countries who have elected a woman prime minister or president one time, and have yet to elect a second. I would imagine that Golda Meir would come to mind for many reading this piece.

While this could easily relate to the American political realm, I would like to argue that it fits quite nicely into what happens in many synagogues around the world. Simchat Torah is the one time of the year that a woman can hold a Torah. Throughout the year, every year, when one might suggest further steps, suggestions are dismissed by remarking that the synagogue is obviously open minded as women are allowed to hold the Torah on that one day a year. Even when it comes to engaging in the same exact act, i.e. allowing a woman to carry the Torah on shabbat so that women have access to pay respect and kiss the Torah as the men are afforded this opportunity without question, all eyes focus back on the “good” that is done on Simchat Torah.

Do I want women to have access to our Torah on Simchat Torah? Yes. Do I want synagogues to be able to use this as an opportunity to claim that the women box was checked? No. While the time of the chag is special, spiritual, and meaningful, do not allow your engagement with the Torah and prayer to be limited to a holiday season. Learn the lessons from history that women’s roles cannot be limited to checking off a box and considering the job done. We exist throughout the year and should be acknowledged, empowered, and entrusted throughout.

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