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  • Women and Communal Prayer
  • Joel B. Wolowelsky (bio)
Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives, by Daniel Sperber, Mendel Shapiro, Eliav Shochetman, and Shlomo Riskin. Introduction by Tamar Ross, edited by Chaim Trachtman. Jersey City: Ktav/JOFA, 2010. 411 pp. $24.95.

Reviewing a book usually focuses on the presentation of its main theme. But this volume also demands a discussion of much more: the relationship of its contents to the title; the choice of authors who deal with the issues; the nature of the introduction; and the publisher. Indeed, in some ways the main topic is far from the most interesting.

One couldn’t tell from the title, but the book focuses almost exclusively on one simple halakhic question: may women in an Orthodox shul get an aliya, that is, be called forward to recite the blessings on the Torah when it is read publicly? We may instinctually think the answer is no, but it is important to realize that even if the answer is negative, the reasoning is not the same as that for excluding a woman from being the hazzan, the cantor who leads the service, sometimes called the shaliah tsibbur, “the messenger of the congregation.”

Halakha is not an egalitarian system; there are areas of life in which men and women have differing obligations, and prayer—private and public—is one of them. To fulfill one’s obligation vicariously—that is, in common halakhic parlance, “to be yostei” through the actions of another—the active person cannot have a lower degree of obligation than the passive individual. Since a woman has a lower degree of obligation than the men in the congregation with regard to public prayer, she cannot act as a hazzan on their behalf.

But that is not the logic involving the question of women getting an aliya. Here the discussion begins with a bereita from Megilla 23a: [End Page 149]

Our Rabbis taught: All may be included among the seven [called to the Torah on Shabbat], even a minor and a woman. But the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation

(kevod hatsibbur).

Rabbi Mendel Shapiro takes this at face value. The only impediment to a woman receiving an aliya, he argues, is that her congregation would consider it an affront to its dignity. If the members of the congregation have no such reservations—or if they think denying a woman an aliya absent any other formal halakhic objections is itself offensive—there is no reason to deny her the honor, he argues.

Of course, this places interpretation of a text in opposition to centuries of practice. But, as Rabbis Aryeh Frimer and Dov Frimer have pointed out,

Professor Haym Soloveitchik, in his now classic work “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” [Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994), pp. 64–130] skillfully documented the gradual move in Contemporary Orthodoxy from a mimetic halakhic tradition to a text-based tradition. He further noted the profound impact that this transition had on the move of contemporary Orthodoxy in the 20th Century towards greater humra (stringency). What we are now beginning to witness is a similar, but opposite, text-oriented movement towards greater kula


In any event, it will come as a surprise to no one that there are other ways of interpreting this text, not the least of which is that aliyot for women should constitute an affront to the dignity of the congregation. That is, the rabbis were simply describing what should be the norm, and if others think otherwise, it is they who should reconsider their positions in light of rabbinic legislation. Indeed, the bulk of the book is an enlightening and vigorous debate between Shapiro and his opponents on how to interpret centuries of texts and commentaries.

Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s essay in the JOFA volume approaches the issue from a somewhat different perspective. He concedes that granting a woman an aliya might violate kevod hatsibbur. However, he says, denying a woman an aliya violates kevod haberyot, respect for human dignity required for all people. Modern sensibilities make this exclusion painful and humiliating for...


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