A woman’s honor

A discussion of gender roles in synagogue and Halacha gives added legitimacy to feminist thought in Judaism.

women of the wall 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
women of the wall 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
The Hebrew word kavod has at least four English interpretations, writes Prof. Tamar Ross in the introduction to Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives. It can mean honor, respect, dignity and glory – and it can also imply weighty or important, when used as the opposite of kalut, or lightness.
The actual meaning of kavod is at the heart of the halachic debate over women’s participation in synagogue ritual, and is a major topic of discussion in this book. Indeed, as anyone familiar with the subject of women’s Torah reading knows, the main rabbinical text on this issue states that women are technically allowed to be called up to the Torah, but the practice is not executed due to kavod hatzibur, which could be translated as public dignity, as congregational honor or in a variety of other ways.
Jerusalem lawyer Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, whose scholarly article on women’s Torah reading – first published in 2001 and then amended and reproduced in this volume – sent tidal waves through the Orthodox community, focuses on the question of whether kavod hatzibur is something that can be waived. He maintains that it is very low on the totem pole of halachic reasoning, not ab initio, not post facto and not even custom, but just some kind of social sensibility, and that there is ample halachic precedent for waiving it.
Rabbi Daniel Sperber, president of the Jesselson Institute of Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University and rabbi of Congregation Menachem Tzion in the Old City of Jerusalem, argues that there are other halachic considerations that should supersede kavod hatzibur. In particular, he focuses on the concept of kavod habriyot, roughly translated as human dignity, and brings extensive evidence that kavod habriyot, which is violated when women are forced into second-class status in the synagogue, should take precedence over kavod hatzibur. “[I]n those communities,” he writes, where “the absence of change will constitute a source of pain and anguish to an important segment of the community, the principle of human dignity outweighs the problematic principle of congregational dignity.”
The technical legal debate is only one component of this volume, and only part of what makes it such vital reading. This volume, which includes the work of four writers and an editor and was published with the support of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), elevates the discussion of women’s role in synagogue and Halacha, gives added legitimacy to feminist thought in Judaism and provides an impressive scholarly forum for the debate around changing gender roles in Jewish life.
As Ross explains in her brilliant introduction, the issues raised in the volume go to the heart of what it means to be a halachic thinker, a judge and a leader of the community. Tying the discussion to broader trends in law, gender and society, Ross writes, “Shifting the weight of halachic deliberation regarding women’s aliyot from the limited vocabulary of legal technicalities to a richer lexicon of principles and policies can contribute much to the honesty of the discussion.”
Moreover, Ross, author and professor emerita of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, raises important questions about the role of women in the entire discussion. “The introduction of feminist sensibilities to the halachic discussion suggests that the traditional model of ‘the friendly posek’ as a benign male authority figure, to whom women must turn in order to determine the nature of their dignity and the degree to which it should be considered in halachic deliberation, may be inadequate in a world where patriarchy has ceased to serve the cultural, social, and economic functions that allowed for its persistence in the past.”
Indeed, this volume is a case in point: The four halachic writers are men – Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founding chief rabbi of Efrat, and Prof. Eliav Shochetman, professor of Jewish Law at Sha’arei Mishpat College, are the voices in opposition – while Ross, the only woman included, is set apart as the writer of the “introduction.”
The crux of Riskin’s argument is that women cannot release men from the mitzva of Torah reading because those who are not obligated in the commandment (women) cannot release those who are obligated (men). Riskin cites a text from the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik about the need for a male quorum of 10 men for Torah reading, from which he deduces that women cannot release men from their obligation. Following several back and forth essays between Riskin and Shapiro, Riskin remarkably concludes that “there may well be room for a woman to be called up to the Torah for the reading of maftir and the haftarah as well as for hosafot (additions) to the seven obligatory Torah readings.”
Shochetman’s argument focuses primarily on the issue of whether a community may willingly relinquish its “dignity.” He argues, based in large part on the writings of former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that a community cannot relinquish its dignity. Bizarrely, one of the main talmudic texts in his writing refers to the question of whether a man whose “beard has not filled in” can lead services. That text alone should demonstrate unequivocally how socially contextualized these issues are – after all, using beards as a mitigating factor in choosing a cantor has clearly fallen out of practice.
I suppose there is a certain “balance” with two men in favor and two men against, but I would have preferred to have more women’s voices of authority, scholarship and leadership.
Nevertheless, kudos to JOFA for producing this crucial volume. It is a welcome addition to my bookshelf.