Shiur #06: Public Torah Reading by Women

  • Rav Chaim Navon


I. The Gemara


The Gemara cites a beraita that deals with the issue of women being called to read from the Torah:


Our Rabbis taught: “All are qualified to be among the seven [who read], even a minor and a woman, but the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of respect for the congregation [kevod ha-tzibbur].” (Megilla 23a)


            By strict law, even a woman or a minor can be called to the Torah as one of the seven readers. But Chazal established that a woman should not be called up out of respect for the congregation. We are dealing here with a situation where ten adult males are present, i.e., where there is a quorum that allows for a public Torah reading to be conducted. Neither a woman nor a minor is counted toward this quorum, but by strict law either can be called to read from the Torah when ten adult males are present. Chazal, however, negated the possibility of a woman being called to the Torah, because of the consideration of kevod ha-tzibbur, the meaning of which we shall try to clarify below. The Shulchan Arukh rules in accordance with this beraita (Orach Chayyim 282:3). The Mishna Berura (no. 12) comments that it is our custom that a minor can be called up only for maftir.


            How is possible to fulfill one's obligation through the reading of a woman or a minor? [Note that the Gemara is discussing being called up to actually read the Torah, not just to recite the blessing, as we do today.] Surely minors are not obligated in mitzvot at all, and women, while obligated in mitzvot generally, are not obligated in the mitzvaof public Torah reading (though there are some who challenge this assertion). Considering the rule that whoever is not obligated in a particular mitzvacannot fulfill the mitzva for others (Berakhot 20b), why is it that women and minors cannot blow a shofar for others on Rosh Ha-shana, but can read from the Torah on their behalf?


            The answer seems to be that there is no obligation upon each individual to hear the public Torah reading. Rather, the obligation is communal: The community is obligated to call seven people to the Torah. The individual's obligation is to be part of that community, but he is not bound by a specific obligation to hear the Torah reading. For this reason, even someone who is not obligated in the mitzva can be called up among the seven readers, as he does not have to fulfill the mitzva on anybody else's behalf.


II. What is Kevod Ha-Tzibbur?


            What is this concept of kevod ha-tzibbur, owing to which women cannot be called to the Torah? Some suggest that the very mingling of men and women in a synagogue diminishes the dignity of the congregation.[1] The prayer service and Torah reading in a synagogue demand constant separation between men and women. Even if theoretically it would be possible to call women to the Torah in the presence of a quorum of ten men, this would be an impairment of one of the most basic elements of the proper atmosphere of a synagogue.


            Rav Ben-Zion Uziel understands the expression “kevod ha-tzibbur” in a different manner. In the course of a discussion of the right of women to vote in elections and to be elected into office, Rav Uziel rejects the assertion that the mixed seating of men and women in government offices constitutes immodest behavior (Mishpetei Uziel, IV, Choshen Mishpat, no. 6). Among other sources, he mentions our passage. According to him, Chazal did not forbid calling women to the Torah because of immodesty, but only because of kevod ha-tzibbur. From this Rav Uziel concludes that when people assemble for a serious purpose, there is no concern about immodesty, even if the participants include both men and women.


            According to Rav Uziel, the prohibition against women reading from the Torah is not connected to the issue of modesty. Why then did Chazal forbid them to be called to read from the Torah?  He answers: “So that people not say that there is nobody among the men who knows how to read from the Torah.” This explanation is based on the practice that was current in the days of Chazal, that each person called to the Torah would read his portion out loud. Were women to be called to the Torah and read from it, the impression would be created that the men are incapable of doing so, and therefore they require the assistance of the women.


            This understanding requires further clarification. Surely if women are not called to the Torah, people will say about the women that there is nobody among them who knows how to read from the Torah. And this would in fact be true, as women would not acquire for themselves the skill to read from the Torah. Why then were Chazal concerned only about the image of the men, but not about the image of the women?


