Simchat Torah begins in Israel tonight, a day before it starts in the Diaspora. It’s the festival that is notoriously dull for women. If it’s an Orthodox synagogue you’re in, as the vast majority of Israeli ones are, women sit there for hours and hours while every man in attendance is called to the Torah, as-per the tradition of the day. Then comes the supposed climax of the service — the Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit (“Bridegrooms of the Law”) are called up — both men. Many women wonder from behind the mechitza if the name of the day Simchat Torah, which translates as “Rejoicing of the Law,” is meant ironically, concluding that they experience more simcha in the bus queue.
This boredom is acting as a catalyst for change. In dozens of locations across Israel, Orthodox women will hold their own, female-only Torah readings. While women’s services are happening increasingly year-round, on Simchat Torah they appeal to women who wouldn’t usually go near. And many mainstream synagogues, which don’t have any option of women-only prayers during the year, hold women-only Torah readings on Simchat Torah.
While community leaders seem unworried about women feeling uninvolved most of the year, the prospect of their female congregants becoming positively bored seems to catapult them in to action. And judging by the large crowds, what the promise of religious empowerment can’t bring about among Orthodox women, the fear of boredom can.
The women’s Torah readings tend to be relaxed in atmosphere, with different women reading different sections of the Torah portion, each women in attendance getting an aliyah (call-up) and two women taking the role of Kallat Torah and Kallat Bereishit, equivalent of the Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit.