Why Don’t Women Read From the Torah in Orthodox Synagogues?

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Hi Allison,

I’m reform and don’t understand why Orthodox women don’t read Torah in temple. If you have not heard Torah sung by a woman you have only heard half of the Torah!! The most important thing is that Torah is READ by someone with a love for it. I would appreciate your thoughts on this. It is something I don’t understand.

Thanks,

Chip

Hi Chip,

Thanks for your question. It’s a fair one; it’s a good one; and it’s one that bothered me for years. From outside of Orthodoxy looking in, it appears that women are held back because of this issue – treated unequally and unfairly. What exactly is the harm in a woman chanting Torah in front of men?

I’ll tell you one thing from the start – the question your asking is full of emotion and passion. Issues like inequality and love are very important, sensitive issues to a human being.

The answer I’m going to respond with, though, will be full of reason and calculation, but not much outward emotion. Because of that, it might not feel terribly satisfying to you. Nonetheless, I came to these conclusions through much soul-searching and thought, and I hope that I can convey the reasoning to you in a logical way.

As a woman who used to read from the Torah, but chose to give it up, this question is very personal to me. Not only did I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah, I was part of a post b’nei mitzvah youth group at my Conservative synangogue where I regularly read from the Torah as well.

It was something that I enjoyed doing, but it was never a “religious” experience. None of the Judaism that I practiced in my Conservative upbringing was spiritually moving. We’d come to services and just start singing whatever song the crowd was up to, but there was no feeling of connecting to God (Who I didn’t necessarily even believe in then) when I was in temple.

As you may have read on my site, an existential crisis that I experienced as a child launched me on an eight-year long spiritual quest. I wasn’t getting spirituality from the Judaism that I knew, but an Orthodox Hebrew High teacher who I met when I was fifteen years old was getting meaning from the Judaism he practiced, so I decided to try to understand why that was.

I began learning more about Orthodox Judaism and spending more time with Orthodox Jews. I saw how much my teacher loved and respected his wife. I saw how basically all the Orthodox women I met were not afraid to speak up or voice their opinions. On the contrary, all the “meek” and “subservient” women I was expecting to encounter just weren’t materializing.

I learned that the rabbis, who I was raised to think were “misogynistic,” did things like voluntarily end polygamy even though the Torah permits it, and gave women the idea (1500 years ago) that not being “satisfied” by their husbands is grounds for divorce.

I also learned that according to traditional Judaism, spirituality comes about not by sitting on a far off mountain meditating, but by living in the world and elevating one’s everyday actions through the practice of halacha (Jewish law).

Part of what made my teacher’s observance meaningful was that he was fully committed to halacha and did not live the “pick and choose Judaism” I had been raised with. I realized that up until that point, I only observed the parts of my religion that didn’t inconvenience me. I decided that I wanted to start striving for full committment in my observance.

Now the system of halacha is both complicated and complex. People spend years trying to understand how it works, but I will do my best to explain the basics in a few lines: There is one God Who created the world and actively cares about the goings-on of it. This God created man with a purpose to fulfill, and explained that purpose in the Torah. This is the Written Law, and it is meant to be understood in conjunction with the Oral Law, which was eventually written down in what is called the Talmud.

In the Torah we are commanded to listen to our Jewish leaders, who are the rabbis – to trust what they say. In the Oral law, the rabbis are given tools to be able to take verses from the Torah and derive new lessons from them. The Oral law also contains laws of its own, as well as principles for applying old concepts to new ideas. (For example, there were no cars at Mt. Sinai, but if we understand how a car works, we can apply principles that we received on Mt. Sinai to determine if cars are permitted to be driven on the Sabbath or not.)

So now we come to the law that you asked about itself. There are several reason why women don’t read from the Torah. There have been entire books written trying to understand the how’s and why’s of these issues, but to state it VERY simply, it comes down to three concerns: modesty, women not being obligated in time-bound commandments, and the fact that it was not historically the practice for women to read from the Torah.

Now, I’m sure none of those reasons feel particularly compelling to you (to the extent that I’ve explained them – maybe in a later post I’ll have the opportunity to discuss these issues in more detail), and to be honest, it’s not the technical explanations that are most compelling to me either.

Really, the most important thing for me is that I’ve come to respect the system that the law is a part of. How I came to respect this system is not something that I can just convey with some words over a computer screen. If you really want to understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to experience it for yourself – spend time with observant Jews, immerse yourself in learning, get to know rabbis with great Jewish knowledge and exemplary character.

I hope you don’t take this answer as cop-out or conclude that I must have been brainwashed that I could trust in a system so whole-heartedly. It’s just that there are some things in life that need to be personally experienced and studied in order to be understood. What I can tell you is that I was in search of a vehicle with which to connect to God and upon delving into Orthodox Jewish learning, practice, and society I felt that this was the best, truest way to do so.

