By Emily Shapiro Katz
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue where the practice in the ‘80s was for Bat Mitzvah girls to chant the haftorah on Friday night, without its blessings. My haftorah was the last Jewish ritual I would lead for almost 20 years. After my Bat Mitzvah, I went to an Orthodox high school where I spent four years on the girls’ side of the mechitza, with no interest in (or permission to) play any public role in prayer.
After high school, I studied at an Orthodox girls’ midrasha in Jerusalem. Hours of our study was dedicated to the Talmudic principles dictating the obligations and exemptions of women in mitzvot. The basic principle that women were exempt from positive time-bound commandments (and therefore they could never exempt a man from his obligation) was drilled into all of us. But, I can still remember the first time I learned the concept of “af hen hayu beoto hanes.” This is the principle that, in the context of Purim, Chanukah, and Pesach, obligates women (and slaves and minors) in certain mitzvot because “she too was involved in the miracle.” We learned that women were obligated to HEAR the megillah but, alas, not to READ from the megillah. This distinction – along with numerous other arguments – meant that there would be no women’s megillah reading even at our all-female “Modern Orthodox” midrasha. I remember feeling envious of my peers at Midreshet Lindenbaum who had their own megillah reading. But, I also remember that they had to “suffer” being called “feminists,” a dirty word in our circles.
By the time I began my studies at Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University, I was a full-fledge “Orthodox feminist,” studying in the advanced Talmud track. In 1997, I spearheaded a petition to have a women’s megillah reading on campus. Rabbi Norman Lamm, the Dean of Yeshiva University, refused our request. Looking back, this was a defining moment in what would ultimately be my break from Orthodox feminism. Today, the idea of hundreds of women asking permission (and being denied!) from one male Rabbinic figure to read aloud together from Megillat Esther seems ludicrous to me.
By 2004, I was living in Jerusalem during my first year of marriage. Dressed as “milk and honey,” my husband and I attended the mixed megillah reading at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. The reading in the Pardes Beit Midrash felt respectful and natural to me. There was no turning back.
In 2005, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where we took part in creating a community that met periodically for partnership-style prayer and Pardes-style learning. I was asked to read the haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. After years in Orthodox schools and shuls, I had acquired no synagogue skills. I felt like I was studying for my Bat Mitzvah all over again. Except this time, I was 30 years old and 3 months pregnant with my first child. The haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is taken from Samuel I:I which tells the story of Hannah’s barrenness, her miraculous pregnancy, and her prayer of thanksgiving. Chanting “tefillat Channah” in a living room in Atlanta was an “aha moment” for me. I suddenly couldn’t believe that I had always heard this chapter recited in a man’s voice. How natural, how obvious, how powerful and appropriate it felt for the words to be coming from the voice of a woman.
In Atlanta, we also organized a mixed megillah reading. I got a cassette tape and started practicing over and over again. Now 9 months pregnant, and dressed as Princess Fiona, I read from the megillah for the first time. Again, I remember thinking “but, of course!” – how did I ever think that Megillat Esther – a story written by a woman, featuring a woman – should not be read by a woman!?!
After two years in Atlanta, we moved to San Francisco, where we helped lead an independent minyan. I cherished knowing that my daughters were growing up seeing and HEARING their mother lead our community in song and prayer. And, year after year on Purim – dressed as Raggedy Ann, a popcorn vendor, a Goth, a sugar box, an Israeli settler – I read my beloved chapter 7. And, every year, I was reminded that – despite years of silencing myself – this was something I was capable of and, even called upon, to do.
This year, I will be attending Women of the Wall’s megillah reading at the Kotel for the first time. There was a time in my life when WOW’s agenda would have seemed too radical, even offensive, to me. Now, when I read WOW’s mission statement: “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall,” I am shocked that this is not just a given. Of course women should be free to wear tallit and read Torah at the Kotel. And, of course, women should be welcome to read Megillat Esther at the Kotel. Yet, on Rosh Hodesh Adar II, we were told by police that women are now not allowed to dance at the Kotel. Who knows what new prohibition might arise when we take out our megillah on Monday morning?
In “my” chapter 7, the King asks Esther “What is your petition, and it shall be given to you. And what is your request, even up to half the kingdom, and it shall be granted.” Our petition and request are simple. We are not asking for half the kingdom; we are just asking not to suppress the voices and the freedoms of half the Jewish people.