When Torah Comes to Life

I never thought of leyning – the ritual chanting of readings from Tanakh during synagogue services – as a possibility for me. As an Orthodox Jewish girl, leyning was supposed to be the domain of the boys. It was deemed immodest, non-halakhic, and – the greatest taboo of all – “Conservative,” for a girl (even as part of women’s tefillah) to read from the Torah.

High school exposed me to a wider range of halakhic positions. I was disturbed to discover that over half the girls in my freshman Gemara class had leyned at their bat mitzvahs. These weren’t girls who had no respect for halakha; they were, for the most part, girls with a deep commitment to halakha and whom I trusted to make decisions that remained within the pale of Orthodoxy. So what was I missing? What was it that led my new friends to accept something that was so tabooed in the community of my childhood?

The next few years took me on a roller coaster ride of varying sentiments about women leyning and about the role of women in Judaism in general. It was not an issue I was willing to shrug aside by either completely accepting or completely rejecting these new ideas. So I went on my own quest to find a satisfying answer. Following a series of conversations and reading a collection of books and articles, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article, I concluded that reading from the Torah was something with which I was personally comfortable. Indeed, women leyning, at least in the presence of other women, is something which should pose no halakhic issue at all.

During my senior year of high school, my friend Ricki agreed to teach me how to leyn. With the elaborate crowns above the letters, I could hardly make out what the words were, but at the same time, I felt more connected to them than I ever had before. When I leyned, I was participating in a Jewish tradition that existed long before me and that will continue to exist long after me. By serving as an active link in that chain, Tanakh became more than a historical account or interesting literary work. I no longer had to rely on someone else’s interpretations to feel connected to the text. Leyning the words took them out of the page and brought them to life. It didn’t matter that I was completely tone deaf and anyone listening to my leyning would probably cringe. Leyning became a way for me to connect to my heritage and to the sacred words of Tanakh, completely devoid of any external concerns.

Learning how to leyn exposed me to a skill that would help me participate in tefillah, but more importantly, it opened my eyes to an entirely different way of approaching and connecting to Tanakh. Teaching me how to leyn rekindled Ricki’s passion for leyning.  Both of us recognized the importance of acquiring this skill, but also realized that unless a child learns to leyn for his or her bar or bat mitzvah, it is unlikely that he or she will ever learn. So we decided to share our passion with others by creating an organization called The Leyning Partnership. The Leyning Partnership’s mission, most broadly, is to make leyning more accessible to people of any gender and all backgrounds. It provides information about online resources that teach leyning, pairs up tutors with students to provide free access to high quality education, and engages in open discussion about the role of Torah reading in public prayer and about the role of women in Torah reading. Our goal is to enable the widest possible range of people to learn to leyn in a way that is most convenient to them.

Current impediments to leyning include financial, halakhic, and geographical constraints. The Leyning Partnership seeks to overcome all these boundaries. When leyning lessons cost up to $100 an hour, it is difficult to afford such a luxury, especially if you are not actively preparing for your bar or bat mitzvah. The Leyning Partnership counteracts this by providing free, volunteer-based tutoring to interested students, so that cost does not have to be a deterrent. As I articulated earlier, many people have halakhic concerns regarding women leyning. By explaining sources in a non-biased way, the Leyning Partnership seeks to address these concerns. Finally, some students are constrained from learning how to leyn because of geographic disabilities: they live too far from the mainstream Jewish world to find anyone to teach them how to leyn. The Leyning Partnership provides lessons via Skype in order to eliminate this problem. You can find out more about our programs by visiting our website, or visiting our Facebook page.

I am not asking you to learn something that makes you uncomfortable. My personal analysis led me to the conclusion that it is acceptable to leyn, but there are a range of interpretations that could lead to a variety of conclusions. I am asking you to consider the idea of leyning as something that might be more halakhically acceptable than you have always assumed. Even if it is not something that feels immediately compelling to you, I am asking you to consider it as something that could expand your relationship with Tanakh and Judaism. Opening yourself up to this possibility really can change your life.

~ Leah Slaten

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