I know you said that the most important thing for you is to hear the Torah sung by someone who loves it, but for me, the most important thing is to commit myself completely and consistently to a system that I’ve gotten to know, love, and respect, both intellectually and experientially. (But don’t just take my word for it.)

Sincerely yours,

Allison

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Comments

  1. Hadassah Sabo Milner says:

    awesome explanation!

  2. thanks!

  3. The issue of women not being allowed to get an aliyah is due to kavod hatzibbur — that it would be undignified to have a woman read the Torah before the congregation because it would imply that men were not competent to read on their own.

    I don’t understand what it has to do with any of the answers you provided — if that were the case, why didn’t the gemara (Megillah 23a) list them instead?

    • Skeptic, thanks for your comment, but please include a valid email address next time so I can be in touch with you directly. I wanted to find some sources to back up what I was saying before I posted your comment since you’re so convinced that I’m completely wrong.

      Of course there’s the issue of kavod hatzibur, but it’s not as simple to understand as you make it seem. According to Rabbi Moshe Meiselmen in his book “Jewish Women, In Jewish Law” (p.141-144) he understands that kavod hatzibur relates to modesty. I also mentioned modesty as it relates to kol isha.

      Regarding the issue of time bound mitzvos, please see a recent article by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin http://www.yctorah.org/component/option,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,711/ who believes that this is the main issue for women not having aliyot today.

      In regard to my final point about there not being a precedent for such a practice, that is a well-known halachic reason for not starting up something new if it hadn’t been done before as we are taught “Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders – and they will say to you.”

      I kept my answer as basic as possible as this site it read by many people with less formal Jewish educational backgrounds. I want everyone to understand what I write as well as feel comfortable while here.

  4. This was a great article on Halacha and how leading an observant life can lead to better spiritual fulfillment, but I almost feel as if you are dodging the actual question. I read it several times, convinced I had missed the part where you explain WHY women are exempt from positive time-constricted mitzvos, and the laws regarding Kol isha (not to mention the laws of Niddah when it comes to a woman on the Bima), only to be more confused when there was no mention of these things. Orthodoxy holds women in such high esteem and has provided many of the mothers of Feminist thought (Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, etc) that I’m kind of baffled why such a round-about answer was provided.

    • Hi KE, thanks for your comment. The reason that I stressed the halachic proccess so much is that because it’s what I find most compelling personally – though you are free to be compelled by other answers! I could have gone into each answer more – I mentioned specifically that I wasn’t – because I feel that there’s only so much my readers are going to read and I want to keep them engaged.

      Just so you know, I did have kol isha in mind as well as kavod hatzibur when I mentioned modesty. (See my response to Skeptic above.)

      Regarding niddah being an issue, from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t appear to be. Please see a response that Rabbi Riskin brings down:

      The Gemara rules (Berakhot 22) that a Sefer Torah cannot become impure, and that even people considered ritually impure may read from it. This is the ruling of the Rif, the Rosh, the Shulhan Arukh and the Rama (end of Laws of Keriat Shema.)

      The Rama mentions a custom that was prevalent in his country, according to which a woman did not enter a synagogue or gaze at a Sefer Torah during her menstrual period; clearly, this is not our custom.

  5. It should be noted, that there are many places where Orthodox women can and do read Torah for other women. While still controversial in many Orthodox circles, there have been many halachic opinions that women reading for other women is allowed.

    I have found, on the occasions when I go to hear a woman leyn, because it is something so rare and special (at least in the Orthodox world), women do not take this for granted, and imbue their readings with such spirituality. Whereas, sadly, many of the readers in my regular Orthodox shul read as if they can’t wait to get it over with.

    I definitely agree that women should not be reading in place of men, or alongside men, but it should be noted that there are, indeed, opportunities for Orthodox women to read Torah, and to listen to other women read Torah, if desired.

    • Thanks for your comment, Alisa. It is true that in some Orthodox synagogues women read Torah for other women and it is less halachically problematic for a woman to read Torah to another woman than to a man. I’m still a bit uncomfortable with the concept, but I’d like to note that my intention on this site is not to tell anyone else how to live their lives, but rather how I live mine and the conclusions I’ve come to. That being said, my personal feeling about women’s tefillah groups is that they’re attempting to create something (a minyan) that they can never actually be. And so while many parts of a minyan can be technically mimicked, I’m not sure what gets accomplished spiritually in the process (if we define spirituality as fulfilling halacha, rather than being a *nice* feeling a person gets when s/he does something). A man, if he felt like it, once he got married could start covering his hair and uncover it in front of no one but his wife, but no mitzvah would be accomplished by such an act since a man has no mitzvah to cover his hair in front of other women when he’s married.