            Chazal apparently based their concerns on the simple assumption that it is men who regularly participate in communal prayer services. It is men who are obligated in communal prayer, and it is men who can form the required quorum. Even had Chazal not barred women from active participation in public Torah reading, it may be assumed that most of the Torah readers would have been men, as it is they who go more often to synagogue, and it is they who are required for a quorum. Furthermore, according to many authorities, the majority of the readers must be adult males even if women and minors are included (Rema, Orach Chayyim 282:3). According to most of the Posekim, as well as according to accepted practice, women are not obligated to participate in public Torah reading, and therefore nobody would expect them to acquire the necessary expertise; this obligation is cast upon men. In such circumstances, were women to be called to the Torah, it would give the impression that the men – who are obligated to conduct the Torah reading and to hear it – are not fit to do this. When the men of a community are perceived as negligent in fulfilling their religious duties, this is a stain on the community.[2]


            We now come to the most difficult question concerning this matter, regarding which much ink has already been spilled and many communities divided: How are we to assess the halakhic weight of kevod ha-tzibbur? Rav Prof. Daniel Sperber has argued that this assertion “is not the decree of a new prohibition… but rather a practical determination of Chazal regarding the halakhic policy that should be adopted in practice” (Darkah shel Halakha, p. 23). According to Prof. Sperber, we are dealing with words of advice for the community, rather than an absolute prohibition. This being the case, there is room for halakhic flexibility: In a situation where there is no insult to the congregation's dignity, or the congregation is ready to waive its dignity, or there arises concern for the dignity of women, there is room to be lenient and allow women to be called to the Torah.


            Others disagree with Prof. Sperber and say that the consideration of kevod ha-tzibbur moved Chazal to establish from the outset that women are entirely removed from being called to the Torah. Prof. Sperber implies that there were two chronological stages; during the first stage, women were permitted to be called to the Torah, whereas during the second sage, they were forbidden to do so. For Prof. Sperber, calling women to the Torah today would not truly be an unprecedented innovation, but rather a return to first chronological stage, before the prohibition was enacted. Those who disagree with him argue that the possibility of women being called to the Torah was always merely hypothetical. When Chazal established the laws of being called to the Torah, they considered the possibility that even women should be permitted to do so, but rejected the possibility out of respect for the congregation. There was never any process of development; the original enactment of public Torah reading already removed women from the possibility of being called to the Torah.[3] According to this approach, it is impossible to revert to the initial stage when women were called to the Torah, because there was never such a stage. Even if we assume that the consideration of kevod ha-tzibbur is no longer relevant today – and this is debatable – the prohibition would likely still stand. This follows the dictum common to Rabbinic decrees, that even if the reason for the decree is no longer applicable, the decree remains firmly in place.


III. Who Reads from the Torah?


            The Ran (Megilla 13a in Alfasi) argues that fundamentally, even when we ignore the consideration of kevod ha-tzibbur, a woman may only be called to the Torah as one of the middle readers, but not as the first or the last of the readers. This is because by strict law it is the first reader who recites the blessing that precedes the reading and the last reader who recites the blessing that follows it, and all the intermediate readers fulfill their obligation with the blessings of the first and last readers. But after it was instituted that each person called to the Torah recites his own blessings, there is technically nothing preventing a woman from being called first or last to the Torah. All this is true if we disregard the consideration of kevod ha-tzibbur. After it was established that this consideration must be taken into account, a woman could not be called to the Torah at all.


            The Meiri (Megila 23a) takes the opposite approach: According to him, once it was established that each reader recites his own blessing, it was no longer possible for a woman to be called to the Torah (even without taking kevod ha-tzibbur into consideration). At first, Chazal thought that a woman could be called to the Torah without her reciting the blessing. Today, however, when this is no longer possible, a woman cannot be called to the Torah, as her blessing in such a case would be a blessing recited in vain.


            Both the Ran and the Meiri rule that even by strict law, it is impossible for all seven readers to be women (see Rema, Orach Chayyim 282:3). Both agree that in the past, women could only be called up in the middle of the reading. And today? On this point they reached opposite conclusions: According to the Ran, they would be able to be called to the Torah even at the beginning and even at the end, were it not for the factor of kevod ha-tzibbur. The Meiri, on the other hand, argues that even disregarding kevod ha-tzibbur, women today cannot be called to the Torah, since they cannot recite the required blessings.


