Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Kavod tzibur - Can Women Read from the Torah in Public?

A guest post by LADYKAYE

So I think the time has come for me to attempt to articulate my thoughts about "kavod tzibur", the reason given by the Gemara (Megillah 23a) as to why women should not read from the Torah.

I've heard this explained in two different ways. Whichever explanation is adopted, the question of whether or not the kavod tzibur statement "still applies today" has been dissected and discussed endlessly over the years, as has the ensuing question of whether or not women should be allowed to read from the Torah if the reason is indeed outdated and no longer applicable.

One explanation I've heard: Back when the Talmudic texts were recorded, it was believed that women were inferior, and that therefore, having a woman do something important like read from the Torah would be demeaning to the congregation.

The other explanation I've heard: There is a halachic obligation upon each Jewish community to provide a Torah education to the men in its midst. Providing a Torah education to women is optional; it is not, however, an obligation. Thus, if a female were to be called up to read from the Torah, the implication would be that the congregation had spent its resources educating her rather than educating its men. This would be embarrassing to the congregation, because it would imply that the congregation had not fulfilled its obligation. Therefore, to save the congregation from looking as though it had shirked on its obligation, we don't allow women to read from the Torah.

So here's what I think about this.

I don't know which of these explanations is accurate. Perhaps neither is accurate and the true understanding of the phrase "kavod tzibur" is something completely different. Personally, I find the phrase itself intriguing, and I would really like to know the truth about what it means. However, let's assume one of the above explanations is correct. In my opinion, the whole question of whether kavod tzibur "still applies today" is sort of far from clear. And perhaps surprisingly, I find it easier to accept that the second explanation "no longer applies today" than that the first explanation no longer applies today.

Today I believe it's sort of assumed by ANY Orthodox community that women do know how to read Hebrew. Perhaps they don't know anything else, but that much of an education I think even the most right-wing schools do provide them (don't they?). So I personally feel like nobody would assume, if a woman were to read from the Torah, that the community was teaching women instead of men. I believe it's fairly common knowledge in all communities that both women AND men are taught to read. So if that's the explanation, then that type of dishonor to the community would never happen today, so the reason would no longer apply.

It's the first explanation that I think might be more difficult to claim no longer applies.

Is it really and truly accepted, today in 2008, that women are not inferior to men? Is this something that all, or even most, people believe, I mean really believe, in their heart of hearts? Leave aside the question, for the moment, of how universal something has to be before we can say it "no longer applies". Let's say it's just that congregation - the one in which the woman is being called up to the Torah - that has to believe it. Has the feminist movement really been that successful just yet? Does every member, or even the majority of members, of even a typical American Modern Orthodox congregation really and truly accept that women are in no way whatsoever inferior to men?

I don't think they do. I don't think that belief has been anywhere near as universally accepted as we like to think it has. I don't think mankind - in which I include women - has evolved that far. I think if we were to carefully examine the inner workings of people's minds, we would be surprised by the gender biases that still exist, and by how prevalent they are, even among the most liberal and open populations. There are people who, for example, instinctively trust men more than women when it comes to knowledge and professional competence. I know I've been guilty of this. I've caught myself in the assumption, for example, that most doctors are men, even though I think I personally know more women than men who are doctors. Somehow, I still sort of expect that kind of expertise to mostly exist among men. I've also caught myself assuming, when I'm reading an article or a column that's especially learned and intelligent, that the author is a man, only to find myself surprised when I look at the name and it's a woman. I have no explanation for this. I thought I was a good feminist daughter of a 1970's-style feminist mother. And yet I find myself not only adhering to these stereotypes, but feeling them as well. And if I can be guilty of this, I have little doubt that other people are too, perhaps without even realizing it.

So that's my issue with kavod tzibur. If it's predicated on the belief that men are somehow superior to women, well, I don't think our generation has surpassed that belief yet. I think we have a way to go before that happens.

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