Public Dignity or Human Dignity?

This past Sukkot, I witnessed something I never could have imagined as a young girl growing up in a Modern Orthodox home in the 1960s. While I was fortunate to attend a co-ed day school, where girls had equal access to the highest Torah and Gemarah classes, with the same outstanding Rabbeim teaching both genders together, leyning (Torah reading) however, was strictly forbidden for girls. When the boys studied cantillation, the girls learned to embroider challah covers.

Fast forward 50 years and I am sitting on the woman’s side of the mechitzah at Minyan Tiferet, a partnership minyan in Tenafly, NJ, as two sisters, ages 12 and 14, are called up to read from the Torah. Later in the parsha, their father (who, I imagine, taught them to leyn) is called up to read from the Torah. Then their grandmother receives an aliya. Three generations of the same family, standing on the Bima together. Of course, this would be a familiar and even common occurrence for Orthodox Jewish males, yet for a Modern Orthodox family with daughters, this experience is unfathomable. It was a beautiful and emotional moment for both the family, and for the entire congregation, that could only have occurred halachically within the confines of a partnership minyan.

The first partnership minyan, committed to maintaining halachic standards and practices while including women in participatory roles within the boundaries of Jewish Law, was founded in Jerusalem in 2002 in conjunction with the halachic opinion of Rabbi Mendel Shapiro and the support of Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber. Today there are over 20 partnership minyans worldwide.

This unique prayer service ensures that davening is no longer a “spectator sport” for girls above age 12. Rather, the partnership minyan provides opportunities for girls and women to receive aliyot, read from the Torah, lead Pesukei d’zimra and Kabbalat Shabbat, act as gabbai, and give the divrei Torah, all within a halachic structure, and all from the woman’s side of the mechitzah.

Yet besides the added participation of women at targeted points during the liturgy, the format of the prayer service functions like it would in any other traditional synagogue; this minyan requires 10 men, women do not count towards fulfilling the quorum, the men and women are separated by a mechitzah, and a traditional siddur is used.

As the mother of four sons, I never gave much thought to the role of girls during synagogue dovening. I was immensely proud when my sons at age 13 took on more active roles in the service; learning to leyn, putting on tefillin, receiving aliyot. I had always accepted that only males could engage in a participatory role on their side of the mechitzah, and I understood that there was nothing more for me to do on the woman’s side, other than pray silently, sit, stand, and respond in unison.

But now that I have granddaughters approaching the age of bat mitzvah, the question of girls reading from the Torah has become relevant for the first time. I began to inquire about the origin of this prohibition. We all know the famous adage “two Jews, three opinions”. Therefore, it’s no surprise to discover that the Rabbi’s differ on their views about the permissibility of women reading from the Torah.

The Sages taught in a Tosefta (Megilla 3:11): All people count toward the quorum of seven readers, even a minor and even a woman. However, the Sages said that a woman should not read the Torah, out of respect for the congregation. (כבוד הציבור – Kavod Hatzibor)”. From this Gemara we learn that the source for the prohibition is based on concern for the “public’s dignity” which would be jeopardized if a woman were to read from the Torah.

Rabbi Uziel asks, why were they forbidden to read Torah in public? He concludes “That they will not say that there is no one among the men who knows how to read in the Torah”. Since according to the custom, women are not obliged to hear the Torah reading, therefore no one expects them to be proficient in reading it, and if a woman read from the Torah, it would imply that of all the men present, there was not one who knew how to read Torah. Therefore, to protect the “dignity of the public” (כבוד הציבור) women were forbidden to read Torah.

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber argued that women are deeply sorry for not taking part in Torah reading, and this sorrow should be halachically defined as “human dignity” (כבוד הבריות – Kevod Habriyot). He argues that a woman’s “human dignity” should outweigh the concern for the “public’s dignity” (כבוד הציבור)”. According to Rabbi Dr. Sperber, women should be allowed to read from the Torah because of their “human dignity” (כבוד הבריות).

Rabbi Dr. Sperber further posits that this prohibition is a “public recommendation” and not a “complete ban” which thereby allows for halachic flexibility; especially since he concludes that there is no harm to the dignity of the public if women are allowed to rise to the Torah.

In the modern Orthodox world today, women participate fully in all aspects of the professional arena as well as in communal life. In fact, most Orthodox Jews would choose to hire a competent female professional to work with, without hesitation. Therefore, why does it make sense for us to continue to accept as halacha an opinion that is based on an anachronistic assumption?

Change comes slowly but change is inevitable. Today I have the option to participate in a Partnership Minyan alongside young Orthodox women that are knowledgeable in reading Torah in ways that I could never have dreamed of. Sitting in Minyan Tiferet, I am inspired by the high degree of proficiency and skill set of all the participants. I admire their comfort level with Torah rituals that I have only recently become acquainted with. When offered an aliya, I tend to politely decline as its not completely within my comfort zone, and yet I am grateful to see that for my granddaughters it is.

About the Author
Dr. Tani Foger has worked in the field of education, both in Israel and in the US, for over 35 years. She is an experienced educator and psychologist, with particular expertise in special education, second language acquisition, student learning styles, teacher consultation,social skills, and parenting. She is the Founder and Director of "Let's Talk” - Guidance Workshops for Moving Forward and Conquering the Challenges in our Lives. Dr. Foger is a skilled facilitator offering workshops for all ages at all stages.