Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Wrongheadedness runs into the Wall

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ever desperate to cling to power at any cost, has angered American Jewish groups by reversing a deal to allow non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer at a section of the Western Wall. He also seeks to water down in a somewhat inconsequential way past compromises on conversions to Judaism. His actions have elicited veiled threats from the Americans about withdrawing support for Israel.

Netanyahu could not care less. To stay in power, he needed to assuage the extreme right religious fringes of his governing coalition, who are offended at any notion of women wearing tallitot and tefillin, or reading from a Torah scroll.

This is not a “Who is a Jew?” issue. There never was such an issue. It always was, and remains today, “Who is a rabbi?”

That said, threats to withhold support to the people of the State of Israel for the actions of a few are wrongheaded. The Torah has an answer for that. When Korach led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, God wanted to annihilate the entire people. The two responded: “When one man sins, will You vent Your wrath on the whole community?” (See Numbers 16:22.)

If it is not okay for God to act that way, surely it is not for those required to walk in His ways.

This is a political battle pure and simple, and it has to be fought in the Israeli political arena. American Jews can do that by joining their movements’ Zionist arms. For liberal Jews concerned about pluralism in Israel, these include Mercaz: The Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement, and ARZA: The Association of Reform Zionists of America. For Orthodox Ashkenazim, there is the Religious Zionists slate, made up of several organizations. For Sephardim, there is the World Sephardic Zionist Organization’s Ohavei Zion. Every few years, members of these groups are able to vote for delegates to the World Zionist Congress, the policy-setting arm of the World Zionist Organization. The WZO has been the driving force behind progress on pluralism issues in Israel.

On the ground in Israel, the Conservative (Masorti) and Reform movements have to form political parties of their own. They never will be majority parties, but they do not have to be. Israel’s political system makes it almost impossible for any one party ever to get an absolute majority of 61 seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s Likud, for example, has only 30 seats. Netanyahu became prime minister only because of what he was willing to give away to smaller parties.

As for the other side of the issue, let us be clear: No one should have his or her religious sensibilities violated. If some people find women wearing tefillin or reading from a Torah scroll offensive, those people should not be subjected to those things where they pray. On the other hand, they have no right to deny equal space out of their sight to egalitarian prayer.

For the record, God never seemed to have a problem with that. Nor did the religion of Israel in its earliest days. To say otherwise is just as wrongheaded.

To begin with, Deuteronomy 6:8-9, where the mitzvah of tefillin primarily is found, makes no distinction between men and women: “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the mezuzot [doorposts] of your house and on your gates.” Nothing in that text suggests it is for men only. (Indeed, everyone acknowledges that the mezuzot clause applies to both men and women.) Somewhere along the line, women were given an exemption to most positive time-bound commandments (mezuzot are not time-bound), although there never was an explanation of how or why the exemption came to be.

“Exemption,” however, does not mean “prohibition,” and the Sages of Blessed Memory acknowledged that. For example, we are told that “Michal the daughter of the Kushite [King Saul] wore tefillin, and the Sages did not attempt to prevent her.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Eiruvin 96a.)

True, many later commentators worked overtime to turn this on its head, but not all did. Thus, the 13th century Sefer HaChinuch writes that if women “choose to lay tefillin, we do not object, and they receive reward” for observing a mitzvah because they want to rather than because they have to. (See positive mitzvah 421.)

The same can be said about tzitzit. Women wearing tallitot often are spat on, or worse, in some circles, including at the Wall. The verses regarding tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41), however, apply to both men and women. So the Sages taught, as we learn in BT Menachot 43a: “All must observe the law of tzitzit, [including] priests, Levites and Israelites, proselytes, women, and slaves.” Tzitzit are time-bound; women are exempt from the mitzvah, but they are not prohibited from observing it.

The Talmud also has something to say about women reading from a Torah scroll.

First, there is no issue of an “impure” woman touching a Torah scroll, or even standing next to one. BT Berachot 22a offers this: “It has been taught: Rabbi Yehudah ben Bathyra [II] used to say: Words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness….”

Two centuries later, the Babylonian sage Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said this, according to BT Chullin 136b: “Nowadays, the world has adopted… that [view] of Rabbi Yehudah ben Bathyra with regard to the words of the Torah….”

The same goes for women standing on a bimah. States BT Megillah 32a, “Rabbi Zera said in the name of Rav Mattenah, ‘no sanctity attaches to the [reading] boards and to the platforms [bimot].’”

As for women reading from the Torah, we have this from BT Megillah 23a: “Our rabbis taught: All are qualified to be among the seven [who receive an aliyah], even a minor and a woman.” It then adds, arguably parenthetically, “only the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of respect for the congregation.”

The additional comment is advisory. To understand what it means requires understanding what the Sages considered an aliyah. In their day, there was no “Torah reader.” Anyone called up for an aliyah was required to read from the scroll. If only one person in the room could read from the scroll, that person was called up seven times. Thus, “respect for the congregation” means that if a woman is called to read from the Torah, this suggests there are not enough men present who could do what a woman could do — read from the scroll.

We no longer require the person receiving an aliyah to do the reading, so there no longer is a reason to worry about embarrassing the men in the pews. Today, “All are qualified to be among the seven.”

It is one thing to object to something forbidden. It is entirely something else to deny people to do what the Torah and the Sages said they could.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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