Monday, March 27, 2006

Woman reading from the Torah

A blog that calls itself Jewish Answers asks and answers the question:

Why don’t Orthodox women read from the Torah?

Rav Tendler takes time to provide a response that I have trouble buying into. Allow me to take some selections from his response.
"The Talmud, in Megillah 23a states that “even a woman may read from the Torah,"
Ok, so the initial response is that a woman can read from the Torah, so the question is why wouldn't or shouldn't she. Rav Tendler goes on to explain that the purpose of reading Torah is for the person reading to teach it to the congregation. He then offers the following:
"The Talmud is stating that although there is technically nothing wrong with a woman teaching Torah to men, since men have a Mitzvah to study Torah and not women, by calling up a woman you are essentially making a statement that there are no men present capable of teaching the Torah- despite the fact that it is their Mitzvah, and here is a woman who does not have this Mitzvah and she is more proficient in reading and teaching the Torah. This reflects badly on the congregation who is present and their level of Mitzvah observance and Torah proficiency. Therefore, our Rabbis said that this is inappropriate."
I have a problem with this as IMO it takes a great leap to get to the position that they are at. To suggest that because a woman is reading Torah it might mean that all of the congregants, especially those who are male are not as well educated is just silly. To me this sounds more like a case of pride, of ego over practicality.

There are most definitely times in which a woman will know more than the men around her and in the interest of getting the best education possible the men should listen to her.

From a slightly different perspective I ask when do we recognize that there are minhagim that are not halacha and that there is legitimate reason to reconsider their role and need in our lives.

I do not believe in ignoring and or changing minhag strictly because it is minhag, but at the same time to refuse to change simply because it is minhag is somewhat provincial and quite limiting.

There are reasons to reconsider why we do what we do. This may be one of those occasions.


Anonymous said...

That is partly the arguement of the "Shira Chadashah" minyan in Jerusalem. The full quote from the Gemarah quoted is something like "women have a custom not to do so for the honor of the public" At Shira Chadasha (as well as Darchei Noam, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan) there is a Mechitzah and men lead Shacharit and Musaf, but women lain. The two arguments are (1) the congregation is willing can be willing to forgo their honor to allow for agreater "honor for the individual" (kavod HaBriot). Or (2) Honor of the public is asubjuctive concept, and if the congregation feels it does not go against its honor, its fine.

If you want a Halakhic analysis, check out


Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. That was not a satisfying reply from R.Tendler. It leaves a funny taste - how are we dishonoring the congregation? By saying that our women are as educated as our men? How is that dishonoring anyone? It is naches for the congregation to have such bright, well educated women. Perhaps create more opportunities for men to do the mitzvah, and women can have their space as well. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

The benefit of having women teach Torah is that they tend to stress different aspects then those traditionally taught. I'm a conservative jew and my rabbi is a woman. There is nothing in halacha that prohibits a woman actively taking on additional mitzvot that would not otherwise be required. For example, wearing Tefilin or being counted for a minyan.

As to the original argument, that seeing a woman teach would imply the men were unable.... I could easily say that seeing a women teach would imply that the community is so well versed in Torah, that "even" the women study and teach!

Bottom line is that if our goal is to keep judaism relevant generation after generation, changes will need to be made from within the framework of halacha. And this one seems to be a no brainer.

Anonymous said...

It's a bit disingenious of the commenter to bring down Sperber and Shaprio without linking to the piece by Rav Henkin in the same issue of Edah.

There are sources in the Rishonim that permit women's aliyot in certain circusmtances - e.g. a city of only Kohanim.

As Rav Henkin pointed out the issue is primarily one of social norms within traditional Orthodoxy and I think that (as I pointd out) the trend is clearly that these shuls will not remain Orthodox.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering something here, so I'm just going to lay it out as a hypothesis. I read the article by Rav Henkin and found it interesting, although I disagree, though that's not my point.

After reading the very end of the article, in which he states that a congregation who allows women to have aliyot will soon no longer be Orthodox in other ways, I wonder if Rav Henkin believes that by giving women aliyot in an Orthodox congregation (what he considers to be a breaking halachic minhag and a non-Orthodox practice)that this will lead to the breaking of other halachic minhagim/halacha in general. My knowledge here is unfortunately not that extensive, but I imagine that women's participation in other aspects of religious life may as well break other halachic minhagim as he defines them.

