By CHANNA PINCHASI
Reading the megillot has broadened our horizons, teaching us that when women read the texts, they take on a different meaning. For example, the verse, “that every man should bear rule in his own house,” (Esther 1:22) sounds ironic when a group of women are sitting in the synagogue, listening to a woman reading these words while their husbands are home running after the kids. When a daughter hears her mother read, ” Esther put on her royal apparel” (Esther 5:1), the possibilities of “wearing royal apparel” sound completely different to her than when her father reads the same verse.
It is not just in the Book of Esther that the unique woman’s angle is apparent. Imagine a woman reading about her beloved in the Song of Songs: “His mouth is most sweet; yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem” (Song of Songs 5:16). Or, as Shavuot draws near, picture a woman reading those eternally moving verses, as if she herself were Ruth, beseeching Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Thinking about it, we discover that even the Book of Lamentations sounds different when read by a woman. At the heart of Lamentations, as in the Books of Esther and Ruth, a woman sits alone. Imagine, for a moment, a woman reading the sad and beautiful cantillation of Lamentations: “What shall I take to witness for thee? What shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion? For thy breach is great like the sea; who can heal thee?” (Lamentations 2:13). One can hear the simultaneous expression of camaraderie and comfort that a woman or women offer the daughter of Jerusalem. Isn’t it clear that when women read the megillot, the religious experience takes on a new depth?
Who wants to take on the Book of Ruth?
In my opinion, it is important not only to consider the power that lies in hearing a woman read the women’s voices in the megillot, but also to see it from the other side. Since men have read these verses for so many years, it is important to go back to the text and also listen to the woman’s rendition of “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of His wrath” (Lamentations 3:1), or the words of the lover to his beloved: “Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely” (Song of Songs 2:14). We also should hear a woman read Boaz’s kind words to the hungry Ruth: “And Boaz said unto her at mealtime: ‘Come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar'” (Ruth 2:14). Hearing a woman read the voice of the man in the Bible can also provide women with equally meaningful insights into the experience of being a broken, loving, or nurturing man.
The point is this: women’s reading of the megilla is not bound by a halahkic obligation or restriction. However, it has become clear that this new and exciting Jewish experience can provide a rich religious and spiritual experience. You can decide which book you would like to begin with. I am teaching a class on the cantillations for Lamentations. Who would like to take on the Book of Ruth? Time is short.
Translated from Hebrew by Elise Loterman