            Prof. Saul Lieberman[4] writes that the most persuasive understanding is that of the Tosafot Rid, that a woman could theoretically be called to the Torah as one of the seven readers (e.g., on Shabbat) but not as one of the three readers (e.g., on Mondays or Thursdays). This ruling is based on the understanding that every time the Torah is read, at least three of the readers must be men. Women can only be added to the minimum number of three. As stated, even this possibility was ruled out because of kevod ha-tzibbur.


IV. A City all of Whose Inhabitants are Kohanim


            Those who support the possibility of women being called to the Torah in our time adduce a strong support from a ruling of the Maharam of Rothenburg regarding a city whose inhabitants are all kohanim. In such a city, there is nobody to call to the Torah for the aliyot allocated to ordinary Israelites. If a kohen is called up, people will say that he is a disqualified kohen. According to the Maharam, in such a case a kohen is called up for the first two aliyot and women are called up for the rest of the aliyot. The problem of kevod ha-tzibbur is set aside here because of the concern described above (Responsa Maharam Mi-Rothenburg, IV, no. 108).


            The Maharam makes two assumptions: First, that by strict law women can complete the count of three readers and not only the count of seven readers (that is to say, a minimum of three male readers is unnecessary). Second, the disqualification of women from being called to the Torah because of kevod ha-tzibbur came only at a second stage. We mentioned the suggestion that the idea of women being called to the Torah was only a theoretical possibility considered by those who ordained public Torah reading, but because of kevod ha-tzibbur women were barred from the start from any possibility of participating in the Torah reading. Clearly the Maharam thinks otherwise, and according to him women fundamentally have a place in public Torah reading.


            Certain scholars cite the words of the Maharam as testifying to women being called to the Torah in practice, albeit in an extreme situation. It seems, however, that we are dealing here with a theoretical discussion regarding a most infrequent case. In any event, the halakha goes against the Maharam’s ruling, i.e., in a city whose inhabitants are all kohanim, kohanim may be called up for all seven aliyot, as everybody knows that in this city everyone is a kohen, and there is no issue of disgrace (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 135:12).


            There are similar theoretical rulings. Rav Yaakov Emden rules that when a prayer service is conducted in the house of a woman who has given birth, and her husband is not present (to be called to the Torah in accordance with his obligation following the birth of his child), “we should invoke the [basic] law that a woman can be called to read from the Torah in such a case” (Migdal Oz, Hilkhot Yoledet 2, no. 10). Rav Ben-Zion Abba Shaul writes that when all of the congregants are members of the same family, it is permissible to call the grandmother to the Torah, as there is no issue of kevod ha-tzibbur in the sole presence of one’s children or grandchildren (Responsa Or Le-Tziyyon II, Orach Chayyim, no. 89, p. 86). But these too are exceptional positions, and there is no evidence that they were ever followed in practice.


V. Human Dignity and Satisfaction for Women


            Prof. Sperber has argued that there is room to permit calling women to the Torah based on the factor of kevod ha-beriyot (human dignity). According to him, women are greatly distressed by their inability to participate in public Torah reading, and this distress should be defined from a halakhic perspective as an impairment of kevod ha-beriyot. Our concern about kevod ha-beriyot for the women should overpower our concern about kevod ha-tzibbur.


            Prof. Sperber chose the factor of kevod ha-beriyot because it is a recognized halakhic consideration, about which Chazal have said: “Great is kevod ha-beriyot, as it supersedes a negative injunction” (Shabbat 81b). Kevod ha-beriyot is indeed a halakhic consideration of great importance. But is it really possible to define the distress of women over their exclusion from being called to the Torah as an impairment of kevod ha-beriyot?


            The Gemara in Bava Kama (79a) brings as an example of an insult to human dignity the case of a person who is forced to carry an animal on his shoulders. The Gemara in Berakhot (19b) brings another example – a person who realizes that he is wearing sha’atnez when he is out on the street. Such a person is obligated to remove the forbidden garment immediately, even if that means standing there in the nude. This is considered an assault on his human dignity. Incidentally, the Gemara concludes there that kevod ha-beriyot does not supersede a negative injunction, and therefore a person in such a situation must indeed undress, despite all the humiliation that this entails. It is only with respect to Rabbinic prohibitions that leniency may be adopted on the grounds of kevod ha-beriyot.