      I understand that some women might find it challenging to find meaning in their roles without their roles including participating in shul the same way men do, but getting back to the idea that I trust in the system itself, my own personal goal is to try to find meaning and purpose in the system since I believe the potential for spirtuality is there for any woman who endeavors to find it.

  6. This was a great article on Halacha and how leading an observant life can lead to better spiritual fulfillment

    It is possible that it might, but there isn’t any guarantee that it will. 40 years of davening in a variety of shuls I still spend more time in Conservative where I find it spiritually fulfilling.

    I have a number of friends who are FFB who found Orthodoxy to restrictive and went the other route.

    For obvious reasons on Shabbos you don’t see Orthodox Jews in Conservative shuls. The point being that I have had discussions with many who label themselves as Orthodox but haven’t been in Conservative or Reform shuls. It is hard to speak authoritatively that way.

    I am not denigrating or marginalizing others. Just commenting that you don’t have to be Orthodox to have a spiritual experience.

    • Thanks for your comments, Jack. You are certainly entitled to them, though I will respectfully disagree with some of the conclusions you’ve come to, if I may!

      You mention that you’ve bounced around to different types of shuls, but didn’t say that you’ve personally lived an Orthodox lifestyle which leads me to believe that you haven’t. I could understand that if you found a Conservative shul with nice singing and a pretty knowledgable, committed, friendly crowd, it could feel more inspiring than a bunch of men at an Orthodox shul who just quickly mumble through a bunch of prayers and go home.

      I also totally hear that people could find Orthdoxy to be too restrictuve, but I think the people that feel that way are the ones with were raised in strict settings and were instructed to observe the commandments by rote, with no greater thought or meaning attached. Conversely, when a child has role models (parents, teachers, rabbis) who live a life of mitzvos with joy, meaning, consistency, in my experience such a child becomes an adult who views the observant life stlye the same way with the same joy and meaning.

      In terms of finding the Conservative shul spiritually fulfilling, I guess I should clarify what my definition of spirituality is which is most likely is the place where you and I disagree. Spirituality to me is not necessarily that warm, fuzzy feeling you get inside when you’re inspired by a sunset, though, such feelings could arise in a spiritual moment. I personally believe, that as Rav Soleveitchik defines it in “Halachic Man,” that a spiritual experience happens in the pursuit of living a halachic life. That following, what I believe is God’s will, is what brings a person to spirituality. It feels especially nice when a Shabbos, a blessing, or a prayer can come along with that uplifting feeling, but it certainly doesn’t happen all the time.

  7. Thanks, Allison for a wonderful article. I also leyned in Conservative synagogues from the ages of 13-18, at which time I became frum and stopped. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to add my take on the issue. People seem to take it somewhat offensively when men and women do different things. As you and I can both attest to and that the writer of the letter has correct, is that women can leyn beautifully; no one would deny this. But beauty isn’t the end of the story. Idols can be beautiful artwork– but they’re clearly forbidden. Adulturous relationships can be portrayed as beautiful (think Bridges of Madison County) but they, too are clearly forbidden. So we can’t measure right from wrong based on beauty, and the Torah gives us clarity on these issues. I’m not saying leyning is idolatry or adultery, I’m saying beauty can’t be a determining factor between allowed and not allowed.

    Secondly, what I can say personally, is that when I read Torah as an adolescent, I memorized the parsha the night before my reading, I came in front of the community nervous that I would “mess up,” calmed my fears by remembering that just about no one listening knew what it was really supposed to sound like, and ultimately judged my reading by the praise I received from the Rabbi, Cantor, family, friends, and community. I felt superficially important because I had this “skill” that very few in my Conservative synagogue had. But never once in all the times I read did I feel that I was doing this to get close to G-d, to do what I was meant to do in this world, and never once did I actually feel that I accomplished anything spiritually at all. And I definitely never felt fulfilled in any way other than feeding my ego.

    But when you look at the foundation of the world from an “Orthodox” perspective, the whole point of life is to get closer to G-d and to improve ourselves as people using the tools He gave us (mitzvos). G-d created us with all of our gifts and He gave us mitzvos with which to accomplish whatever we, as individuals, need to do in this world. Hashem, as our Creator, gives us everything we need, and halachic Judaism gives everyone their specific mitzvos to fulfill their missions on this Earth. It’s not just Men vs. Women. It’s Men, Women, Leviim, Cohanim, Cohanim Gadolim, Kings, daughters of Leviim, daughters of Cohanim… We all have different mitzvos. When we look for others’ mitzvos it’s like doing someone else’s homework for them; it’s enjoyable momentarily because it’s not your own obligation. But at the end of the day fulfillment comes from doing your job and nobody else’s because that’s when you work towards becoming the person G-d created you to become.

