Why women shouldn't be called to the Torah

Partnership minyans are outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy, says a leading United Synagogue rabbi


Partnership services have existed in some places in Israel and the United States for a while, but have only recently appeared in the UK. They offer Orthodox liturgy and traditional seating - men and women are separated by a partition - but differ in that women, as well as men, lead parts of the prayers and read from the Torah.

Identifying and implementing halachically viable alterations to existing practice demands courage. The Orthodox world is innately change-averse, although innovation and creativity are possible within certain boundaries. Yet since observance is defined and regulated by Jewish law, substantive modifications are only possible if they withstand halachic scrutiny and conform to meta-halachic (guiding philosophical) principles - supported by a broad consensus among acknowledged halachic authorities for the originator's credentials and methodology, as well as positive peer review of his or her arguments.

From a halachic perspective, a partnership service includes several distinct modifications to practice, each of which deserves separate evaluation. This is unrealistic in a short article, so I will focus only on the central and emblematic issues: women reading from the Torah on behalf of a mixed gathering and receiving aliyot, being called to the Torah to make a blessing.

Halachic validity for this innovation is claimed by the prominent expert in Jewish practice and Bar-Ilan Talmud professor Rabbi Daniel Sperber, lately chancellor of a non-affiliated Canadian rabbinical school. Although a few authors have written in support of Sperber, none shares his reputation and none has offered a significant alternative argument.

The essence of Sperber's reasoning is as follows: some early sources (notably a view in the Talmud with the Ran's - Rabbi Nissim of Gerona - 14th-century gloss) opine that women may be counted among the seven called to the Torah on Shabbat. Although this is cited in the 16th-century Shulchan Aruch, it is not known to have been practised; indeed, in the same Talmudic passage, the anonymous sages disallow the practice because of "dignity of the community". Sperber acknowledges that this has defined normative conduct from time immemorial. Yet he notes that today, women study Torah to a high level and are as involved as men in many areas of religious and public life. Applying "dignity of the community" to exclude women from aliyot causes considerable distress, and, as such, can be overridden by the demands of "human dignity", something highly prized by Jewish law.

While pastorally Sperber's argument is appealing, it is halachically flawed. An exhaustive and widely-cited critique of Sperber was published in 2013 by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer. Among their comprehensive technical rebuttals, the authors discuss Sperber's confusion of aliyot with the Torah reading itself and his misappropriation of the notion of "human dignity". Sperber's approach also evinces methodological irregularities. Halachah works on a system of antecedents - rulings built on an existing corpus of law and rules for its application. As with all legal systems, it includes a wide range of views; some have been incorporated into the body of law, others, for whatever reason, have been excluded from it by the halachic process.

One cannot simply disregard centuries of process and reintegrate marginalised opinions as the basis for practical innovation. This equates to claiming that a long-disused judgment in 15th-century English property law could be validated as the basis for contemporary practice. Yet this is precisely what Sperber does. In fact, his approach suggests the untenable stance that any action not explicitly proscribed by halachic sources is permitted. Such claims undermine the very system within which Sperber purports to operate.

Halachah is a complex, multichromatic system, so doubtless both Sperber and his detractors could muster additional arguments for their respective positions. However, this is effectively irrelevant, given the total lack of support for women's aliyot in a mixed service from significant halachic authorities of any stripe. In fact, there is a rare consensus within the Orthodox rabbinate against this innovation. In the USA, the senior halachic authorities of Yeshiva University categorically dismiss its credibility. In the UK, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, speaking at his rabbinate's annual conference both this year and last year, cited the Frimers' analysis in his unequivocal rejection of the halachic validity of partnership services.

In Israel, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, a leading halachist known for his sensitive and creative approach to contemporary women's issues, offers the most damning repudiation: "Women's aliyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice." As such, the practice lies beyond the parameters of halachah, its implementation a new denominational reality; similar reasoning applies to women's Torah reading in a mixed gathering.

For many, this will be a disappointing outcome and I remain acutely aware of the sense of disempowerment and frustration that some feel at the male-oriented leadership roles in Orthodox services. Notwithstanding these sensitivities, the cloak of authenticity provided by Professor Sperber's reputation and undeniable good intentions can only impede the genuine collaborative partnership required to generate halachically credible alternatives. In a recent interview for the JC, Chief Rabbi Mirvis advocated developing shul-based women's prayer groups - something I consider a positive step, while acknowledging the need for other strategies. But however we address this challenge, it is among the issues that will define the future of centrist Orthodoxy.


Talmud Bavli Megillah 23a

Shulhan Aruch, Orach Chayim 282:3.

Daniel Sperber "Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading. The Edah Journal, 3(2), 2003.

Aryeh and Dov Frimer " Women, Keri’at ha-Torah, and Aliyot", Tradition, 46(4), 2013

Herzl Henkin, "Qeri'at Ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today", The Edah Journal, 1(2), 2001; Tradition, 47(3).

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