I wonder though, if he considers this to be similar to what happened in non-Orthodox Judaism in general. If so, I would say that this is a misperception, since the original ideas behind both Reform and Conservative Judaism were not based on egalitarianism. In fact, equal participation of women in religious life did not develop until much later in both the Reform and Conservative movements, as evidenced by the fact that although the movements developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, women were not allowed to be rabbis in Reform or Conservative Judaism until the 70s (Reform) and 80s (Conservative). So both movements had a long history before they became fully egalitarian (and there are arguments that some Conservative congregations don't fit this mold anyway).

Granted that the subject here is a woman having an aliyah, rather than full egalitarianism, but I think there is something to be said for the idea that letting women have a more similar role to men in synagogue life was not the driving force behind the change in the other movements, and would not neccessarily lead to further changes if a congregation were to adopt say this one principal. However, whether this helps much in the current conversation, is, of course, debatable....

Anonymous said...

No one is asking the really important question here:

Will this lead to mixed dancing?

Anonymous said...


Could be.

Anonymous said...

There are a number of practical issues, the first being the following question:
Are you having or expecting your period?
When was the last time you went to the Mikva?
Did you have rough sex recently?

In other words, for a woman to be called up to the torah she has to touch it. A woman who is a nidah cannot touch the torah. So the gabbai would have to know the womans niddah status in order to give her an aliyah. Add to that the extreme rules involved what to do if a person is mitakenly called up (we dont want to embarress them), and the practical diificulty of this becomes a bit more relevant.

The question I have to ask is - What benefit do women derive by being called up to the torah?

Anonymous said...

Just another note. I think that the shame is in that men have a requirement, and women do not. There is a commandment to be zealous in doing a commandment. Yet here is a room full of men who all have the commandment incumbent upon them, and not a single man steps up to do the job.
By comparison:
A man goes to shul, and makes kiddush at a kiddush. He then returns home to his family and guests. His other male guest has yet to make kiddush. Who should make kiddush? The man who has already madde kiddush? He certainly can, but it is preferable for the man who has not yet made kiddush to do so.

Anonymous said...

What I found most interesting is the difference in emphasis between the Conservative/Masorti teshuvot on the subject and the neo-Modern Orthodox/Shira Chadasha (SC) teshuvot. The primary barrier to womens' participation in the SC-type is this issue of kavod hatzibbur (congregational honor), but addressing it is almost an afterthought in the Conservative teshuvot. The reason: the SC type is more likely to have to deal with those who understand kavod as an absolute concept. The almost universal Conservative understanding is that kavod is a relative concept: If the congregation will feel dishonored, then the action is an insult to kavod hatzibbur. A 1950's Conservative prohibitive teshuva on women counting in the minyan also denies them the right to be called to the Torah, effectively on kavod hatzibbur issues, but leaves the issue open if future congregations become ready for the change.

Secondarily, the concept of the "congregation" is different. Conservative thought includes women in the congregation, Orthodox thought implicitly excludes them.

A woman who is a nidah cannot touch the torah. So the gabbai would have to know the womans niddah status in order to give her an aliyah.

This is by no means a universal minhag (even within the diversity that is contemporary Orthodoxy), and it is even further from being universally-accepted halacha. It is (AFAIK) universally accepted that Sifrei Torah cannot carry impurity.

The question I have to ask is - What benefit do women derive by being called up to the torah?

A better-than-secondary position in the community. The community gains a new source of readers.

Anonymous said...

Elf's DH,

Well said.

Anonymous said...

In response to what does a community gain when women are called to read the torah- Look at societies where women are not valued- the difference between them and us is what is gained. No society can endure for long when it limits half its population to secondary status.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully stated, Amishav.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic. We recently went to a bar mitzvah that was at an orthodox shul. I said to my daughter that in a few years or more, she, too will be there, celebrating her Bat Mitzvah. She turned to me and said, oh no, Mommy, I can't. I'm a girl. Girls aren' allowed to read from the Torah. I didn't say anything at the moment, but it definitely gave me food for thought on how to explain to her our viewpoints.

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