In the midst of a discussion about how many people are called to the Torah for aliyot on various occasions, today’s daf offers a surprising statement that women, as well as men, can be called to the Torah for an aliyah, but then adds an immediate qualifier that effectively prevents them from doing so.
The sages taught: All people count toward the quorum of seven readers, even a minor and even a woman. However, the sages said that a woman should not read the Torah, out of respect for the congregation.
The discussion quickly moves on, but this principle continues to effectively preclude Jewish women’s participation in Torah readings in most Orthodox communities, where only men are called to the Torah to receive an aliyah. This prohibition is not on account of Jewish law, which clearly permits women to be called to the Torah, but because of the elusive principle of respect for the congregation — k’vod tzibur in Hebrew.
What then is k’vod tzibur?The phrase is mentioned in just a few places in the Talmud in connection with Torah readings. Sometimes it simply refers to not inconveniencing the congregation. In Tractate Yoma (70a), we learn that one may not furl a Torah scroll in public due to k’vod tzibur. In Tractate Sotah (39b), we find a teaching that bars a prayer leader from removing the covering of the ark in public for the same reason.
Both these actions are disallowed because they would keep the congregation standing for an uncomfortably long time. Perhaps having a woman called to read Torah would occasion a similar inconvenience, as the men would have to wait as a woman made her way from the women’s section, or even from outside the synagogue, to the Torah.
But in other places in the Talmud, k’vod tzibur has a different connotation. On tomorrow’s daf, for instance, we find this teaching:
What is the reason that a minor whose limbs are exposed may not read the Torah? It is due to respect for the congregation.
And in Tractate Gittin, we find this teaching:
Rabba and Rav Yosef both say: One does not read from chumashim in the synagogue out of respect for the community.
These latter examples suggest that k’vod tzibur has less to do with convenience and more to do with the dignity of the community as it gathers to read the Torah. But why would women’s participation in the Torah reading detract from that dignity? A number of early commentators suggest that women reading Torah indicates that the men of the congregation are not able to read Torah for themselves.
Today, most Orthodox congregations continue to give aliyot only to men, while other Jewish denominations offer them equally to women. In recent years, however, some Orthodox rabbis have allowed women to participate in the Torah reading through the context of partnership minyanim, a style of prayer service that seeks to maximize women’s participation within the confines of Orthodox Jewish law.
Their rationale is that k’vod tzibur is either a relative concept and is thus culturally adaptable, or it can be relinquished by the community. Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and winner of the Israel Prize, has written that Orthodox synagogues that are ready for such changes within a halachic framework must balance k’vod tzibur with the more salient Jewish value of k’vod habriyot, or human dignity, a concept we encountered earlier in this tractate, on Megillah 3. In his view, k’vod tzibur is a loose category that might be waived or changed as sensibilities evolve. But human dignity is a central Jewish value.
In an age when a woman can be a prime minister or president, many would argue that it’s no longer undignified for a woman to have an aliyah. For many women, participating in the Torah reading increases their feeling of dignity and religious fulfillment and should be allowed — k’vod tzibur notwithstanding.
Read all of Megillah 23 on Sefaria.