    I can tell you from experience that I realize more and more each day how my deep, spiritual, fulfillment only comes from doing the mitzvos that G-d specifically gave to me and I appreciate what a Great G-d we have to give us specific instructions on how to achieve individual fulfillment in this world– I see it as a shame when people sneer their nose at that and call it inequality rather than individual love and attention.

  8. Alison says “Now people have made the “but they get a nice feeling from it” argument to me.” People need to have those nice feelings about their religion in order for them to feel connected to Judaism which encourages them to do more mitzvas. If people have nice feelings about their religion then their children pick up on it and the parents are role models for their children.

    • I completely agree with you, Lydia. We’re on the same page! Doing mitzvos by rote, with no feeling or inspiration is not the way things should be. However, that does not mean that having nice feelings, without the mitzvos to back the nice feelings up, is the answer. IMO, there needs to be both.

  9. Hi Allison. I feel that your response was appropriate, unlike some of the critics to this blog might think. The world as we know has very little knowledge about Judaism partly because of Jewish preservation and partly because of Christian theology. Ask the average South African about Jews and they would either not know the word or will have a racist opinion about what a Jew is. This to me has always been a fundamental problem. So I say kol hakavod to you and to anyone who is prepared to enlighten the world about about Judaism and the Jewish world. we must right the wrong of oppressive regimes that sought to victimize and stigmatize the Jews for their own gain.

  10. Re: women’s tefillah groups.
    I participated in one along the way. There were several things about it that I liked: women encouraging each other to master new skills (leyning), the singing at lunch, watching little girls mature into thoughtful teens (the dor l’dor phenomenon).
    Far and away the BEST part, though, were the divrei Torah that women prepared.
    I tried and tried to get paper copies to gather into a book – But women are so busy they don’t save such things, and so modest they don’t celebrate their own wisdom as men or academics might.
    If all the halachically questionable aspects of a women’s tefillah group were stripped away, we’d have a quite wonderful thing: women explaining the parasha ha-shevuah in terms unique to the frustrations and delights of women’s lives and capacities. Beautiful!

  11. Philip Morrison says:

    Correct me if a am wrong,I have been brought up to believe that in the orthodox Jewish way, women were not allowed to be called up due to the possibility that they may be unclean,(menstruation), I mean you cannot go and ask if she is having a period cycle in fact, the reason that orthodox Jewish couples sleep in separate beds is that the premise of being unclean during the period cycle is accepted.This in no way demeans a woman, it is to dignify the Torah.

  12. Joy A-Kubati says:

    Hello,
    I am a Muslim looking to understand others beliefs. I think that your answer was really amazing. With the point of needing to experience it to understand it, well that is a very good point.

  13. Nelle Fastman Pingree says:

    Allison,
    I am intrigued by this discussion and have a question. I do understand the many thoughts about women leyning Torah. And while I am ambivalent about it at the moment, I have a question regarding studying Torah, which is different than reading it in a public place. there was a time when tradition would have had women unable to study Torah or for any profession. Yet, you have been to college and many traditional Jewish woman have professions and education. How was this allowed to happen within the Orthodox context?

    • Thanks for your question, Nelle. There’s no law that says that a women can’t get a secular eduation or have a profession. It was more a cultural thing for Orthodox women (and really any women) to not do those things in the past. Many Orthodox women go to college these days and even more work outside the home. Also, there’s no law against women learning Torah. There’s something about women learning Talmud – it’s not a law – more of a discussion whether a father should teach it to his daughters or not. Different Orthodox communities have different opinions about the issue, but there are many Orthodox women learning Talmud today as well.

  14. Debi, I could have written your post exactly, right down to the homework analogy. I too used to read from the Torah in my Conservative shul, but for me it was more of a performance than prayer. I never so much as read a translation of the parsha before I sang it, and the only spiritual fulfillment I got from it was to feel good about myself for having done something Jewish that week besides ordering my hamburger without cheese.

    I’m frum now, and I don’t fully understand why women are not allowed to read from the Torah, but I accept it and am glad for it. I’m happy that Hashem does not make it a mitzvah for me to do something that only feeds my ego.

  15. Very interesting and lively conversation. I am a practicing Conservative Jew. I must point out that Conservative Judaism does view the Mitzvoth as binding. Orthodoxy is not the only form of Judaism that seeks to bring our lives closer to HaShem through a life of mitzvoth. The Conservative relationship to mitzvoth through halacha does not stop with the Shulchan Aruch however. The Almighty did give us sages and rabbis to follow, but he did not stop giving them to us. This continues. Torah is like a mirror. It is perfect and complete. Like a mirror, which is made up of glass and metal, it does not change. It is what it is. BUT, the reflection in that mirror does change from moment to moment, based on time and who is standing before it. We call Torah Etz Haim…which is either “tree of life” OR “living tree”. We believe in a living Torah and a living God.

