This article suggests a novel approach to the problem of how the talmudic concept of kevod hatzibbur (the dignity of the community) should be understood and applied in contemporary Jewish law. The methodology of historical contextualism—not commonly used in halakhic discourse—is employed to reconstruct the historical meanings of kevod hatzibbur in distinctive historical contexts.
In talmudic literature, the fear of violating the dignity of the community corresponded to a fear of violating the "masculinity" of the ritual setting of the Torah reading ceremony. By way of extension, the violation of the Torah scroll is related to its anthropomorphosis in talmudic culture. Thus, fears of sexual impropriety might apply not only to the possible violation of the ritual setting by the inclusion of women, but also to the inappropriate handling of ritual artifacts whose public meanings are gendered as well. In medieval Ashkenazi literature, the gendering of the ritual situation came to be associated with its sanctity. Ultimately, the violation of the masculine setting banished the divine presence—the kavod—from the synagogue.
Those who continue to object to the participation of women in the Torah reading ceremony today must recognize that their halakhic understanding perpetuates highly specific values found in particular historical contexts. Given that contemporary notions of women and gender are (or at least should be) different from those in the past, it seems appropriate to argue that the exclusion of women from reading the Torah constitutes an indignity that, perhaps ironically, demands correction as prescribed by the talmudic principle of kevod hatzibbur.