Modern Orthodoxy at the Crossroads . . .

Gender roles continue to challenge the Orthodox world of Haredi Judaism in Israel–and elsewhere in the world today even now as women continue to be arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.

A  Primer on the History of Torah Reading

The idea of women’s aliyot (being called to say a blessing over the Torah) continues to pit the world of the past with the world of the present. I guess we could call it , “The Halachic War of the Worlds.”  That being said, one ought to ask, “Have rabbis always been so rigid?” The answer might surprise you—no! One Talmudic discussion reads, “Our rabbis taught: all are qualified to be among the seven (who read the Torah)–even a minor and a woman, but the Sages said that a woman should not read because of the esteem of the congregation (kevod ha-zibbur).” [1]

How are we to understand the concept of “communal respect”? We will examine a couple of other  interpretive possibilities.

(1) In ancient times each person called up to the Torah, had to also read the section of the Torah relevant to his her aliya. This of course differs from what we see in most synagogues today. Nowadays, it is usually customary for one individual to read the Torah for the entire congregation. Usually, it is the rabbi or the cantor that has this duty since it requires considerable skill.

Now in ancient days, most communities were illiterate. If a woman came from a wealthy home and was privileged to have an education, she could read the Torah for herself. However, since many males were incapable of reading, the woman’s skill made the men feel inferior. The issue became all the more acute if the men who protested happened to be the individuals who took the greatest amount of economic responsibility in running the synagogue. Simply put, money talks. Once these wealthy men made a ruckus in the synagogue, the Sages decided not to call women up to the Torah anymore in the interest of peace.  It had nothing to do with whether a woman was “ritually impure,” for even men were never required to maintain ritual purity. Some Hassidic savants argued that the words of Torah are beyond impurity and can never become ritually impure through human touch.

(2) On the other hand, it is possible that the Sages feared the possibility of sexual distraction. Maybe a lovely woman with a beautiful voice might have distracted the men to the point where they were no longer focusing on the Torah reading, but instead chose to focus on the woman reading from the Torah! This problem may have influenced the Sages to equate a woman’s voice with “nakedness,” thus becoming a sexual transgression (Ber. 24a).Those old rabbis always seemed to think a lot about sex.  Once the women were forced to stay behind the partition, the role of female participation became a non-issue and has remained so for many centuries.

The Concept of “Communal Honor”

The concept of “community honor,” is not a rigid concept by any means. If anything, it is one of the more fluid concepts of rabbinic literature. No one community has the right to define “community honor” in a manner that is absolute and definitive. What one community considers as “honor” may well be disputed by another community’s concept of “honor” or etiquette. It is theoretically possible that one community may consider it insulting not to call a woman up to the Torah as well! The idea of women having an aliya is not in itself an unforgivable taboo that ought NEVER to occur.

A classic case in point may be found in the Maharam of Rothenberg (ca. 14th century) regarding the case where a city was inhabited solely by Cohanim (male members of priestly descent); Maharam ruled that women could and should be called up to the Torah, and the principle of “community honor” would be  permitted under certain circumstances![3] According to him, to call a priest after one has already been called, might suggest there was something wrong with the former’s lineage and could become a source of scandal.

One Courageous Modern Orthodox Rabbi

One of the greatest Modern Orthodox rabbis of the late 20th century was Rabbi Emanual Rackman, the Chancellor of the distinguished Bar Ilan University in Israel. He had these words to say on the subject of women’s minyanim:

“There may come a day when rabbis will say with regard to women’s separate services that as children have separate services and recite the Kaddish and the Kedusha without anyone objecting, so women may do so too. I do not like such separate services. I prefer to have my entire family in the synagogue where I pray but I shall not prohibit them. On the other hand, a justification may be found in the principle of “chinuch”  — the enrichment  of their own lives and the lives of others in the performance of mitzvot.” [4]

A Questionable Halachic Ruling

As I was perusing the Internet for Modern Orthodox responses, I went to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s website to see what his response to the question of women’s minyanim or Torah reading. His reply is very interesting:


It is permissible to hold a “women’s minyan” which includes aliyot to the Torah?


