Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Book Review

Women and Men in Communal Prayer

Women and Men in Communal Prayer

by Israel Drazin

Women and Men in Communal Prayer:
Halakhic Perspectives

Edited by Chaim Trachtman, MD
Ktav Publishing House, 2010, 418 page

Women are excluded from being called to the reading of the Torah, aliyot, in Orthodox Jewish synagogues. Women and Men in Communal Prayer addresses this issue. The book offers the opinions of four prominent, well-respected, and articulate men, three rabbis and a professor. Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber and Rabbi Mendel Shapiro advocate changing the current practice and allowing women to participate more than they do at present. Professor Eliav Shochetman and Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, oppose the change. All four approach the issue, as the book’s subtitle indicates, from “halakhic perspectives,” meaning that the authors offer their opinions based on the precedents of past rabbinic rulings.

The origin of the requirement to read the Torah

According to tradition, the practice of public Torah reading evolved in several stages. The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 82b, reads Exodus 15:22 that states that the Israelites went three days in the desert without finding water as suggesting that Moses instituted the practice that Jews should not go more than three days without hearing the Torah, which is compared to water. Moses specified that at least three verses of the Torah must be read publicly on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The rabbis consider this a mitzvah, a Torah requirement for public Torah reading.

Maimonides states in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 12:1, that generations later Ezra expanded the rule. Ezra required, among other things, that Jews read at least ten verses and that no less than seven Jews be called to the Torah on Shabbat. Still later, Mishnah Megillah 4:1 mandated that blessings be said before and after the Torah reading. There is no indication that either Moses or Ezra addressed the issue of women’s aliyot.

Focusing on this history, this book states that some but not all rabbis and scholars feel that the discussion about women and aliyot should focus only on the reading of the first three verses, only the Moses mandate, the mitzvah requiring the reading of three verses; women should not be excluded from aliyot after the first three verses are finished. However, the book also states that there are other rabbis and scholars who concentrate on Ezra’s mandate, such as Rabbi Riskin, who opened the world of Torah learning to Jewish women but resists a wholesale allowance of women’s aliyot, “that from a purely halakhic perspective, there may be room for a woman to be called up to the Torah for the reading of the maftir and the haftarah as well as for hosafot (additions) to the seven obligatory Torah readings as long as there is a proper mechitsah in the synagogue.”

Halakhic concerns

What are the halakhic concerns that bother the rabbis and scholars? Unfortunately, this volume makes it clear that there is no agreement either on what is significant or what the apparently significant concern means, and this is one of the many problems frustrating a solution. For example:

The code of Jewish law, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 282:3, states that “congregational dignity,” kevod ha-tsibur, is affected by women being called to the Torah, reading the passages, and making a blessing. The book shows that the reason for this exclusion is far from being clear. Did the concern develop, as many rabbis maintain, because there was a period in Jewish history when most Jewish men could not read Hebrew and when they saw women being able to do so they were embarrassed? Is this ancient notion still relevant? Men can now read the blessing in Hebrew or in transliteration. Rabbi Shapiro and Rabbi Professor Sperber argue that this is really the only tenable halakhic objection to women’s aliyot, and there are reasons, as we will discuss below, why this halakhah should be overrun and women’s aliyot should be allowed for all the Torah readings.

A second reason that some rabbis and scholars see for restricting female participation in aliyot is the talmudic ban against hearing a woman’s voice, called kol ishah. The third generation Babylonian sage Samuel said, “To listen to a woman’s voice is indecent” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 70a). But the volume discusses whether this rule is relevant? When does it apply? Why should the rule be enforced when a woman makes a blessing over the Torah reading? Don’t men greet and talk to women as we come to the synagogue? Shapiro and Sperber point out that Orthodox men hear women making blessings frequently, sometimes daily, without this kol ishah concern.

A third rationale for exclusion of women from aliyot is a principle in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8 that a person who is exempt from a mitzvah, meaning a woman, a child, or a non-Jew, cannot fulfill the mitzvah on behalf of a Jew who has the obligation. But does this rule apply to the Torah reading? Arguably, as Rabbi Shapiro contends, it is only in the case of personal mitzvot that the halakhah requires that one who performs on behalf of others be himself obligated on the same level, but not a community obligation such as Torah readings.

A fourth idea that is discussed is the tradition that Moses instituted the practice for three specific days. Since the command is time-bound, specified for certain days only, and since Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7 states that women are exempt from time-bound commands, the mitzvah only applies to men. While this time-bound rationale seems relevant, isn’t it true, Shapiro and Sperber contend, that the actual study of Torah is not time-bound and Jews are encouraged to study Torah day and night?

There are also other concerns that are argued to exclude women from aliyot, such as “Torah reading is imbued with holiness,” advanced by Rabbi Dr. Riskin, and like the priestly blessing, the repetition of the amidah, and some other services, it requires a quorum of ten males, not females. Additionally, Professor Shochetman suggests that the exclusion of females from aliyot is part of the decree to keep men and women separated during the prayer service to prevent transgression and promiscuity and enhance modesty. But do these fears require the discrimination against women? Are Shapiro and Sperber correct that there is only the one real concern “congregational dignity,” which should be overridden by a greater concern?

Is the Torah the “defining Jewish experience and as such it is the spiritual property of all Jews: men, women, and children” as Rabbi Shapiro contends? Also, as he states, if women cannot discharge a man’s obligation to hear the reading of the Torah, why doesn’t Jewish law say this? By saying that females should not be given aliyot because of “congregational dignity,” the rabbis clearly imply that if this hurdle is overcome, women may have aliyot and they will discharge the entire congregation’s obligation. Rabbi Professor Sperber offers his view why and how the “congregational dignity” rule can be overcome.

The view of Professor Sperber

As stated previously, there are many issues and concerns and interpretations involved with the issue of women’s aliyot. No review can summarize them all. Dr. Tamar Ross devotes twenty-five pages in her excellent introduction explaining the “wealth of intellectual, institutional, and social challenges that followers of developments in the halakhic status of women may anticipate during the twenty-first century. The issue of women’s aliyot is merely one example of the way in which these challenges will be met by Modern Orthodox Jews.”

Nevertheless Professor Sperber argues, and presents a host of examples to support his view, that the concept of “congregational dignity” depends upon the concerns of a particular congregation at a particular time. If the congregation is not affronted by women having aliyot, another principle, kevod ha-beri’ot, “human dignity,” overturns it. The concept of “human dignity” recognizes the humanity and dignity of women. In saying this, Sperber is not suggesting that Jewish traditions do not apply. He is arguing that the concept of “human dignity” is also part of halakhah and trumps the concept of “congregational dignity” in this case.

Followers of Shapiro and Sperber

Dr. Ross comments that a growing number of Orthodox congregations in the United States, Israel, and Australia have accepted the views of Rabbi Shapiro and Rabbi Professor Sperber and have established Orthodox egalitarian-style prayer groups where women are given aliyot and function as prayer leaders, leading those parts of the synagogue service that do not halakhically require ten adult males, such as the repetition of the amidah, and which halakhah is understood to mandate that these portions be led by men. These groups, writes Dr. Ross, feel that they are taking the first step to address and solve the issue of female aliyot.

From Jewish Ideas Daily

The original text of the review may be found here.


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