Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

Can a woman read from the Torah in public?

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) in the tractate of Megilah (23a) 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).

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.

If you can fly a fighter plane, surely you can read the Torah. Female graduates of the IAF’s 163rd flight school course (photo credit: IDF Flickr/CC BY-NC)

This is clearly at variance with the rise of the professional woman in the contemporary period.  Women are now astronauts, pilots, doctors, lawyers, Talmud scholars and heads of State.  In the 21st 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.

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He was a Senior Editor and Teaching Fellow at the Tikvah Fund. He is a research associate at the Hudson Institute. Tuvia is the author and illustrator the internationally acclaimed Israel education curriculum; "For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Studies" (Fifth edition, Koren 2017), and "Moral Dilemmas of the Modern Israeli Soldier" (Rama, 2011) and has a doctorate in Israel Education. His latest book, "Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt – 536 BCE-136 CE," was published by Koren this year. To order:
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