Responsum: Women Dancing with a Torah Scroll

In my humble opinion it would seem that…this is a positive development, a constructive step with no prohibition at all, for it was never forbidden for women to hold a Torah scroll. And perhaps even the men might learn from them how to behave with appropriate respect.”
– Rav Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, Rosh Yeshivat Birkat Moshe (Ma’aleh Adumim)

In the tractate Brachot, Rabbi Yehuda ben Betaira’s view is mentioned, namely, that the Torah can be compared to fire: just as fire does not absorb impurity (tum’a), similarly the words of the Torah do not absorb impurity. Accordingly, the Rambam ruled in the Laws of Tefillin and Mezuzot and Torah Scrolls (10, 8):

“All those who are impure – even menstrual women, even non-Jews – are permitted to hold a Torah scroll, and to read it, for the words of Torah do not absorb impurity.”

The Shulchan Aruch also rules this way in the Laws of Torah scrolls (Yoreh De’ah, 282, 9).

Consequently, there is absolutely no reason that a woman may not touch a Torah scroll, even if she is menstrually impure, even during the days on which she observes blood (namely, during the actual menstruation).

Even though there is no source in halacha that restricts a menstrual woman from attending the synagogue, a number of medieval scholars (Rishonim) mention various customs according to which women were strict upon themselves. They would, for example, refrain from entering a synagogue while menstrually impure (Ra’avia 1, Brachot 68), and abstained from touching a Torah scroll during the actual menstruation (Or Zaru’a vol. 1, Laws of Menstruation 360), and they praised these women’s customs. In contrast to this, the author of Sefer Ha’Agur (ch. 1,388) writes that the women in his country are accustomed to enter the synagogue, to pray and to respond to the holiest sections of the prayers, and only refrain from looking at the Torah scroll during the raising of the Torah (Hagbaha) if they are actually menstrual.

The Rama (Orach Chaim ch. 88, sec. 1) mentions both these customs, but writes that the accepted opinion as far as practical halacha is concerned, is that a woman should conduct herself as usual during menstruation, even though the custom in his area was to be strict about the mentioned customs. Nevertheless, he also quotes the responsum of Terumat Hadeshen (פסקים וכתבים, ch. 132) that states that even in a place where the custom is to be strict, “on the Days of Awe (Yamim Hanora’im), when many gather together to go to synagogue, they may go to synagogue like all other women, for it would cause them great distress if everyone gathers together, while they stay outside.”.

The Mishna Berura (same place, comment 7) testifies that in his time, the custom changed, and women always came to synagogue even during their menstrual period, during all days of the year. Nonetheless, he rules that they should not look at the Torah scroll while it is being raised to show the people (Hagbaha).

From this survey it is clear that, as far as the law is concerned, it is permissible for women to touch a Torah scroll and to dance with it, while the actual practice depends upon custom. In the past, women expressed their respect and honor for the Torah by staying far away while they were menstrual. Today, these customs are no longer practiced in many communities, and in our days many women show their love for the Torah by regularly coming to synagogue, learning Torah, and expressing a sincere and pure desire to cleave to the Torah, including holding the Torah scroll and dancing with it on Simchat Torah. It therefore seems that there is no reason to forbid women from holding a Torah scroll, and in fact one should encourage women who choose this way to express their love for Torah.

This is also how Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinowitz ruled in his responsa שיח נחום (ch. 40): “In my humble opinion it would seem that if the community wishes to please its women on Simchat Torah, and accordingly they declare that in the women’s gallery, one of the important women will hold a Torah scroll, while others dance around her in an honorable and refined manner, clearly this is a positive development, a constructive step with no prohibition at all, for it was never forbidden for women to hold a Torah scroll. And perhaps even the men might learn from them how to behave with appropriate respect.” And he adds at the end of his piece: “However, all this is on condition that there is agreement among the community, and agreement with the rabbi of the community.”

Therefore, in a community in which there are male and female members who are interested in women dancing with a Torah scroll, it is advisable for the community to enter a dialogue, led by the rabbi of the community, and to initiate a constructive process on this matter.