Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - II

(Previous posts on this topic can be found immediately below, here and here.)

The Discussion at Yedidya

This was my first visit to Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem, probably easiest to describe as a liberal Orthodox congregation. Yedidya, some 25 years old, is known for its pioneering role in expanding the participation of women, within the framework of halacha. In their words, for example, "Many years ago, after much halakhic debate, Yedidya decided to permit women to read from the Torah during a women's Torah reading and Bat Mitzvahs, to allow women to read the megillot during holiday services and to encourage women to offer sermons and Torah discussions on Shabbat and holidays."

Since the recent establishment of Kehillat Shira Hadasha, with aliyot and Torah reading by women in the regular minyan based on Mendel Shapiro's arguments, Yedidya has, perhaps for the first time, not been the envelope-pushers in the Orthodox community. This was, I gather, part of the motivation for the event last Motza'ei Shabbat: to help the congregation decide whether to adopt these latest innovations. The concern was expressed that they wished to remain firmly within the Orthodox community, to maintain their standing and influence in the Orthodox world, rather than risk being rejected and marginalized as beyond the limits of Orthodoxy.

This was also my first opportunity to hear either Rabbi Henkin or Rabbi Sperber speak. It was a privilege and a pleasure. They addressed the issues directly, without invective or rhetoric. The rabbis clearly had great respect for each other, and the entire discussion was conducted with dignity.

I took only sparse notes, so most of what I write here is reconstructed from memory. I hope I have faithfully summarized the views expressed. Some of the points I mention may have been stated in response to audience questions after the initial presentations.

The evening was videotaped, and I assume it is possible to obtain a copy from Kehillat Yedidya.

Rabbi Sperber spoke first (after the moderator's introduction), in the clear, measured tones of a fluent lecturer. He mostly recapped the arguments from his essay; I'd mostly like to pick out some points I don't believe he has addressed in writing.
  • He objected to R' Henkin's assertion that a community adopting women's aliyot would not be considered Orthodox; I don't recall the precise objection, but it was presumably along the lines that the only legitimate criterion for Orthodoxy is fidelity to halacha.

  • R' Sperber suggested that the difference between a posek (halachic decisor) and a talmid chacham (scholar) is that, as a scholar, he is interested in the historical development of halacha, not just its current state. He noted that archeological evidence from ancient Greece indicates that women had significant roles in the leadership of synagogues, contrary to the Rambam's ruling (barring women from most positions of communal leadership). His point was that the role of women in Jewish society has undergone many shifts, and should be seen in a societal context rather than as a fixed element.

  • The all-important baraita reads: "Everyone can be counted towards the seven, 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." There are two layers here, one permitting women's participation in principle and one rejecting it in practice. This indicates that originally, a woman could be called to the Torah, and perhaps this was even the practice, until the sages decided it was inappropriate. Certainly, women's participation is not intrinsically invalid; its legitimacy is conditional on a social consideration.

  • R' Sperber noted that, everywhere it appears in the Talmud, the phrase "but the sages said..." is an advisory statement, not a statement of halacha. (I can't remember if he attributed this insight to R' Henkin; in any case, R' Henkin confirmed it and extended it to similar language in Rambam.) Thus, while the sages advised that women not read the Torah in public out of a concern for communal dignity, they did not forbid such behavior by a binding enactment. It does not even rise to the level of a takana derabbanan.

  • Furthermore, as the reason for the sages' enactment (or advice) is given, and as that reason (to avoid embarrassing the illiterate men) does not apply to our contemporary communities, the restriction on women's aliyot should no longer be applicable either.

  • Human dignity (kevod habriot) can at times override even a Torah-level obligation. In this case the severe frustration and distress felt by many women due to their exclusion from the synagogue ritual should surely take precedence over what is at most a rabbinic enactment, probably only rabbinic advice.

  • Many of these women are driven by their sense of exclusion into the arms of non-halachic streams of Judaism. We would be better served to accommodate their needs, especially as halacha permits it.

  • Regarding the reluctance to change established practice, he emphasized a statement by R' Kook, also cited in his essay: "There is no need for concern about permitting something that is permissible according to the law of the Torah, even if in practice there was no previous custom to permit it."

  • Aside from the Torah reading, he said women should be allowed to lead the congregation in any parts of the service which do not require a sheliach tzibur, in which the leader's function is only to set the pace of the prayers and focus communal attention, not to fulfill a halachic obligation. This would include, for example, pesukei d'zimra and kabbalat Shabbat.

  • He emphasized repeatedly that such practices must not be introduced in such a way as to cause division or antagonism within a community. This generally means a congregation must be established with the express purpose of adopting such practices, rather than introducing them into an existing congregation.

  • Establishing a new congregation in an existing town is not a problem, even if other congregations in town would object to such practices, as there are already diverse congregations in most communities which follow different forms of ritual.

Rabbi Henkin followed. Remaining seated at the desk, he spoke more briefly, mostly in rapid verbal bursts which were at times hard to follow. He apologized for being tired and seemed to have some sort of physical tic or habit. He shifted between cradling his cheeks between his hands and swaying his head back and forth past the microphone, neither of which enhanced his verbal clarity. Some of his points:
  • He noted that he is in the odd position of disagreeing with his own statements, as this entire discussion traces back to an insight of his. It was he who pointed out to Mendel Shapiro that the issue of kevod hatzibbur should be inapplicable now that we have a single ba'al kri'ah, and the oleh only makes the brachot. Yet he still maintains that aliyot for women should not be adopted.

  • R' Sperber is applying the concept of kevod habriot, human dignity, to realms to which it does not legitimately apply, much as the Israeli Supreme Court has done in its legislative interpretation. He is overreaching.

