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Mikveh in the Mountains

Adina RothFilmed at Limmud South Africa

What if shul was a place where we moved our hips along with our lips? Judaism, like other patriarchal traditions, has become a religion more linked to the head than the body. This prioritising of the cerebral over the instinctual is part of the reason why women have suffered over the centuries and why historically women have been kept away from the Torah scroll for fear of a specific kind of contamination. In this talk, come explore what might happen if women really ‘touched’ the Torah and how this particular contact between ‘Judaism’ and ‘femininity’ might revivify and re-enliven Judaism for women AND men,  for our entire Jewish tradition and its future, as we enter the 21st century.

Adina has studied Bible and Talmud at Pardes in Jerusalem and at Drisha in New York. She has two Masters’ degrees in literature and has just graduated as a Clinical Psychologist. Adina founded and runs B’tocham Education, a Bar and Batmitzvah preparation programme teaching teens all about Judaism and leining preparation. Adina was an American Jewish World Service Writer’s Fellow for 2011/2012 and is passionate about both dance and dream work which she taught for years prior to having her babies Maya and Adam. She is a Limmud volunteer.

Imagine you are in a dance class, I’m your teacher and I say, ‘let’s move into our hips’. We store so much blocked energy in our pelvis, so we start to move right and left, backwards and forwards, up and down; unleashing the sensual energy located in our pelvis. Now imagine that you’re doing this in Shul, what would you do? Well, when I do this in the dance classes I teach, the dancers usually giggle as they conjure up an image of a belly-dancing Rebbezin in their minds. But what if Shul was a place where we could move our hips along with our lips?


About ten years ago, I studied at a Jewish learning institute where women study Talmud. Coming from South Africa where girls still don’t study Talmud in the Jewish day schools here, it was amazing to have arrived at this place. But as I studied Talmud day in and day out, I started to notice something interesting. I would explore intellectualized ideas, high up on the sixth floor of a concrete building. After a day of learning my body felt numb, and so I would go down, down, down all six floors to the ground floor, to a yoga studio where I would make contact with my body again. I often used to feel that only my head was needed on the sixth floor and after a day of learning my body was crying for some attention. And so I started to wonder, why do we leave our bodies at the door to the Beit Midrash? And what would happen if we met the page and said hineini: here I am’, with everything that we are – head, heart and body.


It’s not easy to pinpoint where the split between head and body began. Some people might say it’s when Adam and Eve felt shame after eating from the tree of knowledge and they had to cover their bodies up. Others might say it was later when our Temples were destroyed, when we became disembodied as a people and had to go into exile. No longer could we play musical instruments on Shabbat. The days of our dancing on Tu b’av of the Leviim singing their way up the 15 flights of stairs were over. Judaism’s survival became linked to the development of our oral tradition, the Mishnah and Talmud, the brilliantly, deeply intellectual. And so we find stories in the Talmud itself that point to the split between the head on the one hand and the body on the other. A man by the name of Reish Lakish, described as either a circus player or a bandit rogue, fell in love with the beauty of the great scholar Rabbi Yochanan. At Rabbi Yochanan’s invitation, he decided to enter the world of Torah. At this very moment we are told that Reish Lakish loses his strength, and is unable to pick up his weapons, it seems his decision to study Torah weakens him physically. The story ends tragically with Reish Lakish dying and Rabbi Yochanan crying out, “Hecha at bar Lakish?”, where are you the son of Lakish? We could understand Rabbi Yochanan’s pain-filled question to be existential, where was the spirit of Reish Lakish to be found, was it in his circus self filled with bodily strength? Or in his Torah self, filled with the knowledge of Mishnah and Talmud? Why was he not able to bring his bodily self into his Torah study?


If there is ever a time that we become aware of our bodies as human beings, it’s in adolescence. It’s not insignificant that Judaism understood that a right of passage was required to help usher a child from girl or boyhood into the early experience of adulthood. Yet at this very point of transition, it seems to me that we have reinforced a split between the head and the body, a split that simply doesn’t serve us.


So let’s start at the beginning which, in this case, is a year after the transition in South Africa. It’s 1995, Mandela was our President and the constitution held a special glow, enshrining freedoms that previously weren’t important, such as sexual orientation, religion and gender. And so I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that in that year a group of Orthodox women gathered in a home on Simchat Torah to read from the Torah for the very first time. Before the reading could take place, a group of men, outraged at the thought of women reading from a Torah, barged into the home and forcibly removed the Torah scroll. The reading never took place. The holiday of Simchat Torah, meant to be about celebration, became a day of tears. Later we heard that the response of the men was evoked because the night before they had seen a group of women dancing with the Torah in the women’s section of the Shul. People said that women danced with the Torah close to their chest, holding the Torah like a baby and people said it was not snius, modest.


