Since the founding in 2002 of Congregation Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and similar “partnership minyanim” around the world, the issue of women reading from the Torah and receiving aliyot has received wide attention within the Orthodox community. It should be noted that the vast majority of Orthodox scholars have rejected this innovation, including several scholars who remain relatively sensitive to so-called “women’s issues,” such as rabbis Shlomo Riskin and Yehuda Henkin. This essay will try to briefly delineate the major issues of contention.
Most scholars agree that there is no problem with women touching a Torah scroll, including those in a state of nidda (ritual impurity from menstruation). The Talmud states that words of Torah cannot be rendered impure. On this basis, Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo explicitly state that a menstruating woman can touch a Torah scroll.
Some Ashkenazic scholars, however, record a custom based on an obscure early medieval text that menstruating women refrain from entering the synagogue, touching sacred books, praying, and other rituals. Yet many scholars, including rabbis Moshe Isserles and Shneur Zalman of Liyadi note that this was a custom, not required by law, which was regularly waived for family celebrations or important communal rituals like High Holy Day services. Others have further noted that in the vast majority of communities, these customs are no longer practiced.
The central issue relates to the continued applicability of the talmudic proclamation that women could theoretically read from the Torah but the Sages banned it on account of kavod hatzibur (the dignity of the community). As noted by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, a lawyer who wrote the initial article supporting women’s Torah reading, the Talmud seems to indicate that communal dignity is the exclusive problem. He supports this interpretation by citing scholars writing on other related matters. While arguing to permit women’s megilla readings, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, for example, contends that this Talmudic passage proves there is no prohibition of hearing a woman’s singing voice (kol isha) when she chants the Torah tropes. Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, while describing the Eastern European practice of one or two female mourners entering the men’s section to recite kaddish, notes that our passage seemingly argues that the minimal and temporary intermingling of the sexes (at the Torah reading stand) is permissible.
Not everyone agrees with these assessments, however. Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach and others contends that in addition to kavod hatzibur, there is a problem of hearing the woman’s singing voice. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel has argued that the term kavod hatzibur means that it remains immodest for women to perform a role which will cause sexual distraction.
Shapiro further contends that the nature of Torah reading allows women to read on behalf of others, even if they do not share the same legal obligation to hear public Torah reading. Riskin has countered that various evolutions to the institution of public Torah reading in antiquity (since the composition of that talmudic passage) have prohibited women from reading on behalf of others.
Much of the debate has centered on the definition of kavod hatzibur and whether it may be waived. Advocates of partnership minyanim contend that it is an outdated sociological assessment that looks askance on unknowledgeable men who require women or children to fulfill their ritual roles. They have further pointed to other talmudic laws based on communal dignity which are sometimes waived, and cite various commentaries which have suggested that women can read the Torah in limited circumstances, such as if no men know the reading, in private family minyanim, or as long as a woman is not the exclusive reader. Rabbi Daniel Sperber further argues that the halachic concept of kavod habriyot (human dignity) should prevent the shaming of contemporary women, particularly in a community that has agreed for women to read.
Opponents of these changes, including rabbis Eliav Shochetman and Michael Broyde, argue that the exceptions to this prohibition mentioned in earlier sources were theoretical rulings meant for extenuating circumstances which were never put into practice. They further note that many scholars believed that the ban on women’s aliyot could never be waived even in extreme circumstances, such as a town entirely populated by kohanim who normally only receive the first aliya. As such, this talmudic passage creates a bona fide rabbinic prohibition. Rabbi Aryeh Frimer further counters that the halachic notion of kavod habriyot cannot be employed by a group simply because its members do not like a rabbinic edict, when the alleged shame comes from the rabbinic law itself.
In the conclusion to his review of Shapiro’s essay, Henkin makes a stimulating and controversial claim: Whatever the merits of the arguments, the issue of women’s aliyot remains well outside the Orthodox consensus, and therefore those who nonetheless introduce this innovation will soon find themselves non-Orthodox in practice.
Time will tell.
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.