It is prohibited to hold a “women’s minyan” because women are altogether exempt from the requirement of public prayer, since the Torah understands that it is impossible for both a husband and wife to be obligated to pray at specific times. It is possible for women to pray together without Kaddish, Kedushah or Barekhu. There are some authorities – including my teacher and mentor, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l – who maintain that since a Sefer Torah cannot become “tamei” (ritually impure), a woman may also read from a Sefer Torah, but without the order of aliyot and berakhot since these were instituted for men only. At the same time I believe that if the institution of such a prayer service will cause friction within the community, it should not be held and the custom of generations should be maintained. Wherever no such friction will be caused, and there exists a group of women who wish to pray together, then so long as there is no participation at all of men, the service may be held, subject to the limitations mentioned above.

Con-Versing with Rabbi Riskin

This writer takes issue with Rabbi Riskin for a variety of reasons. Just because women are theoretically “exempt,” doesn’t mean they cannot fulfill a biblical or rabbinic precept if they choose to do so. Granted, the Sages exempted women from fixed prayer, but the nature of this “exemption” is not necessarily an exclusion, as Rabbi Riskin seems to be implying. Besides,according to Maimonides and others, the only “biblical” precept that exists is the imperative to pray, as Maimonides points out in the beginning of the Laws of Prayer:

It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as  states: “You shall serve God, your Lord”  (Exod. 23:25). Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as it  states: “And serving Him with all your heart and your soul” (Deut. 11:13). The Sages ask, “Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.” The Torah does not prescribe a specific number of prayers, nor does it prescribe a fixed liturgical formula. Nor does it prescribe any specific time when to pray. By the same token, women and servants are also obligated pray, since it is not a time-bound precept. Each person is obligated to offer supplication and prayer every day, and extol the praises of the Blessed Holy One while making known one’s personal needs and requests. Prayer is a time to offer thanksgiving for the goodness one has received–according to best of one’s ability. [5]

Rabbi Riskin seems to think that liturgical prayer is a biblical commandment; as we see from Maimonides, it clearly is not. If women can say blessings over precepts that they are not mandated to “biblically” observe–i.e., specifically with the wording, “Who has commanded us by His commandments . . .,” why shouldn’t this apply to the rabbinic prayers as well? Rabbi Riskin treats the tradition as though it were etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. In the medieval period, women broke with tradition regarding the recitation over time-bound precepts like the shofar and lulav–much to the chagrin of the menfolk who protested.

The fear of causing friction is not a legitimate excuse for denying full participation of the sexes within an Orthodox context–not at all. The draconian world of Haredi Orthodox is like a house of cards waiting to collapse. As a leader representing Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Riskin and other like minded leaders need to take a firm stand against authoritarian power and not pander to its lowest common denominator.

Antecedents for Change

Historically, starting with the beginning of woman’s suffrage in the early 20th century, Orthodox of rabbis had to deal with a new and changing social reality that affected their world. Women were no longer remaining in the home as the earlier generations once did. Despite the views of men like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Haredim, who opposed women’s suffrage because they believed it would weaken the traditional role of women in society, women eventually triumphed. Today, Haredi rabbis of our present era encourage their spouses to vote in Israeli elections! This is certainly a very liberal perspective that is predicated upon certain political considerations. If they could change with the times on women’s suffrage, why can’t they change with other issues as well?



[1] BT Megillah 23a.

[2] Piskey Uziel B’Shaalot HaZaman Responsa #44.

[3] Responsa #47.

[4] Emanuel Rackman, “Modern Halachah For Our Time”( New York: Ktav, 1995), 65-66.

[5] Maimonides, MT Hilchot Tefilah 1:1-2.

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