Fast-forward 15 years and some things have changed. Some families offered me the use of a Torah to use for my girls B’not Mitzvah. It was a very special gift but I was told, “Look, Adina, you’re a radical feminist. It’s too provocative you arriving at a Shul and leaving with a Torah.” So instead I sent my husband to fetch the Torah. Everyone knows it’s for me and my students’ use, but somehow I needed to protect the men from the image of a woman holding a Torah.


Now I know that for many around the world, the image of a woman touching a Torah is no longer revolutionary. We also know that Maimonides said that a Torah scroll is not subject to the world of tumah or impurity. In other words, a woman can touch a Torah from a halachic or Jewish legal point of view, even during her menstrual cycle. But why does the image of a woman, touching, holding, dancing with the Torah evoke such fear and hostility, in today’s day and age when Maimonides said yes, …why?


To answer this question we need to make a sociological segue. If we look at the way women have been depicted in patriarchal religions, we see that women have been stereotyped as mothers, women have been sexualized and women have been typed as instinctual and emotional. And in many ways, women have been punished for these stereotypes, we have been told because you are a Mother, you don’t have time to perform Mitzvot, you are too sexual to sing in public, you are too emotional to be a witness. Now these are stereotypes but these qualities are also rich and deep ways to experience the world. If we could own that which has been projected onto women as bad and inferior, if we could find ways to integrate these qualities into our tradition, things would change. The image of a woman touching a Torah is revolutionary because it evokes the possibility of bringing a different kind of consciousness to bear on our tradition, a feminine consciousness, an approach to Judaism that could change things a lot. What would happen if women really touched the Torah, meaning, if we brought all of our experiences as women to bear on our tradition? On the other hand, if we simply hold the Torah as men have done and lein from the Torah as men have done, without bringing this unique consciousness to bear on our tradition, then we have not completed the task. This is why, while leining as a Bat Mitzvah for B’not Mitzvah is very empowering, it still leaves us in danger of reinforcing the split between the head and the body. It is often at Bat Mitzvah that girls are advised to dress modestly and really this is the only message we give our daughters – our girls – about their bodies at this time: “cover up”. Our tradition hasn’t developed a way of giving our girls a sense of honoring their burgeoning femininity, sensuality and sexuality. The message is subconscious yet perfectly clear: “your spiritual self is welcome in the tradition, your femininity and sexuality, leave at the door, thank you”.


This is why, in addition to my girls leining on their bat mitzvahs I take them to the mountains for an additional ceremony. In this ritual the girls put on bathing suits that they have chosen for the occasion, and they take prayers and brachot that they have written for this moment. As the sun is setting, they immerse in a rock pool and pray to honour their transition from girlhood to womanhood. What do these girls pray for? Some say, “Dear God, please help me to honour my body and to love my body and to welcome my periods when they come.” “Dear God, please help me to feel confident in my body, and please can you help that my first sexual experiences will be positive and with loving and supportive people.”


I talk about this using the Bat Mitzvah as an example, but if women were to really touch the Torah, things would change for men as well as women. Another story from the Talmud: when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, sat in the cave and learnt Torah together for many years, we are told that they learnt with their bodies buried in the sand. If we picture this image, we see two talking heads, their bodies are literally underground. If Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son had danced together in the cave, how would that have changed the Torah insights? If they had cut wood together, if they had made music together. When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son came out of the cave, we are told that their eyes turned to fire whatever they saw. A heavenly voice came down and told them to return to the cave, their head consciousness had not taught them how to be in the world. Well how do we teach our sons to be in the world? The glitz and glamour of a Bar Mitzvah today, hardly contains the raw encounter necessary to facilitate a transformation. And then we moan, where are the husbands and fathers, the good men in our society? My work with girls led me to believe that boys also need to spend some time in the bush, go camping, put on talit and tefillin with their fathers in the desert, and explore their limits of survival and resourcefulness. They too need to be able to arrive at Bar Mitzvah, honouring the physical transformations going on in their body, so that they too can bring their full selves into the tradition.


What will happen as we begin to integrate this shadow into Jewish tradition? I don’t know, and I can’t say for sure, but I am pretty certain that things will sizzle, where things were cold they will start to heat up. The image of a woman touching a Torah needs to be brought to full fruition, by bringing this unique consciousness to bear on our Jewish tradition. I believe it will energize and enliven Judaism for women and men, for our entire Jewish tradition and its future. I for one can’t wait to see what happens when we all find the courage to move our hips along with our lips.



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License