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Yes, No. Calling Women to the Torah #687

08/06/2021 02:34:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Re'eh
“All Jews count toward the seven prescribed readers — even a minor and even a women….” (Talmud, Megillah 23a)

Yes, No. Calling Women to the Torah

I am often asked, “Why do Conservative and Reform Judaism enable women to be called to the Torah — but Orthodox Judaism does not?”

It’s a passionate topic. Conservative and Reform rabbis point to the need to realign Judaism’s gender roles with today’s more egalitarian society, while, Orthodoxy points to a long tradition of tzniyut (modesty), levels of spirituality, and separation of genders when it comes to men and women praying and singing together.

Why the difference? In many ways, it’s a matter of interpretation.

There is a Talmudic teaching which addresses this issue, and just as our tradition reminds us that there are “seventy faces to the Torah,” interpretations over the centuries have differed.

In ancient times, those who were called to the Torah traditionally read their own Torah portions. Today, that is usually done by a Cantor or other Torah readers.

So, as it discusses gender roles, the Talmud poses the question of whether it is theoretically okay for a woman or even a youth to read from the Torah

And, it initially concludes: “All Jews count toward the seven prescribed readers even a minor and even a woman.” (Talmud, Megillah 23a)

But then our tradition takes a step back. The Talmud adds “that a woman should not read the Torah out of consideration of the dignity of the congregation (K’vod Ha’Tzibur.)”  

Jewish tradition in those days, as today, paid attention to gender roles within the family and the community.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, rabbis ask whether it is okay for a woman to lead the recitation of Grace after Meals (Birkhat Ha’Mazon.) Our Sages say that is permissible but chastises the male leader of the household who needs to refer to a woman because he does how to do it himself.

The great 13th century sage, Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Assevilli, is noted that in the Schottenstein Talmud  one of Orthodox Judaism’s most widely Talmudic interpretations as saying:

“If a woman is called up, it gives the impression that none of the men, who have the primary obligation to read from the Torah, are capable of reading the Torah and that reflects negatively on the congregation’s level of religious knowledge.”

But today, most Conservative and Reform congregations advance a different view. They focus less on K’vod HaTzibur  the dignity of the congregation and turn their sights to another phrase, K’vod Ha’Briyut  respect for all creation, that is "individual honor," or "human dignity." 

And in so doing, they re-imagine what “respect for all creation means,” lowering the traditional wall between men and women.

I am moved each year as I read this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh ("See") by the closing commandment on how to celebrate the three major biblical holidays  Succoth, Pesach and Shavuot. It is a commandment that does not distinguish between gender or social status.

Notes the Torah, “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God — with your son and daughter.” No distinctions, or as the Torah says:

“You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities." (Deuteronomy 16:14)

While our tradition takes care not to require women to perform “time bound” commandments perhaps because of their duties in maintaining the home and raising children often the Torah and the Talmud command men and women to step up together.

And while both sides of this religious debate have — from time to time — been critical of how the other views this topic, it does not mean that anyone is wrong. It is just that different Jews, different denominations, view our tradition from different sides of that sentence.

It is called Jewish pluralism.

This week, as the Torah focuses on festival celebration by both the sons and daughters of Israel, I am drawn back to the Talmudic phrase “even a minor or woman.” For this phrase is especially personal to me.

Many years ago, as a bar mitzvah teacher, I was preparing a young man, Jason, for his special day set for late November.

That July, his grandmother who lived 2,200 miles away in Montreal decided to visit her family in Edmonton. “Jason,” she told her grandson, “I can’t wait to be here again at your bar mitzvah. I promise you; nothing can keep me away.”

But weeks later, the phone rang with some devastating news. Grandma had been diagnosed with cancer and she would not be there in November. She was heartbroken, not just because of her deteriorating condition, but also because she would not be able to keep her promise to Jason.

But then, an idea surfaced.

Would it be possible for Jason to travel to Montreal, four months in advance of his turning 13, and privately celebrate his coming of Jewish age in the chapel of his grandmother’s synagogue?

The rabbi and I reviewed the Talmud, and the intersection of the two phrases, “dignity of the congregation” and “even a minor and a woman.”

And the rabbi concluded, “Our congregation would be more uplifted and dignified by calling Jason to the Torah months before his actual bar mitzvah  than having a woman die having failed to meet one of her final promises.”

And so, on a Thursday morning, 20 years ago this week as his grandmother, immediate family and a small group of congregants watched Jason entered the chapel of Beth El Synagogue in Montreal and recited the Torah blessings and three lines from the Torah.

Later that year, Jason marked his larger bar mitzvah at our home congregation, as we danced the hora with gentle tears in our eyes.

I think about that young man and his grandmother as I read this week’s Torah portion. It reminds us that sometimes we need to look at tradition not so much in terms of how it may affect or embarrass some, but rather how it can uplift all.

This concept enables us to open doors to those of different backgrounds, who may pray or love in a variety of ways. For it is not so much the technical details God looks for but rather intent.

Indeed, Orthodoxy does have concern over distractions, which may occur within the synagogue as male and female voices or even attractions come into play. Perhaps women exist at a higher spiritual level. This position and its connection with tradition should be respected.

But let us also pay attention in this new age, to enable all in our Jewish community, according to their passion, to participate at all levels. It is not up to men to make that decision.

This week, I imagine the soft smile on Jason’s grandmother’s face as she proudly watched her grandson become a bar mitzvah. For on that day, four months before his bar mitzvah, Jason truly came of age.

Perhaps, as we look at Judaism through both a traditional and modern lens, it’s time that within our blessed places and sacred spaces we do the same.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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