Monday, February 28, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - I

The Background

Shabbat morning in shul. The Torah reading is in progress. The Levi makes his second bracha, concluding his aliyah.

The gabbai calls out, "Ta'amod Rivka bat Shlomo, shlishit!" A woman gets up, makes her way through the women's section, passes through a gate in the mechitzah, and ascends the bimah. She says Barchu and Asher Bachar Banu, and the reader resumes the leining with the next aliyah.

Is this an Orthodox community?

This was the question occupying the respected scholars Rabbi Yehuda Henkin and Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber this past Motza'ei Shabbat, in a fascinating discussion at Jerusalem's Kehillat Yedidya synagogue.

Just five years ago, the thought that two so esteemed and deeply learned Orthodox rabbis might even address this issue was largely fanciful. Even today, it is disconcerting for the typical Orthodox congregant. We grow up with the expectation that things just don't change much. Certainly not the central rituals of communal life. Fiddling with ritual is what the Conservative and Reform movements do.

Yet here we are, and the discussion is taking place at the highest levels. Aliyot and Torah reading by women are gradually seeping in at the fringes of the Orthodox community, taking place in congregations which consider themselves to be Orthodox and committed to halacha. (The first was Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, followed by a handful of minyanim in other countries.)

Background: Mendel Shapiro makes the case
It all started with a 2001 essay (PDF) in The Edah Journal. Attorney Mendel Shapiro, who bears YU semikhah, argued that, according to a straightforward reading of the halachic sources, women can in certain circumstances receive aliyot and even read from the Torah on Shabbat.

This must not be confused with the phenomenon of women's prayer groups, which have gradually spread among modern Orthodox communities since the 1970s. The Torah reading in question here takes place within a conventional community with a minyan of men and a mechitzah. The woman olah or ba'alat kri'ah fulfills the same halachic role as her male counterpart.

The main source of interest is the baraita in Megilla 23a:
Everyone can be counted towards the seven [aliyot on Shabbat], even a child and even a woman, but the sages said a woman should not read the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation (kevod ha-tzibbur).

Kevod ha-tzibbur is conventionally understood as the damage to a community's reputation by the implication that, if a woman is reading the Torah, presumably the men are all illiterate. But when the baraita was formulated, there was no ba'al kri'ah; each oleh read his own aliyah from the Torah. Today, when the oleh only says the blessings, calling up a woman cannot possibly reflect negatively on the literacy of the men.

Furthermore, in modern times, with widespread literacy among both men and women, the very implication that the men are illiterate is unreasonable. Thus, in theory at least, it should be legitimate today to give women at least some of the aliyot, and even to allow them to read. (In practice, Shapiro objects to introducing such a practice in an existing synagogue with an established minhag, or where it would be divisive.)

Background: Rabbi Henkin says, "Yes, but"
Rabbi Henkin, regarded as a leading posek (halachic decisor) for the modern Orthodox community, responded to the Shapiro article by agreeing with much of his reasoning, but objecting to its implementation. He writes:

Regardless of the arguments that can be proffered to permit women's aliyyot today... women's aliyyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice. In my judgement, this is an accurate statement now and for the foreseeable future, and I see no point in arguing about it.

He is open to the possibility, though, of women's aliyot in the women's section on Simchat Torah; he also writes that "if done without fanfare, an occasional aliyah by a woman in a private minyan of men held on Shabbat in a home and not in a synagogue sanctuary or hall can perhaps be countenanced or at least overlooked." (He has taken a similar position regarding women saying sheva brachot.)

Background: Rabbi Sperber invokes human dignity
Rabbi Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, followed up in 2002 by bringing kevod ha-briot, human dignity, into the mix. Citing Talmudic precedents, he notes that kevod ha-briot can at times override even Torah-level (deoraita) obligations. In this case, he argues, the distress suffered by women excluded from the synagogue rituals should surely override the (at most) rabbinical enactment barring women from reading the Torah in shul. He writes:

We have here a clash of two principles of different sorts - kevot ha-tsibur (if such exists) and kevod ha-beriyot.... [I]t seems clear to me that, in this instance, human dignity trumps communal dignity. This is especially so when we are speaking about "a doubtful consideration of kevod ha-tsibur," for it is entirely possible that the congregation has waived its dignity, or that it senses no affront at all to its dignity in women being granted aliyyot.

In short, while Shapiro argues that it can be permitted under the right circumstances, and R' Henkin feels it should be avoided in practice except possibly in private, R' Sperber argues that there are in fact compelling halachic reasons to implement it today in communities where women feel distressed by their exclusion.

I've written more background than I intended. I'll have to save my report from the recent discussion at Kehillat Yedidya for another post.

I would like to add a personal comment that, arguably, the participation of women in the communal Torah reading can be less problematic than a women's prayer group. Many of the halachic objections to women's prayer groups are not applicable. There is no evasion of the halachic preference for tefillah betzibur, and none of the implicit playacting involved when women read the Torah without a minyan and without fulfilling any halachic obligations. On the contrary, they are participating directly in the genuine communal mitzvah of reading the Torah. Also, the unity of the community is maintained, with no split into men's and women's services.

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)


Avi said...

It's worth noting that Shira Hadasha was founded by a group of people (mainly Jewish education or other Jewish studies professors at Bar Ilan and Hebrew U, mostly affiliated in some way or another with David Hartman's Sholom Hartman Institute [though I think D. Hartman merely put his name behind it but wasn't so actively involved. He's considered by some to be the "rav" of SH but in reality he plays no visible role besides attending] who were members of Yedidya and left Yedidya in order to found SH.

I for one hope this phenomonen spreads, if only to reduce the crowds at Shira Hadasha

Sharvul said...

Rabbi Sperber published an interesting article (in Hebrew) on the "kevod ha'beriyot - kevod ha'tsibur" angle in "De'ot", the publication of Ne'emney Torah Va'Avodah in Israel. The article is available online here:

Zman Biur said...


My understanding is that the Hartman Institute connection is incidental, and the minyan has no ties to the institute. But I assume you'd know better than I.


Thanks for the pointer. Here's a link to it.

Philipos said...

English translation of article here:

Rahel said...

The first minyan in Jerusalem where there is a mehitza and women read from the Torah was the Leader Minyan, which meets monthly, on Shabbat mevarkhim.

Zman Biur said...


Yes, I linked to the articles from the Edah Journal in my first post on this topic.


Thanks for the tip. I wasn't familiar with them.