    So to your choice to be Orthodox and not read Torah. God bless you. This is your choice. But you have only cited minhags and round-about halacha to show where a woman reading Torah would be Asur. And at the same time are implying that any other form of Judaism (including Conservative) does not seek spirituality, does not seek to come closer to God, and does not seek to live a life of Mitzvoth. This may have been true of you in your Conservative experiences. But it is certainly not true of the movement. Several woman have said here that they have read Torah before but it was never a religious experience for them. This is not necessarily because of they are women. It was an INDIVIDUAL experience. If you didn’t feel anything from it beyond being performance, that is on you.

    The three reasons you stated for prohibiting women from reading Torah would hold in your particular community but are not overall halachic principles.

    1. Modestly – what is modest is determined by each individual community. What they find acceptable and what they find unacceptable. The community is the determining factor. Look at the community of Beit Shemesh. They are attacking young girls because they feel they are dressing immodestly according to their understanding. Their definition of modestly is certainly NOT halacha.

    2. As far as women not being obligated to time-bound mitvoth…this is a much longer discussion, but I will add two things to consider. On one hand, we have to understand that this concept of time-bound obligation is DeRabbanan (ordained by the rabbis), not d’oraita (commanded from Torah). And yes, it was a male dominated society. If we go by these same derabbana ruling, women are not fit to be witnesses. If you witnessed a crime, would you not testify because rabbis 2000 years ago told you that as woman you are unfit?
    On the other hand, assuming we hold to time-bound mitvoth not being binding upon women, it has been shown by sages such as Rabenu Tam and Raavan that people may take on mitzvoth by choice, thus making them binding. They would then be bound to the brachot for such mitzvot as well. According to this view, the act of a woman who chooses to perform such a mitzvah would be no different from the act of a man perfoming the same mitzvah.

    3. This is the most troubling answer given by Orthodoxy in my opinion….the fact that it was not historically the practice for women to read from the Torah.

    Historically we owned slaves. Historically we slaughtered animals to show God our love and devotion. Historically when we had to go to war we made sure we dispatched EVERYONE and EVERYTHING including women, children and animals. There are a lot of things that were historically done that we don’t do anymore because they no longer fit our times.

    That all being said, I completely respect your community’s practices and right to do so. I ask that you not uphold your right to do something by putting down others rights to practice as they see appropriate. You say that one must live as an Orthodox Jew to fully understand it. I agree with that. At the same time, you are putting down Conservative Judaism without ever having fully lived it. Yes, you lived it as a child out of family obligation. You did not seek to live it through Mitzvoth and halacha as interpreted (it is ALL human interpretation of God’s will) by our sages.

    • Matthew – thank you for your long and thoughtful comment. I respect your commitment to mitzvah observance, but we need to be honest about the Conservative movement as a whole – you are the exception, not the rule. I spent years in the Conservative movement – both of my parents were raised that way and most of my extended family and many childhood friends still are. It’s not a movement of Jews living spiritually connected or observant lives. In most cases Conservative Jews end up less observant. The more affiliated ones, like you, often end up left wing modern Orthodox.

      I agree that the Almighty did not stop giving us rabbis to follow, but your rabbis (who used to be my rabbis) allow for Shabbos desecration by driving to shul and have recently begun ordaining gay rabbis. I spent the first half of my life breaking Shabbos, and I have nothing against people who experience same sex attraction, so I’m not saying this to condemn people, I’m saying this to illustrate that Conservative Judaism has broken from Jewish law.

      Your mirror parable is quite weak. First of all – what’s your source that the Torah is meant to be a reflection of whatever we put into it? Secondly who cares if the mirror itself is unchanging if your definition of “etz chaim” allows you to change it into anything you feel like? You could reflect murder, theft, idolatry, etc. into this Etz Chaim, according to your definition and suddenly the Torah would allow for all these things! It seems to me that when the Torah says that these laws apply in all generations for all the Jewish people we should take it seriously!

      Reform Judaism got its start in changing the Torah and put an end to bris milah, kashrut, switched Shabbos to Sundays. Conservative tried to slow down the process of change, which I respect, but it still went to far. And the numbers in the Conservative movement show that this is not a way of life that gets passed successfully from generation to generation.

      Now on to your specific objections: 1) modesty is *somewhat* community based, but is mostly described in the Talmud and codified in books of Jewish law. Please let’s not use the people in Beit Shemesh as an example of Orthodox Jews. If you read my post on “Sikrikim” http://www.jewinthecity.com/tag/sikrikim/ you would see that I do not consider these people part of the Orthodox Jewish movement. They’re an embarrassment to human beings!

