Contextualizing the Conversation about Women’s Aliyot in the Orthodox Community

Women receiving aliyot (being called to the Torah) in Orthodox synagogues is a relatively new phenomenon. Its most prominent proponents are Rabbi Mendel Shapiro and Rabbi Daniel Sperber. (Rabbi Shapiro explored the topic when his daughter became a Bat Mitzvah. He was looking to expand her options for religious engagement.)

The halakhic (according to Jewish law) validity of women reading Torah is a two-pronged question: Is their reading halakhically valid, and even if it is valid on pure halakhic grounds, should it be prohibited for (halakhically sanctioned) sociological reasons? The Talmud in Megillah 23a addresses both of these aspects. The text there says that women are halakhically allowed to read from the Torah. But, it then goes on to say that they should, nevertheless, not do it because having women read for men is an insult to the honor of the community, it negates the “kevod ha’tzibur.” This gemara is codified by almost all the poskim, halakhic decisors.

This halakha (Jewish law) was, throughout the ages, the basis for prohibiting women from receiving aliyot and reading from the Torah. Then Rabbi Shapiro and Rabbi Spreber came around, reexamined the topic, and poskened (ruled) that it should be allowed. They both reached the same conclusion, but for slightly different reasons. Rabbi Shapiro claimed that even though the Rabbis considered it insulting to the community to have women read for them, the community can forgo its honor and have women read for them from the Torah, the insult to their honor notwithstanding. Rabbi Sperber offered a somewhat different version of this argument.

Recently the Rabbinical Council of America (group of centrist Orthodox rabbis)’s Tradition published a comprehensive essay by two brothers from Israel, Rabbi Dov and Rabbi Aryeh Frimer, in which they tried to refute Rabbis Shapiro and Sperber’s psak, halakhic argument. They argued that not only are women’s aliyot assur, forbidden, for sociological reasons, they are also halakhically invalid.

They believe that the person getting the aliyah is doing so on behalf of the community; the community fulfills their obligation through them. Therefore, since women are not “obligated” with the “mitzvah” of reading from the Torah they cannot fulfill the mitzvah on behalf of others. In order to prove their claim, they adopted a unique and innovative methodology of psak, what in legal circles is referred to as the “string-citing” approach. They collated all that has been said on the subject and then, based on a numerical majority, decided that the opinions that prohibit women’s aliyot are correct, and that those who allow it are invalid.

I just published a teshuva, halakhic responsa, refuting their claims. I tried to show that there are valid halakhic reasons to allow women to receive aliyot, and read from the Torah. Here, in brief, are the main points I made:

  1. According to some opinions, women are indeed obligated to read the Torah and therefore can fulfill that obligation on behalf of others.
  2. Alternatively, others believe that kri’at ha’torah, the public Torah reading, is not an individual obligation that someone has to fulfill, by themselves or via others, but is instead a communal responsibility that can be disposed of by any member of the congregation, man or woman.
  3. The sociological argument is no longer applicable because we live in a milieu that is very different from that of the Rabbis. Men who participate in Partnership Minyanim are not offended by having women read for them, they are actually honored by it. Their reading, therefore, is no longer a negation of “kevod ha’tzibur,” the honor of the community.

I also wrote extensively on the problems with their judicial methodology. Numerical psak, where the poskim, halakhic decisors, have not debated the issue with one another, and where the individual opinions are neither assessed nor evaluated, is highly problematic, and, according to many poskim, has no validity.

I therefore concluded that communities that want to adopt the practice of giving women aliyot have what to rely on.

The question that still needs to be discussed is whether, communally, that is a good direction for us to take. Is “could” the same as “should?” Should we as a community embrace such a practice, just because it is allowed? What is gained and what is lost by such a drastic deviation from contemporary communal norms? This is an important conversation the Modern Orthodox community needs to urgently undertake.

This is a barebones summary of this complicated topic. For a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at stake, please read the actual essays, found here and here 

Join JOFA’s blogcast from May 31-June 2 to continue the conversation about women receiving aliyot. 

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