A friend and I were once invited to a meeting with a rabbi to discuss borrowing a Torah from a shul in Johannesburg. As the date approached, my friend messaged: “Perhaps it’s better if you don’t come to the meeting, because you are seen as a radical feminist.”
I must tell you that I’ve done my best to deradicalise my feminism. I’ve waxed my armpits and taken on my husband’s surname, for example. But I was still intrigued: what makes feminism so intimidating to a traditional Orthodox rabbi and to religion in general?
Despite living in the age of the secular nation-state and science, people around the world still subscribe to faiths and traditional religious practices. On the one hand, we have faith, ritual, tradition, ancient stories and sacred laws; on the other, liberalism, egalitarianism, pluralism and, well, yes, feminism.
It is sometimes viewed as a challenge, but the meeting of ancient religion with modern values presents religion with a fantastic opportunity. Besides the obvious positives that religions provide – the sense of community, the spiritual experience of connecting to a consciousness greater than one’s self and the grounding practices of sacred rituals and life cycles – they come with baggage.
There’s often homophobia, patriarchal views of women, fear of the other and, in some cases, suspicion of modern science. But what if people didn’t need to lose their religious identity when they embrace modern values? What if a woman could bring feminism to religion, for example, and in the process redeem, deepen and expand her connection to her religion?
I think about this question a lot because I’ve found myself in a funny line of business: the Jewish life-cycle market. I prepare girls and boys for that perennial Jewish rite of passage, the bar mitzvah (boys) and the bat mitzvah (girls).
A bat mitzvah (literally, daughter of the commandment) ceremony at the age of 12 can communicate all kinds of different messages to a young girl about her self as a woman and her place in society.
As it’s understood in Jewish oral tradition, the age of 12 marks the moment when a girl assumes legal responsibility as a Jew, implying that she is now obligated to observe all the commandments.
Adina Roth has been instrumental in giving young South African Jewish girls the chance to read from the Torah when they go through the bat mitzvah ceremony (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
Now, the word “teenager” doesn’t exactly conjure up images of devout obedience and covenantal engagement. It’s more often a phase associated with body piercings, tattoos and the first rumblings of sex, drugs and alcohol.
On the cusp of adolescence, the age of 12 is a vulnerable time in a young girl’s life as she starts to relate to her self, her body, her family and her society in a different way. She deserves the most meaningful rite of passage possible to prepare her for the roller coaster of emotional and social experiences ahead.
Although the bat mitzvah offers a potential vehicle to carry girls through this significant time, the Orthodox Jewish community has grappled with how to mark this moment. In South Africa, there’s more a trend of bat mitzvah “lite”, which is characterised by a little Torah learning and a lot of dress, décor and DJing.
In contrast, the transition of young Jewish boys to manhood is through a profound religious ritual; learning to read and chant a piece of Hebrew text from the Torah in ancient cantillation.
The Jewish people’s most sacred object, the Torah, is a parchment scroll that contains the carefully handwritten text of the Five Books of Moses.
The Torah is protected in arks in synagogues and is taken out at least four times a week to be read by the community.
Whereas men can touch, kiss and read from the Torah when it is removed from the ark, women are physically distanced from it and observe proceedings from the other side of a separation barrier (a mechitzah).
This patriarchal order of things remained unchanged until the 20th century when progressive movements in Judaism collapsed the mechitzah and gave women full and equal access to the Torah.
But in South Africa, where the Jewish community is majority Orthodox, most women and girls have never touched a Torah. Many believe that a woman at the age of menstruation (about 12) will actually contaminate the Torah if she touches it.
As a result of Adina Roth’s efforts, girls like like Jordan Leigh have read from the Scroll of Esther on the festival of Purim.
This idea of contamination is not supported by mainstream Jewish law. In fact, Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish sage, explained that anyone can touch a Torah. Yet some patriarchal customs remain stronger than Maimonides’s word and nowhere is this difference felt more strongly than when a boy celebrates his bar mitzvah by being called up to read from the Torah, whereas a girl is offered scant ritual for her coming of age.
While living and studying overseas in my youth, I discovered that knowledgeable Orthodox Jewish women were demanding access to the Torah for bat mitzvah ceremonies and other moments of Jewish prayer.
Enter Jewish feminism.
When I returned to South Africa, I sought to create such opportunities for girls in the Orthodox community. It wasn’t easy. No shul, no rabbi would give women a Torah. Eventually, some families who owned private Torahs generously, bravely, offered their Torahs to women and, in the past 10 years, there are some girls in the Orthodox community who have read from the Torah and experienced this rich, sacred experience as they come of age.
Girls and their families have loved the experience of learning and reading from the Torah. I have seen shy girls blossom in confidence as they take on the challenge of preparing to sing from the Torah in front of their communities.
I have seen secular girls from families on the periphery of Jewish life gasp in awe as they look at the words of the Torah scroll for the first time. I have seen many girls cry as they go through this moment and I have seen every single one of them transform into a young, engaged Jewish woman as they stand up, face their fears and raise their voice before the community.
In being given access to the Torah, these girls receive a profound coming-of-age message; your selves matter, as Jews, as women, now make it count. Some have objected to my work: “Why do you want to be like a man?” (Is singing from the Torah inherently masculine?) Others have accused me of undermining Orthodoxy, and still others warn: “Women want to get married and have babies. Nobody is going to marry a freak who wants to read from the Torah.”
Yet I persist with this work and I consider it important, a calling if you will, in spite of some criticism emanating from the community. This bat mitzvah ritual is one example of an interface between the contemporary and the ancient, between feminism and tradition.
In bringing these two worlds together, young girls receive a powerful, dual message: come to the tradition, consider your past, love the Torah. At the same time, bring your questions, your curiosity, your full self to this tradition.
The very act of a girl reading from the Torah shakes religion out of its patriarchal stronghold, yet can inspire her to become involved with religion, making it her own.
This is why I argue that, although modern values such as feminism may be seen as oppositional, even destabilising, forces to tradition, it is these very forces that may save religion from the very worst parts of itself, its authoritarianism and patriarchy, while redeeming the beauty and depth of religious life.
Adina Roth is a Jewish studies teacher and psychologist based in Johannesburg.