  • His statement that a community which adopts aliyot for women will not be considered Orthodox was an observation about social realities, not necessarily an expression of his personal preferences. It is not that he believes such a community should not be considered Orthodox, just that in fact it will have removed itself from the Orthodox community.

  • He rejected the suggestion that a posek is not interested in history; on the contrary. The difference between a posek and a talmid chacham, in his view, is that a posek must be concerned not just with the halachic sources, but also with the timing of a decision and its acceptability in society. He is certainly not averse to accommodating changes in the status of women where it seems appropriate, such as the saying of kaddish and sheva berachot.

  • One point which gives him pause as a posek is that we have no evidence that women have ever received aliyot, even though there have been circumstances which would be thought to warrant them. The Maharam MeRuttenburg famously ruled that in a town with only cohanim, a cohen should be given the first two aliyot, with the remainder given to women. This is based on the argument that the impugning of a cohen's reputation is more severe than kevod hatzibbur. Yet, though there have been numerous cases in history of towns with only cohanim, we have no record of women being given aliyot. This may indicate that there are other reasons to refrain from such practices.

  • R' Henkin mentioned an insight which came to him in recent weeks regarding women's obligation in hearing the Megilla. (I hope I understood him correctly.) While most rishonim (Rashi, Rambam) rule like the Gemara that men and women are equally obligated, and thus women can read the Megilla for men, the Behag rules that women have a lesser obligation and cannot read for men. Some (I missed who) have suggested that women were not allowed to read the Megilla for men because they were not allowed to read the Torah for men; allowing them to read the Megilla would be confusing and might lead to a situation where they read the Torah too.

    The difficulty with this is that the Purim story took place at least 20 years before the time of Ezra, who established our current practice of public Torah readings. So how could women be restricted from reading the Megilla based on the rules for Torah reading, when the Torah reading had yet to be enacted?

    R' Henkin suggested that this may indicate that the restriction on women reading the Torah may date back to an even earlier tradition of public Torah reading, from the time of the First Temple - and that even then women were barred from reading in public. The Megilla reading was then based on this practice.

    If this is so, he said, this offers a rare glimpse into the early origins of a rabbinic enactment generally assumed to be of much later provenance. It may imply that the restriction on women's aliyot is far more ancient than usually assumed.

Both rabbis rejected the suggestion that women's aliyot may be subject to kol isha, the bar on women's singing in the presence of men, though R' Henkin noted that a minority halachic opinion would apply kol isha to such circumstances.

The moderator made reference to a satire on halachic innovation making its rounds on the Internet. R' Henkin identified it as having appeared on Cross-Currents. So it seems safe to conclude that he is a blog reader!

That's enough for now. I hope to follow up again with some personal reflections.

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


Batya said...

I don't have time to go into deep thought or details, but Orthodoxy is defined in its adherence to Torah vs innovations.

Zman Biur said...

Well, that's part of the question, isn't it? Whether "adherence to Torah" is "vs innovations"?

If an innovation is clearly supported by halachic sources, can it be inconsistent with the Torah?

jlmkobi said...

Nice summary of the evening. One thing you did not mention (and it is significant regarding your part I and Mendel Shapiro). When asked Prof Sperber stated that he did not think there was any problem for a separate women's kriat torah (or for the placement of such kriat torah). Nor did he state that a mixed reading was preferrable to a separate women's kriat torah.

Zman Biur said...


Thanks for the addition. I hope I caught the main points, and I hope I got them right!

The suggestion that a mixed reading may in some ways be halachically preferable is (humbly) my own, and is not based on anything in the essays or the discussion evening.

jlmkobi said...

It is not just your perception - this is what Mendel Shapiro said. I am not sure he said it in his article but he definitely said that he felt that a mixed reading was less halachically innovative than a women's only reading.

anonymous said...

Rabbi Henkin sometimes leaves comments on hirhurim blog, and I've seen him write into mailing lists (iirc, mail-jewish).

Shira (Leibowitz) Schmidt said...

(1) A serious discussion refuting Rabbis Henkin, Shapiro and Sperber was written by Professor Eliav Shochetman and will appear in the coming issue of the Torah journal Sinai (Hebrew, published by Mossad Harav Kook).
(2) I would like to pose the following questions. Could we view minyanim like SHirah Hadasha as Conservative minyanim with mehitzot? How essentially different are they from Conservative halakha? Didn't many of the decisions of the Law Committee of the Conservative movement start off technically with minority leniencies that were found in halakhic writings, and then when put into practice, the fine print (Rahel bit-kha haketana) was ignored by most Congregants (e.g. the psak allowing driving to and from Temples on Shabbat, which most congregants interpret as a license to drive anywhere, anytime, carrying anything.)
Netanya 26 b Adar I 5765

Zman Biur said...


Thanks for your comments.

(1) I'm glad to hear it. I look forward to reading his rebuttal. Until now, the only ones to address the question seriously have come from a somewhat narrow milieu.

(2) I assume you're referring to the behavior of the congregations, not the rabbis. Say what you like about Rabbis Henkin and Sperber, no one can suggest that they are Conservative (large-c).

Having read their essays and heard them explain them, I have no doubt that they are trying to understand the halacha on its own terms, not fishing for leniencies or trying to support a predetermined outcome. And their explication of kevod hatzibbur is based on the majority positions of the posekim, not the minority.

Shira Hadasha clearly decided to implement aliyot for women based solely on a somewhat-theoretical article by Mendel Shapiro, even though both he and R' Henkin objected to its implementation in practice. That may have been inappropriate, but I don't see what it has to do with the Conservative movement.

Now that R' Sperber has openly endorsed implementing aliyot for women in shuls which wish to do so, I'm not convinced it's illegitimate for an Orthodox congregation to adopt his position.

What defines Orthodox if not the halachic positions of contemporary learned Orthodox rabbis?