Prime-Minister Netanyahu’s recent support of the “Sharansky Plan” to extend the plaza of the Western Wall to include egalitarian services and services where women will be free to pray aloud and read from the Torah without fear from harassment is a welcome and positive step to making the holiest site of the Jewish people a place of tolerance, peace and harmony.
Fascinatingly, the entire issue of the generally accepted prohibition against women publicly reading from the Torah in the Jewish Orthodox world has its roots in the two words “Kevod Ha-tsibur (“Congregational dignity”) found in an obscure Baraita (extra-Mishnaic text) penned sometime between the first and fourth centuries of the Common Era.
Our rabbis taught: All may be numbered among the seven [who are called to the Torah on Shabbat], even a minor and even a woman, but the Sages said: a woman is not to read from the Torah on account of kevod ha-tsibur (“congregational dignity”).
– Baraita in Megillah: 23a
A careful reading of the Baraita shows that it comprises two separate, somewhat conflicting layers. From a halakhic (Jewish legal) point of view, everyone may be called up to the Torah, including a woman. In the Tannaitic period—circa 200 C.E. or earlier—one called up to the Torah also read his/her portion, implying that a woman might do so as well. Yet, the Baraita continues, it is fitting that a woman not do so. It is not clear if this is a halakhic determination, amounting to a prohibition, or merely a recommendation. “On account of kevod ha-tsibur” is a conditional determination, for were there no issue of “congregational dignity,” there would be no reason in principle not to allow women to be called up to the Torah. That is the claim routinely heard from all who consider the question.
From a historical point of view, therefore, it may be said that at an undefined ancient time, women could go up to the Torah and read from it, and perhaps even did so. Somewhat later on, however, for some reason not adequately clear to us, but perhaps understandable in a historical-sociological context, it was decreed unfit by the contemporaneous sages that women be called up to the Torah.
The afore-mentioned ruling is based on the writings of Israel Prize Laureate Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who is Professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. In addition, there are those who hold that “Kavod Hazibbur” was a phrase that implied that men who could not read Hebrew would be embarrassed by women who could. Let us not forget that male scholars enacted all of these laws!
There are numerous examples of women participating in the communal life of the Jewish people from biblical times through to the end of the Second Temple period. Sometime in the post-destruction period during which both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud were being compiled, edited and canonized there was a distinct reduction of the role of women in public aspects of communal worship.
This is clearly at variance with the rise of the professional woman in the contemporary period. Women are now astronauts, doctors, lawyers, Talmud scholars and heads of State. In the twenty-first century there is a growing need of many religious women and men to readdress the role of women in Judaism. The gap between our social and ethical values and our synagogue lives is something that we should see as compromising our religious integrity. The proposed opening of the Western Wall extension will be a huge step in redressing this situation.