More on the Megillah

One of the bizarre things that I learned as I became more religiously aware (even before I became more religiously observant) was the role of the Israeli rabbinate in the discourse surrounding certain aspects of Jewish (mostly Orthodox) life. There is a Sephardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, each acting as chief decider for their community, Spanish, Middle Eastern & North African or Eastern & much of Western European, respectively.

Last year, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, made clear his stance of women reading the megillah. He said that a woman may read a megillah for men, if there are no capable men present. His ruling was based on the idea that because women are required to hear the megillah reading, and that the chanting of megillah is not considered the kind of singing that would inspire sexual thought. (Women singing is considered in many circles to be very provocative, which could be the subject of many, many posts!). As My Obiter Dicta points out (here), this is not exactly a stretch for the Sephardic community, since many of the groundwork pieces have been in place for years, and, more importantly, this has very little bearing on the Ashkenazi community, which is by far the largest segment of the Jewish community in North America.

Given this, the ruling might seem without a lot of practical value, especially since many communities have been holding women’s megillah readings since the 1980s (as I mentioned on Monday). These gatherings have been an avenue for women who didn’t learn Torah trope or how to read in public to do so, and for me, have been a welcome outlet for my joy in chanting, which I first learned through Torah chanting in college. I think many women gain a sense of ownership of their Judaism when encouraged to learn something well enough to read it on behalf of their fellow women, a very unique activity in the Orthodox community.

And yet, not everyone thinks they are positive. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the Cheif Rabbi of Ramat Gan, a city in Israel, says (here) that women shouldn’t separate from the community to do this, citing the fact that the women leave their children with their husbands so that they can hear the reading uninterrupted, and that women do these readings for “social or feminist reasons.” His solution? Separate readings for men and women, scheduled at different times (clearly with a man reading) so that both groups can hear it without distraction. Somehow, and I would loved to be proven wrong, I doubt that this happens in any synagogue with which Rabbi Ariel has any affiliation. He is saying that although these women are doing something totally within halacha, that isn’t good enough for the rabbis. I don’t think the attitude and status quo that he promotes are “good enough” for a lot of women out there, either and I am glad that my megillah reading is staying exactly where it is.


How I Learned to Love the Megillah

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.

Ring My Bell…

Purim is the quintessential one liner of Jewish holidays -“they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”  We are commanded four things on the holiday, to read Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther), to give charity, to give Mishloach Manot (goodie bags), and to have a Purim Seudah (festive meal).  Megillat Esther addresses “they tried to kill us, we won” and the rest “let’s eat.” While the latter is more obvious, the story of Megillat Esther may be less well known.

In short, Megillat Esther is the story of King Ahashverosh and his wicked advisor Haman, who devises a plot to kill all the Jews. Meanwhile, the king quests to find a new queen and Esther (the Jewish heroine) rises to the throne, a plot to kill the King is overheard by Mordechai (Esther’s cousin) and reported to palace security, the Jews upon hearing that their fate has been given over to the sword engage in severe repentance, and a chain of drinking parties rounds it out. To top it off – we are commanded to not just read it, but to do so in a communal setting and hear every word – twice!

Typically, we hear the Megillah chanted by leaders in our community.  Perhaps it is our clergy, perhaps some lay leaders, either way, they have to know a special trope (way of chanting) and be able to read it fluidly which is no easy task.  We, as the congregants, are then advised to boo, hiss, stamp our feet, use noisemakers, and any other method possible to drown out the name of Haman every time it is read. Some also state that you should drink alcohol until you no longer can identify the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” or in general between good and evil. The congregation traditionally joins in the recitation of four verses of the Megillah, when Mordechai is introduced, parades before the king, and is made deputy to the king at the end of the story. This all puts a large emphasis on men and good vs evil, while being quite disruptive to the flow of the reading.

Where is the joy in all of it, what happened to that Queen Esther mentioned earlier, you might ask? Well, some people are working on shifting that!  Women worldwide have begun waving Esther flags or ringing bells when her name is read to draw attention to the positive female component without disrupting the entire reading (which, don’t forget, we have to hear every word of).  Those who engage in these rituals indicate that it is a chance to experience the story more completely by drawing attention to experiences of the women, while lessening the focus on good and evil.

There is one woman in my community who uses the bells.  I will admit, when she distributed them last year, I didn’t get it. I needed more explanation.  However, after reading some interesting blog posts and articles – I will ring my bell joyfully this year and invite you to join me, wherever you are.