When I announced that I wanted to study in Israel at a school that self-defined as Orthodox, my parents were suitably concerned for their daughter whom they had raised Reform. Although Pardes is not well know for brainwashing it’s students, it is an Orthodox institution and I understood their fears. I really looked forward to my year of study there, as well as living in Jerusalem, but I wondered how exactly my egalitarianism would fit with what I was being taught. For the most part, on Shabbatot and holidays, the students were left to our own devices, and so it was up to us whether or not we went to any synagogue at all. There were, however, a few occasions in which Pardes was interested in hosting holiday events, and Purim was one of them.
Considering Pardes has coed classes and even coed chavrutot (study partners) if you so choose (R and I had a lovely ongoing chuvruta on the laws of weddings), I wouldn’t have been surprised if Pardes sponsored a women’s reading, in which only women read for an audience of only women. This is an accepted practice, although still not common, but this wasn’t how Pardes approached it. Instead, Rabbi Daniel Landes, the Rosh Yeshiva (Religious Dean) of the institution has written a teshuva (found here) on the reading of the megillah on Purim evening, the result of which is that Pardes sponsors a megillah reading in which men and women both read and both men and women both attend the service.
Aside from the actual content of the teshuva, which continues to be unique, I found their approach to it unique as well. Starting at the beginning of the year, a class taught any interested student the Megillah trope and the special verses in the Megillah reading. Towards the end of the first semester, each student was assigned a part in the megillah reading. We practiced hard, even having a dress rehearsal, and did the most professional job of reading as we could. I was assigned the first half of chapter nine, in which the death of Haman’s sons is described, which is generally read incredibly quickly and in one breath. As I prepare to do it for the fourth time, I can tell you that it’s a tough bit, but makes Purim for me.
The amazing thing about that reading was the two-fold approach to it. First, we had this co-ed reading with a co-ed audience in an Orthodox environment with a mechitza, and second, the majorityof the readers were reading megillah for the first time and were able to do a great job of it. The approach of teaching an al most entirely new crop every year means that not only does the Pardes community benefit from an amazingly high quality reading (if I do say so myself) and all of us go out into the world knowing how to read megillah, and importantly, megillah trope, well. It has totally changed my experience of the Megillah, and I continue to enjoy reading, although since we’ve gotten back, it’s been at a women’s reading at the local Modern Orthodox synagogue, rather than such an innovative reading.