Quotes on Egalitarian JudaismImages

If the essential halakhah (ikar ha-din) can countenance kriat ha-Torah by women in one form or another, how do we account for the Orthodox community’s refusal seriously to face this possibility? It seems to me that the explanation lies not in halakhah per se, but in an ingrained conservatism, naturally suspicious of change, which is heightened by the perception of being under siege from a dynamic, attractive and sometimes unsavory general culture. Also not to be underestimated is the fear that flexibility on this issue would play into the hands of the Reform and Conservative movements.

The terms of reference of this reflexive, intuitive opposition are not the open, precise, give and take of classical halakhic argumentation, but the evocative language of minhag (custom), porets geder (breaker of norms), and lo titgodedu (do not splinter the community). Women may not receive aliyot or read the Torah because it goes against ingrained minhag; it upsets the received religious order. The implied operative halakhic principle, even if not explicitly enunciated, is simple and direct: essential halakhah (ikar ha-din) must submit to minhag.

Mendel Shapiro, Kriat ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis, Edah Journal 2 (2001)

Kevod Hatsibur and Dignity

The rishonim already provide various explanations of why the practice is considered improper and of what precisely is meant by kevod ha-tsibur. Some connect the matter to the parallel text in the Tosefta, dating from the same period as the baraita, which seems to suggest that the discussion is limited to an instance in which no knowledgeable men are present and the only person able to reading from the Torah is a woman, in which case her reading would violate the congregation's dignity: it would be an affront to the men if only a woman were able to read. This seems to be the explanation offered by many, though not all, of the rishonim, citing the Tosefta.

We have here a clash of two principles of different sorts—kevod ha-tsibur (if such exists) and kevod ha-beriyot. I've not yet found any consideration of human dignity in connection with women being called to and reading from the Torah, but it seems clear to me that, in this instance, human dignity trumps communal dignity. This is especially so when we are speaking about "a doubtful consideration of kevod ha-tsibur," for it is entirely possible that the congregation has waived its dignity, or that it senses no affront at all to its dignity in women being granted aliyyot. ... It thus seems clear that kevod ha-beriyot, individual dignity, must overcome kevod ha-tsibur, particularly when the concept of kevod ha-tsibur does not really pertain as it might have in ancient and medieval times….

In sum, it seems to me that nowadays, in those communities where it is agreed that change within the normative halakhic framework should take place and that the absence of such change will be a source of pain and suffering to an important segment of the community, the principle of kevod ha-beriyot overcomes the stated principle of kevod ha-tsibur.

Daniel Sperber, Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading, The Edah Journal 3 (2003)

Contextualist Approach

A contextualist approach to historical interpretation (rather than an essentialist one) can facilitate the halakhic process when the method is directed at understanding how halakhic language is (and has, in the past, been) used. “Contextualism” as a term refers to methodologies (or modes of reading) that delay the moment of presumed understanding of texts—texts written in the more or less distant past—and use that delay to render interpretation self-conscious and self-critical. Delay permits a search for unfamiliar or surprising patterns of thinking—interpretive gaps—embedded in what might otherwise be thought familiar uses of language. Contextualist methods question the notion that traditional interpretations and ideas are static in time and that their long histories are evidence of their resistance to change. Thus, they question the presumption that the meanings of words in old texts are made apparent through philological reconstruction alone. The cultural or mental gap that divides the modern reader from a historical text poses the greatest challenge to modern understanding. Texts must therefore be read in cultural context.

Alick Isaacs, Kevod Hatzibbur: Towards a Contextualist History


For further sources, see here and here.