Women and Men in Communal Prayer

Halakhic Perspectives

Edited by Chaim Trachtman, MD

Ktav Publishing House, 2010, 418 pages


Reviewed by Israel Drazin


One of the great world tragedies is the systematic exclusion of women from many activities and positions, making them, in essence, only partial citizens, reminiscent of blacks being considered only three-fifths human in the US Constitution. The situation exists in virtually all cultures and religions.

In most Orthodox Jewish Synagogues, among other things, women are excluded from participating in the minyan, the quorum necessary for many prayers, and are forbidden from being called to the reading of the Torah, called aliyot. These practices have caused many people to ask, “Are women really considered Jewish?” They see the ancient argument that women have a “unique and important role,” that wives raise and educate the family’s children and make the home, the basic element of Judaism, into a Jewish home, as being similar to an early nineteenth century slave owner saying that his slave is important and is being treated properly because she improves his and his children’s home and makes their lives bearable and better. Sociologists have noted that countries that discriminate against women are generally at a lower level economically, emotionally, and educationally. Thus these people ask whether Orthodox Judaism is similarly affected. These and similar thoughts have prompted some Orthodox rabbis to find a way to overcome this problem.

Women and Men in Communal Prayer addresses part of the problem, the exclusion of women from the Torah reading service, the aliyot. The book takes a large step toward resolving the problem, but it does not resolve it completely. The book offers the opinions of four prominent, well-respected, and articulate men, three rabbis and a professor. Two, Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber and Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, advocate changing the current exclusionary practice and allowing women to participate more than presently. Two, 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 

There is nothing explicit in the Torah that forbids women from participating equally with men in worship and study services. According to tradition, the practice of public Torah reading evolved in several stages. The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Qama 82b, reads a biblical verse (Exodus 15:22) that states that the Israelites went three days in the desert without finding water as suggesting reading the Torah. They say that the Oral Torah teaches that the verse means that Moses instituted the practice that Jews should not go more than three days without hearing the Torah (which is compared to water) read. Moses specified that at least three verses of the Torah must be read publically on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The rabbis consider this a mitzvah, a Torah requirement for public Torah reading.

Many generations later, Ezra expanded the rule (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 12:1). Ezra required, among other things, that Jews read at least ten verses and that at least seven Jews be called to the Torah on Shabbat. Still later Mishnah Megillah 4:1 mandated the saying of a blessing before and after the Torah reading. We have no indication that either Moses or Ezra addressed the issue of women’s aliyot.

Focusing on this history, some but not all rabbis and scholars are convinced that only the Moses mandate requiring the reading of three verses is the mitzvah and that the discussion about women and aliyot only applies to the reading of the first three verses; women should not be excluded from aliyot after the first three verses are read.  There are other rabbis and scholars who focus on the mandate of Ezra, 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, 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, Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayim 282:3), states that “congregational dignity,” kevod ha-tsibur, is affected by women being called to the Torah reading and making a Hebrew blessing. This reason for 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 concern should be overrun and women’s aliyot should be allowed for all the Torah readings.

A second reason that some rabbis and scholars see restricting female participation in Torah readings is the talmudic ban against hearing a woman’s voice, called qol ishah. But is this rule relevant? When does it apply? Why should the rule be enforced when a woman makes a blessing over the Torah reading? Orthodox men hear women making blessings frequently, sometimes daily, without this qol ishah concern.

A third rationale for exclusion of women from aliyot is a principle in the 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 focuses on 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 Qiddushin 1:7 states that women are exempt from time-bound commands, the mitzvah only applies to men.

There are also other rationales advanced to exclude women from aliyot, such “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. But are these concerns really significant, or is there an overriding concern? 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 concerns require the discrimination of women?

Isn’t 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 and others state, 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 they should not be given aliyot because of “community dignity” clearly implies that if this hurdle was overcome, women may have aliyot and they will discharge the entire congregation’s obligation. Rabbi Professor Sperber shows how the “community 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 summaries 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 is worthwhile to hear the view of Professor Sperber. He argues, and presents a host of examples to support his view, that the concept of “congregational dignity” is a common sense idea but that it depends upon the concerns of the 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 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

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 shelichot tsibur, 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.

Reading that the rabbis and scholars are unable to agree and find a clear-cut solution to the problem of female aliyot may upset many readers, but at least the first step is being taken, the issue is being addressed, and the number of Modern Orthodox congregation who accept the views of Shapiro and Sperber is growing.