            Another example of an assault on human dignity is mentioned in Eiruvin (41b). The Gemara there speaks of a person who, because of the prohibition of Shabbat limits (techum Shabbat), cannot go to the bathroom to relieve himself on Shabbat. This is certainly an assault on human dignity. Similarly, the Posekim learn from the Gemara in Shabbat (81b) that one is permitted to carry the early equivalent of toilet paper on Shabbat, based on the factor of kevod ha-beriyot.


            Is it possible to compare the distress felt by women who are not called to the Torah to the embarrassment of a person who must undress in public or is stuck in a bathroom without toilet paper? It is highly doubtful that the distress of these women can be defined as an assault on human dignity. We are not dealing here with an impairment of human dignity, but rather with an ideological decision.


            Most women do not feel that their dignity is diminished by the fact that they cannot be called to the Torah (just as most men do not feel that their dignity is diminished by the fact that they do not light Shabbat candles). Some argue that this statistical fact demands that the factor of kevod ha-beriyot be removed from this discussion. According to some authorities, “kevod ha-beriyot only applies to something that involves degradation to the entire human race” (Responsa Peri Yitzchak I, no. 53). According to this opinion, when only a minority feels hurt, this cannot be seen as an assault on human dignity.


            However, we are not dealing here only with a matter of majority and minority. It seems to me that even in a society where most people walk about the streets naked, we would recognize the distress of the minority who suffer from that norm as an assault on their human dignity. But the distress of women under discussion here is not an instinctive result of a humiliating situation, but rather an intellectual consequence of a certain ideological system. Those women who suffer emotional injury because they cannot be called to the Torah are women who choose to adopt a specific conceptual system. It is precisely for that reason that the fact that only men can be called to the Torah causes them distress. It is very difficult to define this as an assault on the human dignity of women.


            Since Halakha does not bend to foreign ideologies, there are those who try to translate their ideology into the language of human suffering, to which Halakha is sensitive. Instead of saying that a religious lifestyle contradicts their ideology on a certain point, they say that a religious lifestyle causes them suffering and diminishes their human dignity. It must be honestly admitted that we are not dealing here with a question of human dignity, but rather with an ideological confrontation. We would respond in the same way to an ordinary Israelite who is not a kohen but wishes to go up to recite the priestly blessing, arguing that denying him this privilege is an assault on his human dignity.


            Even if the halakhic factor of kevod ha-beriyot is irrelevant here, there is another halakhic factor that might in fact be relevant. I refer here to the factor of “giving satisfaction (nachat ruach) to women.” This factor appears in the Gemara:


Rabbi Yose said: “Abba Elazar told me: ‘Once we had a calf which was a peace-offering, and we brought it to the Women's Court, and women performed semikha [laid their hands upon the head of the animal]—not that semikha must be done by women, but in order to give satisfaction to the women.’” (Chagiga 16b)


            Strictly speaking, women who bring sacrifices are not required to perform semikha. The Tannaim disagree whether women are forbidden to perform semikha or only not obligated to do so. Rabbi Yose argues that “the daughters of Israel perform semikha optionally.” He then cites the incident involving Abba Elazar, who permitted women to perform semikha in order to give them satisfaction. We find here a case in which we expand the circle of women's religious activity in order to bring them satisfaction. Should we not compare public Torah reading to this case, and there too allow women to be active participants in order to give them satisfaction?


            The truth, however, is that the two cases are not at all alike. The Gemara in Chagiga emphasizes that Chazal never permitted women to perform semikha with full force, as there is a prohibition to perform work with consecrated animals, and semikha falls under the category of forbidden work. When they permitted women to perform semikha, they were not actually waiving any halakha or custom. It may be that the only concern here was a localized one, as semikha (even when performed gently) is somewhat similar to the performance of work with an animal designated as a sacrifice. It is this weak concern that was set aside in order to give satisfaction to women. Integrating women into public Torah reading is an entirely different matter, because Chazal issued a decree forbidding it, and because it blatantly contradicts the traditional manner in which services are conducted in a synagogue.


