My Unfriendly Shul Story
Some years ago, I decided to try a synagogue that, while adhering to halakha (Jewish religious law), made efforts to increase the participation of women in the service. For example, after the Torah scroll is removed from the Ark, a woman carries it through the women’s section, and then a man carries it through the men’s section. In this way, all congregants, men and women alike, have the opportunity to kiss the Torah scroll as it is carried to the reading table.
One Shabbat morning, I was asked to carry the Torah scroll through the women’s section, an honor that I gladly accepted. When it was time, I took the Torah scroll in my arms and carried it down the main aisle, from the front of the room to the rear, as I had been told to do.
I was about halfway down the aisle when I noticed a small group of women gathered in the rear of the women’s section. I didn’t recognize them, and it seemed to me that they looked a little lost. I figured that they must be guests or perhaps new to the area. Thinking that it would be good to reach out to them a little, I walked a few steps away from the main aisle and brought the Torah scroll directly to them to kiss. Then I turned around, retraced my steps to the mehitzah [the divider between the men’s and women’s sections] and handed the Torah scroll to the man who would take it through the men’s section. My extra walk to and from the group of women took no more than several seconds – a very small price to pay, I thought, for making them feel welcome. Since I hadn’t caused any delay in the service, surely no one would have a problem with what I had done – or so I thought.
After the service, one of the women who had been at the back of the room approached me. She said that she and her friends were new to the area and thanked me for having carried the Torah scroll to them. It had meant so much, she said.
At almost the same time, one of the women in charge of the synagogue gave me a quiet reprimand. The next time I was given the opportunity to carry the Torah through the women’s section, she said, I was to carry it straight down the aisle, not turning to the right or to the left.
I told her about the woman at the back of the room – how lost she and her friends had looked, and how she had thanked me for carrying the Torah to them. “Doesn’t that mean anything?” I asked. “It was only a few seconds, no more. I didn’t delay the service at all, and they felt so much better.”
The woman only repeated: “When you carry the Torah, you must carry it straight down the aisle.”
Well, I figured, this lady certainly has her priorities in order....