      2) Yes – 2,000 years ago, the world was more “male-dominated,” but I do not believe the rabbis ruled as they did about time bound mitzvos in order to “hold me back” as a woman. I trust in our mesorah – in our Jewish tradition that was handed down from Mt. Sinai. And I trust that these rabbis and sages were (for the most part) holy and wise people. A woman not being about to be a witness to a crime has nothing to do with a woman not being considered trustworthy. A woman is trusted when it comes to niddah, to kashrus, etc. – the issue you raise is a whole other discussion, but it’s not due to lack of trust.

      3) In terms of history – this is another HUGE discussion. I could really write a whole post on it. Orthodox Jews are praying every day, three times a day for the return of karbonos. Precedent is a huge deal when it comes to halacha, actually. In terms of my never having lived as an observant Conservative Jew, you’re actually wrong on that one. I did NOT want to become Orthodox. My associations with Orthodox Jews were the people from Beit Shemesh (as is obviously your association!) I tried to pursue spirituality within the Conservative movement at the end of high school. I was the vice-president of my synagogue’s USY chapter and I went on a bunch of conventions. I tried to organize weeekly Shabbat dinners with other teens from my synagogue. I was also active in my synagogue’s minyanaires group – I led services, layned, led discussions after services. I tried my best within the Conservative movement, but saw people’s commitment only went so far. Even in the most serious circles. I wanted my connection to God to be incorporated into every aspect of my life and I was willing to make sacrifices (like not driving on Shabbos, despite having to be all by myself week after week) in order to do so.

      Since you agree that you can only understand Orthodoxy once you’ve lived it, may I suggest that you meet with some Orthodox people and see what life looks like from their perspective? I wrote this post as a person who explored Conservative Judaism quite thoroughly, but you did not write your comment as a person who’s explored Orthodoxy.

      Thanks for a lively debate!

  16. I am convinced that male control and fear are part of the reason why women are denied the right to do things that are not halachically prohibited. We aren’t obligated to eat in the Sukkah but we are allowed to. The same rule should apply to carrying the torah and having aliyah’s which could be done by women on our side of the shul. I don’t buy the apologetic arguments. When Rabbis want things changed-they do it. When they don’t–they bring up modestly and the evils of feminism.

    • You are absolutely correct that most orthodox rabbis believe there are no halachic prohibitions with women carrying the torah. There are an increasing number of orthodox shuls that recognize that women should be able to carry the Torah. However, you are right that most orthodox shuls and orthodox rabbis, despite their halachic permissibility, advocate against such an allowance. I don’t like the apologetic answers either, although I do think that there is something to be said for introducing change slowly. If people aren’t ready for change they’ll rebel against change. Orthodox Judaism has always tried to strike a balance between the societal needs of their people and commitment to halacha. Without a doubt, if you look at the development of Orthodox Judaism in the past century, women take part in and are allowed to assume many more roles in the religious and social sphere than ever before. This is the direction we are going in.

    • Thanks for your comment, Neilia. I think there’s one more thing that should be mentioned here. The process of Jewish law works because we trust the rabbis to uphold it. That’s not to say that there’s never been a bad rabbi in the history of the Jewish people – of course there have been some – but a basic tenet of Orthodox belief is that Jewish law is meant to be entrusted in the hands of our rabbis. It’s been this way for thousands of years. If we start thinking that “they’re out to get us” the whole system breaks down. I believe that by in large, the leaders in every generation are good people, who want to serve God, and I believe that God entrusted Jewish law in their hands so that good things would come from it.

      I don’t know what experiences you’ve had with rabbis, but I don’t feel like the ones that I’ve met are afraid of losing control or are trying to hold women back. I think they’re trying to strike a balance between maintaining rituals that have been in place for a very long time and taking the concerns of their congregants into consideration.

      There are certainly Orthodox shuls that allow for women to hold the Torah on simchas Torah, but for me personally, it’s not like I’ve been feeling “held back” because my shul doesn’t do it. I feel respected and fulfilled in my role as an observant Jewish woman. But for women who do not feel that way, there are other Orthodox shuls that do have more progressive approaches.

  17. Susan Levine says:

    You are correct. It is a “cop out”. Polygamy is against the law in this country so a Rabbi’s opinion has little meaning with regard to this issue. Because you got little out of your Jewish conservative experience doesn’t mean that all Jewish conservative women will have the same experience. You loved reading from the Torah and now you can’t. This is a gender based restriction. Nothing more.

    • Thanks for your comment, Susan, but the rabbis outlawed polygamy WAY before it was illegal in this country – we’re talking over 1000 years ago. I mentioned that point to show that these men who so often are accused of misogyny voluntarily took away something the Torah had allowed once they saw that it wasn’t needed any more in society. I believe they did that because they actually (by and large) had great respect for women.

