Thursday, April 29, 2010

Women and Torah Reading

The recent publication of Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives, a collection of articles by Dr. Tamar Ross, R. Daniel Sperber, R. Mendel Shapiro, Prof. Eliav Shochetman and R. Shlomo Riskin about women being called to the Torah, gives us the opportunity to reflect on the general trend of arguments in this discussion. All of the articles have been previously published except for Dr. Ross' long introduction, but R. Sperber's is a highly reworked translation of his Hebrew book Darkah Shel Halakhah.

Dr. Chaim Trachtman, the editor of this volume, makes an important point in his preface. Why does the book's title refer to prayer while the contents discuss only the Torah reading? Because, in addition to the Torah reading being a highlight of prayer (I disagree about that), it is "the first element of the service that has been subjected to widespread critical halakhic analysis regarding the possibility of modifying its performance to enable more complete participation by women" (p. xviii). In other words, this is only the first step. Therefore, I submit, we can profit by looking at the general trends of argumentation because they will probably be applied elsewhere as well. Keep in mind that there are many detailed arguments and I am only providing a bird's eye view of some of them.

I. Mutual Fulfillment

The main problem of women being called to the Torah is that women are exempt from time-bound commandments and therefore cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of men, who lack that exemption. There are really only four ways that this objection can be countered:

  1. Saying that women are obligated in the Torah reading -- This is proposed by the Magen Avraham (282:6) but never really gained acceptance. The Magen Avraham only suggested it because he was puzzled how the Talmud seems to imply that women could, absent other objections, be called to the Torah. R. Mendel Shapiro (p. 213; cf. p. 275) states that this position is the Magen Avraham's conclusion but it doesn't seem that way to me. R. Shlomo Riskin (pp. 377-378) also disputes this reading.
  2. Saying that men are not obligated in the Torah reading -- This line of argument has merit because it is a major debate among recent authorities. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik told a story about how his two grandfathers disputed this point. Is the Torah reading a personal obligation on men or a communal obligation? If it is the lattter, the perhaps women can lead the congregation because they are not fulfilling any individual's obligation. R. Mendel Shapiro (pp. 214-216) prefers this approach but it doesn't necessarily follow that someone who is not counted for a quorum of this community can fulfill the obligation for the community (pp. 310, 371). He (p. 398) objects to this point because the Baraisa (discussed below) seems to imply that women once were able to read the Torah for men. R. Riskin (p. 407) understands the Baraisa differently (see below) and points to a Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) that makes it clear that someone unobligated cannot fulfill a mitzvah on behalf of someone who is.
  3. Women can make themselves obligated -- The approach of Prof. Joel Roth from the Conservative movement is that women who vow to fulfill an obligation are thereby obligated. While it was dismissed at the time among Orthodox scholars, it might be resurfacing (see this post: link). R. Daniel Sperber (p. 117 n. 105a) and R. Mendel Shapiro (p. 214) quote sources that allow for it. R. Shlomo Riskin (p. 378) points out that, generally, even these sources only considered but did not conclude in favor of this position.
  4. The person called to the Torah does not fulfill anyone's obligation -- There are two people involved in the Torah reading: the reader and the person called to the Torah. According to this approach, only the reader fulfills an obligation on behalf of the community, not the person called to the Torah. R. Mendel Shapiro (p. 230) suggests this. R. Shlomo Riskin (pp. 365-369), based on the teachings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, explains that the blessings recited by the person called to the Torah are part of a davar she-bi-kdushah (matter of holiness) that can only be recited by someone who is part of the quorum.
II. Communal Dignity

The main objection in the Talmud to the calling of women to the Torah is communal dignity. How you explain this concept determines in part whether you think it still applies. Those who believe calling women to the Torah is permissible see a concept that is tightly defined and highly limited. Those who believe it is forbidden see a more general concept. Some definitions include (this is only a partial list):
  1. An offense to God that the community chooses to have a woman as its representative (p. 248)
  2. An embarrassment to the men in the congregation who appear unable to read (p. 249)
  3. Disrespect caused when someone not counted for a quorum is called (p. 300)
  4. Disgrace when someone without an obligation is called (pp. 301, 381-382)
The reason you adopt affects the determination of whether it still applies today. Certainly, even today, a woman is not obligated in the Torah reading nor counted for a quorum. On the other hand, the concern for disgracing people who cannot read is no longer relevant because there is a Torah reader who does the reading and not the person called up to the Torah.

III. The Original Text

The Baraisa, quoted in Megillah (23a), states:
All are qualified to be among the seven [who read], even a minor and a woman, only the Sages said that a woman may not read in the Torah because of the dignity the congregation.
R. Daniel Sperber (pp. 40-43) states that the beginning of the Baraisa, that women may read from the Torah, is the rule and the subsequent restrictive clause is just a recommendation. Prof. Shochetman (pp. 314-416) objects that the restriction is quoted by all the codes as law, not just as a recommendation.

However, R. Shapiro (p. 211) argues that it is clear from the Baraisa that the only possible objection to women reading the Torah is the dignity of the community. If that can be set aside, it should be entirely permissible. R. Riskin (pp. 371-372, 381-382) explains that we have to keep in mind the historical development of Torah reading. The institution of blessings on the readings was the establishment of an obligation on the community. Prior to the institution of blessings, women could be called to the Torah if not for the concern of the dignity of the community. After that institution, the readings became obligatory and women could not be called up.

IV. Conclusion

There is much more to the arguments. As I mentioned above, this is only an outline of the arguments. Omitted here is R. Sperber's primary argument, that the dignity of women should override the dignity of the community. R. Sperber and Prof. Shochetman spar ably over this.

While this volume is highly technical, it is most notable because it includes articles on both sides of the debate. On the one hand, this book is dangerous because it implies that this is a matter of legitimate halakhic debate. In fact, no world-renowned halakhic authority has permitted it so there is not really any debate. On the other hand, it certainly rises to the level of interesting articles on opposite sides of an academic debate.

But more to the point, the two main ideas above that can be generalized is how to revisit whether women, who are not obligated in many mitzvos, can fulfill them on behalf of men. The approaches above suggest ways that are being explored -- and according to Dr. Trachtman in his preface will probably continue to be explored -- to avoid this impediment. The second section shows a strategy on how to set aside textual restrictions -- tightly define them and argue that they no longer apply. Note that I am trying to describe these strategies without judgment even though I oppose all of this. I think it is worth understanding where future arguments are heading.

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