I danced with the Torah for a few minutes--or maybe less, since time had stopped. I felt like Maria in "West Side Story," that instant when she sees Tony from across the room and everything turns to slow motion. I noticed the yearning in the faces of others who moved around me, and felt guilty for holding on to my gift for so long. So, just like the woman who gave me the scroll, I made eye contact with someone else in the circle. She smiled and held out her ams; I handed over the Torah, and draped my tallit around her shoulders. I ran back out into the ring of dancers and knew, immediately, what had changed--now, when I clasped my hands to theirs, the gesture was of partnership rather than a need to be led. It seems silly to me that I felt so separate from all those words until I was able to physically touch the parchment upon which they were written, but I did. We grow closer each time I chant from the scroll, but I'm still in awe, still a little afraid.
A few weeks ago, I was saddened by many posts in different blogs from women who felt disenfranchised on Simchat Torah because they were unable to dance with the Torot--and, in some cases, weren't allowed, or were discouraged by minhag (custom), to dance at all. I know that the separation of the sexes in Orthodox practice can be a joyful experience, and also bestows a wonderful, privileged status upon women that never quite happens in egalitarian circles. (At a class tonight, the rabbi spoke of a female scholar who visited a traditional yeshiva in Jerusalem. She blew everyone away with her brilliance. This, said the teacher, is why we don't let them study with us.) But I know, as well, that many women crave the experience I had. And practice hasn't caught up with custom even at a very large number of progressive Conservative congregations, where women are viewed as interlopers when they actually do the things they have the right to do.
Gender parity is so entrenched at my synagogue that's it's almost a non-issue. I was surprised, a few years back, when a traditional women's Rosh Hodesh group was formed... why do we need such a thing, I wondered? But the group exists on its own merits, neither to prove a point nor fill a vacuum, and so provides an even more powerful experience that it might otherwise. I envy the children growing up at my synagogue who won't even remember a time when any of this was an issue.