      I never said other Conservative women get nothing out of reading the Torah – I just spoke of myself. And I didn’t love reading from – I enjoy reading from the Torah like I enjoyed the many other ways that I performed. It was only a performance for me – not a religious experience.

      When I began to live my life committed to halacha, Judaism became a religious experience.

  18. While this is the traditional viewpoint, there are a whole lot of Orthodox Jewish women who are seeking to do more. There are more women’s prayer services where we can read Torah. And then there are the Female religious practitioners – Maharat. The days of “she doesn’t have to learn because she is a girl” went by the wayside when the Bais Yaacov movement began. Once that started, women began to take on more responsibility in the Orthodox world. Men and women were always separate but equal partners but once in America, the trend even in Orthodoxy for women to be educated in both secular and religious subjects began.
    Even in Orthodoxy, there is a spectrum of practice.

    • Thanks for your comment, Civia. It’s true that there is a spectrum within Orthodoxy. I’m all for women’s learning and halachically permissible leadership roles – I think what I’ve done with this site is a perfect example of that. I do have an issue with women reading Torah, though, and my issue is that no actual mitzvah is being fulfilled through the reading and therefore it makes me wonder who exactly is being served when this act is performed.

  19. Hi Allison,

    I just wanted to say that stumbling upon your blog, and this post in particular, came at the perfect time for me today. I just had two very emotionally draining and thought-provoking conversations/debates challenging Judaism and my passion for the Torah-perspective. I really feel like I can relate to the early years of your growth and recently I’ve been struggling with properly articulating why I find so much meaning in an observant life, mainly after being challenged so constantly and frequently. Everything about what you said in this post rings so true for me. Thank you for sharing.

  20. David Selis says:

    Allison,

    I am the son of conservative BT parents one of whom is an ordained conservative rabbi. ive been to quite a few “open orthodox” shuls and i have seen women read torah. have you heard of a partnership minayn,
    it may not be the mainstream but never the less, it is orthodox women reading torah. i would add that kol isha is not of serious concern to this minayn..

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, David. I’m aware of women’s prayer groups in more liberal Orthodox shuls. It’s not my thing to tell someone else what to do or not do. All I can speak of it’s what meaningful for me. I did the Torah reading thing in my pre-Orthodox days and it wasn’t very meaningful. I tend to be a person who is most comfortable in the center. I look at the edges of Orthodoxy – some of the more extreme things happening on the right wing side of Orthodoxy which have no precedent, no mesorah, and then I look at things on the left wing side also with no precedent and no mesorah (mind you – the issues interestingly always seem to revolve around women!) and while segregation on buses or women reading Torah in a women’s prayer group are not technically prohibited by Jewish law, I learned that we need to consider both law and tradition when we do things. So, like I said, I will never tell someone else what to do or not do, but I’d rather stay in the center.

      • David Selis says:

        regarding segregation on buses, i would refer you to an essay in the orthodoxy and family issue of conversation, the journal of the institutwe for jewish ideals and ideals entitled moving forward or backward: mehedrin buses. the essayist begins by pointing out that Rav Moshe Feinstein who was know to rule stringently on most issues ruled in absolutely clear language that there is no sexual energy present in such random and unavoidable situations. my guess on why these issues always seem to revolve around women is that its one of a few areas in which societal changes have forced a reeximantion of issues previously seen as closed. the polirization around issues of women in prayer spaces goes back in america to the 1940s with the fight over family vs seperate seating in shuls. the women in a minyan/women rabbis debate in the conservative movement was not until 1980.

  21. Hi Allison, I stumbled across this and its been a while since it was posted but I just wanted to mention something, Although what I am going to say is not an idea rigidly defined in Judaism, I feel as though it makes logical sense and may even probably be the case. When we pray, obviously we are trying to send a message to Hashem. At some point all of our messages are heard, but the way in which we pray determines the order in which those messages are heard and responded to. For example, praying in a large group or men praying in a minyan is much more powerful than praying alone, therefore the message gets to Hashem quicker. You say that a group of women praying does not fulfill any mitzvah and that by not fulfilling a mitzvah it does not serve a spiritual purpose. To understand fully I read through the 613 mitzvot, and it does simply say, “to pray to Hashem”. Now obviously, women cannot form a minyan, however I don’t think your idea that a group of women praying cannot form some kind of message is true. Sure, the message will take longer to reach the final destination, but it isn’t worthless as you are making it seem by saying that it does not fulfill any mitzvah and so it is purposeless. It does not make any logical sense to me how any prayer, in any setting, can be purposeless. It could be worth less than other forms of prayer, but never without a function.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I don’t see the problem. Allison didn’t say that women couldn’t pray in a group, just that doing so is not a mitzvah per se. There is a concept of b’rov am hadras melech – the praise of G-d is in a multitude (Proverbs 14:28) – so in general we like to perform mitzvos in groups, but it’s not a minyan. A minyan is ten mentally-competent males above the age of majority. 100 12-year-old boys who know how to daven and lein (pray and read from the Torah) are also not a minyan. So women praying together may have a wonderful, meaningful experience but it’s not considered a minyan under halacha.

