Women and Men in Communal Prayer

Halakhic Perspectives

By Daniel Sperber, Mendel Shapiro, Eliav Shochetman, Shlomo Riskin

Edited by Chaim Trachtman

Format: Hardcover



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Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber
Rabbi Mendel Shapiro
Professor Eliav Shochetman
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin
Introduction by Dr. Tamar Ross
Edited by Chaim Trachtman, MD
Communal prayer has always been a central component in Jewish
life. Traditional orthodox services are structured around spatial and
functional separation of men and women. In this book, introduced by Dr. Tamar
Ross, Rabbi Daniel Sperber presents a halakhic justification for expanding the
role of women in communal prayer services. Building on work by Rabbi Mendel
Shapiro (included in the volume) in which the legal sources are examined and
interpreted to permit women to lead parts of the service and participate in Torah
reading, Rabbi Sperber highlights the pivotal importance of kevod ha-beri'ot
(human dignity) in encouraging fuller participation of women in communal
prayer. Because of the relevance and timeliness of the topic, two articles that
express opposition to Rabbi Sperber's position are included " one by Rabbi
Shlomo Riskin and one by Professor Eliav Shochetman. This anthology represents
an example of a vibrant dialogue between leading scholars on a current issue and
highlights the dynamic nature of the halakhic process.
The proper role of women in the synagogue is an issue that Modern Orthodoxy has been struggling with for over forty years.
While everyone agrees that halakhah has to guide all changes in synagogue practice, women's changing self-perception
and religious sentiment must be central to any discussion of synagogue life. In this provocative book, Rabbi Prof. Daniel
Sperber, using his characteristic erudition, makes the case that in the 21st century it is time for women to be given their
halakhic right and be permitted to read from the Torah. Together with the responses of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Prof. Eliav
Shochetman, this book is Torah study on the highest level.
" Marc B. Shapiro, Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA
Let those who believe that the question of whether or not women may chant and be called up to the Torah in public is both narrow
and obscure, and has long been settled by Jewish law read this eye-opening book by thoughtful contemporary Orthodox scholars
and rabbis. They will soon discover that the question is not at all narrow and far from settled. In fact, it serves as key to discovering
how Jewish law and changing social and cultural norms interact in important ways, while it shows us that examining women's
relationship to the Torah scroll opens the door to a wealth of ideas about their role in today's Jewish life and the changing nature
of congregational prayer.
" Samuel C. Heilman, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies,
Queens College, City University of New York
The rise today of women to fuller, more equal participation in Jewish religious life is of historic significance and is, indeed, the
eschatological dream of Judaism. Thankfully, it is being achieved by evolutionary means. Yet, every evolutionary path has its
transformative moments and watershed experiences along the way, and this book is one of them. With his learning, his courage,
his total grounding in the sea and language of halakhah, Rabbi Daniel Sperber connects the enterprise of partnership minyanim
almost seamlessly to the tradition. Sperber presumes women's intelligence, their faithfulness, their spiritual longing. In doing
so, he honors the struggle of Orthodox women as one that enhances community " a machloket le'shem shamayim. But there's
more here. From the extraordinary and elegant opening by Tamar Ross, to the creative foundation document by Mendel Shapiro
" founding father and ideologue of the partnership minyanim, to the cogent and thoughtful dissenting views of Rabbis
Shochetman and Riskin, every word in this treasured volume has value and meaning. Would that all halakhic and communal
issues that arise in our time be engaged in so profound an analysis and so civil a discourse!
" Blu Greenberg, author and founding president of JOFA, New York, NY
June 2, 2010
Women are excluded from being called to the reading of the Torah, called aliyot, in Orthodox Jewish synagogues. Women and Men in Communal Prayer addresses this issue. 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 practice and allowing women to participate more than they do at present. 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
According to tradition, the practice of public Torah reading evolved in several stages. The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Qama 82b, reads Exodus 15:22 that states that the Israelites went three days in the desert without finding water as suggesting that Moses instituted the practice that Jews should not go more than three days without hearing the Torah, which is compared to water. 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.
Maimonides states in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 12:1, that generations later Ezra expanded the rule. Ezra required, among other things, that Jews read at least ten verses and that no less than seven Jews be called to the Torah on Shabbat. Still later, Mishnah Megillah 4:1 mandated that blessings be said before and after the Torah reading. There is no indication that either Moses or Ezra addressed the issue of women's aliyot.
Focusing on this history, this book states that some but not all rabbis and scholars feel that the discussion about women and aliyot should focus only on the reading of the first three verses, only the Moses mandate, the mitzvah requiring the reading of three verses; women should not be excluded from aliyot after the first three verses are finished. However, the book also states that there are other rabbis and scholars who concentrate on Ezra's mandate, 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, this volume makes it clear that 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 the passages, and making a Hebrew blessing. The book shows that the reason for this 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 halakhah 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 aliyot is the talmudic ban against hearing a woman's voice, called qol ishah. The third generation Babylonian sage Samuel said, "To listen to a woman's voice is indecent" (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 70a). But the volume discusses whether this rule is relevant? When does it apply? Why should the rule be enforced when a woman makes a blessing over the Torah reading? Don't we greet and talk to women as we come to the synagogue? Shapiro and Sperber point out that 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 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 that is discussed is 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. While this time-bound rationale seems relevant, isn't it true, Shapiro and Sperber contend, that the actual study of Torah is not time-bound and Jews are encouraged to study Torah day and night?
There are also other concerns that are argued to exclude women from aliyot, such as "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. 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 fears require the discrimination of women? Are Shapiro and Sperber correct that there is only the one real concern "congregational dignity," which should be overridden by a greater concern?
Is 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 states, 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 females should not be given aliyot because of "congregational dignity," the rabbis clearly imply that if this hurdle is overcome, women may have aliyot and they will discharge the entire congregation's obligation. Rabbi Professor Sperber offers his view why and how the "congregational 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 Professor Sperber argues, and presents a host of examples to support his view, that the concept of "congregational dignity" depends upon the concerns of a 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 humanity and 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
Dr. Ross comments that 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. These groups, writes Dr. Ross, feel that they are taking the first step to address and solve the issue of female aliyot.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.