            A synagogue maintains absolute separation between men and women. Even those who support the existence of modest mixed company in our secular lives adamantly insist upon the principle of separation in the area of prayer. The consideration of giving satisfaction to women permits women to fulfill mitzvot in which they are not obligated, and perhaps even calls upon men to encourage women to fulfill such mitzvot. But this consideration does not set aside ancient traditions and customs, like the tradition of gender separation in the synagogue.


            When I read the halakhic considerations in favor and against calling women to the Torah, I have difficulty being persuaded one way or the other. Prof. Sperber argues that the halakhic factor of kevod ha-tzibbur obligates us to permit women to be called to the Torah. This argument is not persuasive. His opponents argue that the halakhic factor of kevod ha-tzibbur absolutely forbids us to call women to the Torah. This argument seems exaggerated as well.


            Indeed, Chazal have determined that women may not be called to the Torah, and this prohibition is our point of departure. It seems to me, however, that were there a pressing halakhic need, we would search for a legitimate halakhic way to call women to the Torah. For instance, if a recalcitrant husband would declare that he will only give his wife a get if she is called to the Torah, I imagine that we would permit this to happen. The disagreement is about an altogether different point: Is there justified cause to circumvent the prohibition established by Chazal? And especially: Is there justification for carrying out a dramatic and artificial change in Jewish tradition? Jewish tradition has established absolute separation between women and men in the synagogue. Giving women aliyot in the context of a traditional minyan is a blatant deviation from this custom. Even if it were possible to find a way to effect this deviation from tradition without violating any halakhic prohibition, the matter would still be highly problematic.


            The closer we come to the heart of Divine worship, the more conservative we become. Rav Kook was exceedingly critical of mixed prayer, and his words on that topic are instructive about his general attitude toward changes in synagogue custom:


There is no room to be lenient concerning the holy customs of our forefathers, and especially in matters handed over to the community, they being grounded on the foundation of the sanctity of Israel… People should be careful about their forefathers' holy traditions and act with the full severity of the prohibitions with respect to the sanctity of synagogues and study halls. And they should build synagogues in the manner of building used by our forefathers, of blessed memory, for generations. (Responsa Orach Mishpat, Orach Chayyim 35)


VI. Women's Aliyot in a Women's Minyan


            Certain women, who are meticulous in their observance of Halakha, are uncomfortable with the idea of women being called to the Torah in a minyan of men. They feel that the practice is halakhically problematic or simply too great a deviation from Jewish tradition and the customs of our ancestors. Sometimes these women try to find a compromise: They are called to the Torah at a women's minyan.According to Halakha, public Torah reading can only take place in a minyan of men. But these women seek a legitimate halakhic way to allow calling them to the Torah even without a minyan of men. For example, some women are called to the Torah but refrain from reciting any blessings. Other women omit Birkot Ha-Torah from the series of blessings usually recited upon arising in the morning, waiting for their call to the Torah to recite them. Such solutions are not simple from a halakhic perspective.[5] But even if we would find a way to allow women to be called to the Torah in the exclusive presence of women, in a manner that poses no halakhic problems, I would still question whether this is a desirable solution.


            In my opinion, this would be no different from an ordinary Jew who wishes to go up for the priestly blessing without reciting a blessing and without reciting the verses. From a purely halakhic perspective, perhaps this is permitted. But I believe no congregation would permit this: Priestly blessing is an event with a defined halakhic meaning; when a non-priest imitates the priests who ascend to bless, it is an imitation of this important event.


According to Halakha, being called to the Torah without a minyan of men is not defined as public Torah reading. Reading the Torah in a women's minyan is the use of the Torah in a way that mimics "reading in the Torah," in order to create a spiritual experience. I do not doubt the intensity of the positive experience of the participants in this ceremony, but I believe that this is not what the Torah scroll is for.


(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] E. Shochetman, “Aliyat Nashim La-Torah,” Kovetz Ha-Rambam (Sinai 135-136), Jerusalem 5765, pp. 275-279.

[2] Rav Uziel’s rationale is alluded to in the words of the Ritva on Megilla 4a.

[3] Darkah shel Halakha, p. 274.

[4] Tosefta Ki-peshutah, Megilla, chap. 3, pp. 1176-1177.

[5] See A. Oppenheimer, “Keri'at Nashim Ba-Torah,” Ma'aliyot 19 (5757), p. 179.