Q. Is there a problem with women touching, handling and carrying the Sefer Torah?
A. There are two major aspects of the issue: does the fact that it is untraditional for women to handle the Torah scroll mean that it is forbidden? And is the problem caused by the possibility that a woman may be niddah (menstruating)?
The Talmud states, “Words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah (ritual impurity)” (Ber. 22a).
Maimonides says, “All who are tameh (ritually impure) and even niddot… may hold the scroll of the Torah and even read from it, because the words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah. All this is permissible with the proviso that one’s hands should not be unclean…, in which case they should wash their hands and afterwards touch it” (Hilchot Sefer Torah 10:8).
Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch says that though the essential law is that it is permissible, there is a stringent view that disagrees in the case of a niddah, but even then there is no objection on High Holydays (Orach Chayyim 88:1).
Rashi and others confirm that it is a mere stringency for menstruant women to refrain from touching the Torah. Provided one’s hands are clean there is no basic reason for a woman not to touch the Torah.
Women’s piety is frequently attested in rabbinic sources to be deeper and more innate than that of the men.
From the time of Sarah, who brought other women to belief in God, through Miriam, who led the women in praise at the Red Sea, to the tzov’ot who gathered at the entrance of the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8), and throughout Jewish history, the record of Jewish women’s spirituality is unquestioned.
Indeed, though the law exempted women from certain commandments, many of these commandments were voluntarily assumed by women and are today performed by them as a matter of course.
There were many centuries in which women were expected to play a behind-the-scenes role. But now we have a new world, a new situation, and indeed a new type of woman who is educated not only in secular subjects but in Judaism.
It is no longer enough to resort to old slogans and stereotypes and exclude women from a say in Judaism. It insults them, belittles their spirituality, damages the credibility of orthodox Judaism, and is not halachically necessary in any case.
Yes, there are and will remain limitations on the roles women can play in public worship, but those who wish to kiss the Torah or carry it on Simchat Torah should not be brushed aside.
Some women do not ask for these things: but others do, and their right to show their love for Torah and Judaism should be encouraged.