Purim Megillah reading gives women voice

March 18, 2011

At Brandeis we see a lot of Jewish holidays. One of the most visible ones which comes around every spring is Purim. Purim attracts a lot of notice because it is so festive and because some participants dress-up in elaborate costumes. The Brandeis Interfaith Chaplaincy explains that Purim is a celebration to remember the story of Esther, the Persian queen who saved her Jewish people through her bravery. This inspirational story has resulted in Purim becoming, to quote the chaplaincy, “the holiday of hidden miracles, but it is celebrated in ways which reveal the hidden.”

To celebrate the occasion at Brandeis, there will be several religious ceremonies and social events throughout the weekend. Each of the Jewish groups will organize one or more Megillah readings. At these readings, participants take turns reading from the Book of Esther in front of an audience.

Reading from the Book of Esther is one of the religious requirements of Purim; other requirements include gifting food to friends, giving charity and eating a large, celebratory meal. Each Megillah reading will be unique in its own way, but perhaps the one that will stand out most is the women’s-only reading.

This reading is unique because typically in Orthodox Jewish ceremonies only men read aloud from the scroll. Deborah Thompson ’11, who has helped train girls in reading the scroll since high school, explains that there are religious rules which some view as preventing women from reading from holy books in front of men. It therefore simplifies the problem if women only read in front of other women.

According to Orthodox Jewish law, a person can only help another person fulfill their obligation if they have at least the same level of obligation. Tziporah Gold ’13, who is helping to organize the event, explains that “in the Orthodox community, there is a debate about the level of obligation for women with regard to hearing versus reading the Megillah.” And, because there is debate about the level of obligation for women, there is debate about whether women can read for men. Deborah adds that women can take over the responsibilities of men in certain situations, but sometimes they choose not to because of the cultural norms with which people are comfortable. Deborah adds that it is hard to ignore “Tradition with a large T, even if technically it is religiously legal.”

There have been women’s readings organized at Brandeis in past years as well, and both Deborah and Tziporah said that they thought it was important to continue the tradition. Deborah explained that she enjoys the opportunity to increase the literacy of her students. Although they know how to read Hebrew, she teaches them how to read the musical tropes on the writing.

These tropes not only mark how each word is supposed to be sung, but also give the words a shade of meaning. These shades of meaning add to the nuances of the story, and you can learn new things each time if you are attentive to detail. Although all participants at Megillah readings do follow along in their own prayer books, learning how to sing the words provides a new perspective.

This is a popular event; last year the Luria rooms were filled with listeners. This year Tziporah expects another good turnout with participants from different parts of the Jewish community. Deborah is also excited because “there is just a little less pressure without any of the men around. Also, it is a fun atmosphere with girls all dressed up.”

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