Sisterhood Blog

The Competitive Sport of Barking at Torah Readers

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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One of the great sporting events in Orthodox synagogues is correcting the layners — i.e., the Torah readers. The cantillations on the Torah are an intricate, lovely cultural heritage, one of our most treasured. But they are also difficult to master, require practice and are performed in front of an unmarked scroll — that is, no vowels, punctuation or cantillations marks. It is very hard to layn well, and understandably, mistakes happen. But forgiveness does not. In most Orthodox synagogues, although there are generally two people standing at the podium for the purpose of correcting the layners, more often than not, corrections are barked from all across the sanctuary, like a real spectator sport.

Orthodox boys are inducted into this practice at the tender age of 13, when the message of “Now you are a man” conflates with the experience of being barked at and then being expected to just, well, keep going. As one man told me in the context of research I conducted on Orthodox men, boys learn that to be a man means not to cry, not to get upset, and not to even feel the experience of an entire congregation barking at you. You just keep performing. Orthodox girls, however, are not inducted into this emotionless performance, and that has some interesting repercussions.

It wasn’t all that surprising to me to read Leora Jackson’s blog post on the Jewish Women’s Archive blog, in which she recounts her first experience of layning on Simchat Torah at the age of 13 and being corrected by a man who told her she was “doing it wrong.” “My thirteen-year-old self had no idea how to handle the situation,” she writes. “I waited till he finished, excused myself to go to the bathroom, and didn’t return. I didn’t read Torah again, or act as a leader in religious services of any kind for several years.” The man who corrected her was expecting her to be just like the boys. But she didn’t realize that to be like the boys means to suck it up and keep going.

One of the interesting side-effects of the partnership minyan phenomenon — in which women and girls layn in Orthodox settings — is that girls have now become the object of the barkers, and are often shocked by the experience. I have seen many girls cry after reading Torah. I once saw a girl run out of services after a man reprimanded a girl for incorrectly pronouncing the “heh” sound at the end of certain verses. Another time, a girl was in tears after a series of barks despite the fact that she was sure she pronounced it all correctly. One mother told me that her daughter refuses to layn again after her experience of being aggressively corrected.

I have no doubt that some people will argue that girls need to get thicker skin and stop being so, well, girly. But I don’t see it that way. Don’t get me wrong — as the daughter of a professional layner, and as someone who loves layning myself, I appreciate a skilled, practiced Torah reading as much as the next guy, and I can admit that I sometimes find myself sighing in disappointment when the layning is particularly botched. But I don’t think that airing those sentiments publicly serves the Jewish community or God or my own spiritual development. I don’t think those sentiments are spiritual or divine or particularly kind. And I wish to God that the Orthodox community would just get over itself and stop being so pedantic and judgmental and so eager to watch and measure one another’s religious performance.

I believe that tradition needs to be transmitted with love and compassion. If we don’t have those basic qualities, the tradition is worthless. When we educate boys to be emotionless men, they may find some real-life benefits to having thick skin, but it comes at a severe price: We end up with a community of thick-skinned, emotionless men. That explains a lot about the current state of Orthodoxy.

As women enter the sanctuary and public religious life, we have a mission not only to ourselves but to the entire community. It is our job to remind men — and women — that they are allowed to feel and experience and even sometimes cry. Our goal as a religious community should be not to stymie pain but to become so sensitive to pain that we do not ever want to inflict it on another human being. That goal, of working towards alleviating human suffering, is at the foundation of what it means to be a holy community. And that is ultimately my goal, and it is a fine mission for women. We are the ones who can remind men that their hearts still function.


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