      In many Orthodox girls schools and summer camps, they pray together but they do not recite the parts of the service that call for a minyan. They often “import” a minyan of men for Shabbos services.

      It’s no judgment. If I’m in a shul with 1,000 other people but none of us is a kohein (“priest” – a descendant of Aaron), we can’t “duchen” (recite the priestly benediction). If I were to step up and do so, it would be no mitzvah. Certain things simply require specific players’ involvement.

  22. This is a very emotional issue, and you explained your case very well.
    I think that TRUE feminism is the way Hashem set up the Torah. Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah were not submissive, spoke up for their rights and voiced their opinions. The Women in the Bible were all very strong characters, but they did not need to read from the Torah in order to feel spirituality. Spirituality comes from within and connecting to Hashem through the incredible mitzvot He gave us.
    Thank you, Allison, for breaking down Jewish misconceptions!

  23. Genia Hudson Wheeler says:

    There was no Torah during the time of Sarah, Rachel or Leah so it was pretty easy not to read it.

  24. Thanks for your comment, Lydia. Synagogue life certainly goes beyond just the service itself. In addition, for most Orthodox Jews, the home is really the center for Jewish life as Shabbos, holidays, kosher, blessings, and everyday education takes place there. That being said, I hear your point. I get that if women were involved in the service the way men are, there would be an added way for them to connect. My feeling though is that just because women aren’t involved the same way that men are doesn’t mean they can’t find other ways to be involved in synagogue/Jewish communal life. There are women’s Rosh Chodesh programs, women’s tehillim groups, women’s voluteering projects, etc. etc. I think it’s up to each individual woman to find a way to feel involved, because I think with enough effort each one can. (In addition, only a handful of men in each synagogue are involved in the Torah reading, prayer leadership part of the service anyway.)

  25. Hi Rodney, you’re correct that women reading Torah for other women is technically allowed as the modesty, time bound mitzvah issues, and kavod hatzibbur don’t apply. There are still some concerns though, in my opinon, and in the opinion of most Orthodox rabbis today.

    In traditional Judaism, the basic goal of life is to achieve closeness to the Almighty (if I had to sum the basic goal of life up in a few words!) The vehicle for achieving that closeness (according to tradtional Jewish thought) is the practice of mitzvos and halacha. The problem with women reading Torah for each other in a group, is that no real mitzvah is happening in the process. When men get together, they form a minyan, so they are able to say blessings before they read the Torah. When women get together – it’s not because there bad in some way, God forbid – but no matter how many women get together, they do not create a minyan. Therefore no blessings are said, therefore no technical mitzvah is done.

    Now people have made the “but they get a nice feeling from it” argument to me. And nice feelings are certainly nice. But according to Jewish thought, nice feelings (alone) do not create closeness to God – all they do is create nice feelings. An actual mitzvah accompanied by a nice feeling is the highest level, but there’s still an instrinsic value to performing a mitzvah even if the nice feeling is not there. I’ll give you an example in a less heated scenario than the gender based one we’re presently discussing.

    There’s a mitzvah to eat in a Sukkah during the holiday of Sukkot. Men are obligated to, women are allowed to, but most do for many of the Sukkot meals because it’s a nice thing to do. A Sukkah is only considered kosher if the roof (the schach) is laid out a certain way with the leaves/branches that are there (they can’t be too dense or too sparse). Therefore, it’s possible for certain parts of the Sukkah to be kosher and other parts not (if the shach is not laid out evenly throughout). Now on to our example – a person might have a nice feeling sitting in Sukkah with family and friends, eating a festive meal, singing holiday song, etc. etc. but if s/he is not sitting under the right part of the schach – no actual mitzvah is being done. So what women’s Torah reading groups, in a sense are, is a group of women sitting in a Sukkah that they know has a schach that’s not kosher. They can be into the holiday spirit of it all, which can “feel” good, but if the schach they’re sitting under isn’t set up correctly, no actual mitzvah has taken place.

    Now just an aside – I would never stop women from creating prayer groups in there own time and space – it’s not my business – everyone is free to live her life as she sees fit . But if we’re in a discussion about the pluses and minuses of such a practice, then this is my take. I certainly appreciate the desire that women have to want to connect. I think it’s beautiful. I just believe that we have to see how the system of connection operates and work within that.

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