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October 25, 2014 / 1 Heshvan, 5775
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Rav Soloveitchik Told Me: When Women Write the Checks, They’ll Get Aliyahs


woman of the wall

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I believe that it is essential for Orthodox Judaism to change and to provide women with full equality — to count them for a minyan, to call them to the Torah, and after proper training, to ordain them as rabbis.

In 1973, after I completed my Semicha studies with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, I attended his summer shiurim (Talmud classes) in Boston and then started as a PhD graduate student at Brown University.

Brown was known as a progressive community in an era of ferment. Some of us Orthodox graduate students gathered at the Hillel to engage in a traditional Minyan. Not surprisingly some of the women students there wanted to know how far we could push the envelope. Could we conduct an Orthodox service and give women aliyot to the Torah?

I knew these were all sincere and properly motivated students, seeking greater fulfillment in their practice of Judaism. So when they asked me to drive up to Boston and to discuss this issue with the Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik, I readily accepted the challenge.

After an hour’s drive one evening I was ushered in to sit with my rebbe. I talked with him about several topics, asked his opinion on halakhic issues and then got to the final question.

I told the Rav about our minyan at Brown and that some of the students wanted me to raise a sensitive issue with him. Then I asked matter-of-factly, “What does the Rav think about the issue of Kavod Hatzibbur?” As a sign of respect, one always referred to his rebbe in the third person, even when addressing him directly. And one always took pains to obliquely broach what might be a controversial topic.

The Talmud explains that women are not given aliyot to the Torah because of Kavod Hatzibbur, respect for the congregation. It sounds like a valid reason even though we cannot possibly know now what that phrase meant to the Babylonian sages 1500 years ago.

The Rav knew exactly what I was asking. He smiled and told me he would not give me a psak halakhah on the subject. However, he said I should go back and assure the students at Brown that, “When the women write the checks, they will get the aliyot to the Torah.” He repeated it three times.

I was surprised by the Rav’s statement. At the time I assumed he wanted to be sociological not theological, to finesse the issue rather than to confront it.

I went back and reported the exchange to the earnest students. None of us knew what to make of it. And we went off and pursued our lives.

Through the years I have stopped to reflect on occasion about the wisdom that the Rav shared with me on this matter. Now, thirty-some-years later I have collected my insights into what he may have meant.

First and most important he meant to tell me that there is no halakhic barrier to women receiving aliyot to the Torah.

Second, he also meant to tell me that we should be patient and allow social change to take its progressive course.

And third, the way he put it contained an undertone of critique against how synagogues distribute aliyot in general. In his view, you could be a scoundrel or an ignoramous, but when you write a check you get an aliyah.

That is not the protocol that the Halakhah stipulates. The codes of Jewish law agree that learned people should be honored first and frequently with aliyot in the synagogue.

We have been patient. Over the past thirty years Jewish women have become more earnest, more sincere and more learned in Jewish law. And now all of the Orthodox women that I know have checkbooks.

So whether for the most elevated or for the most basic of reasons, it is time for Orthodox rabbis to sanction for women aliyot to the Torah and much, much more.

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About the Author: Tzvee Zahavy is a triathlon swimmer, a competitive golfer, a prolific author of books on Judaism, a prize-winning professor with a PhD from Brown University, a compassionate rabbi with semicha from Yeshiva University, and a fun guy.


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14 Responses to “Rav Soloveitchik Told Me: When Women Write the Checks, They’ll Get Aliyahs”

  1. Great story and, I think, exactly the right interpretation of the Rav's meaning. יישר כוח

  2. Ch Hoffman says:

    chicks with checks
    now playing at a mod-ox near you

  3. Anonymous says:

    Women who need aliyahs for fulfillment will have grandchildren worshiping in churches.

  4. counting for a minyan is more of a halachic issue – although there is an opinion of the Mordechai who said a woman could count at tenth with nine men the same way a katan can – but I never saw it inside and there may be other issues.

    as far as kavod hatzibbur with regard to aliyoth, particularly today when the baal korei reads aloud and the honoree reads silently, there may be room to say it is up to the tzibbur to decide such a thing.

    as far as women being ordained, i totally support some sort of ministerial ordination in Orthodox Judaism for women, so they can serve as chaplains, etc., as there is a strong need for Orthodox female chaplains, in hospitals, womens prisons, Hillel campuses, and other locations that require ordination for employment. Synagogues don't need a meaningless piece of paper, though, and can hire whoever they want in leadership roles. It will not change the fact that a woman cannot be a witness for a wedding, or serve on a beth din for a conversion or a get.

  5. fascinating wisdom. it is on par with what an orthodox Rabbi I studied with, who serve on the Israeli medical ethics board, said: there are often assumptions /presumptions included in decisions of past Rabbis/ Sages. If those assumptions/ presumptions are now known to be false, Judaism requires us to review the whole question again from the beginning without the false assumptions/ presumptions to get to a corrected decision – for instance, we must throw out anything based on the presumption that women are irrational airheads!

  6. Marilyn Rest says:

    I write checks! I donate to my shul & I am sure there are other women who donate a lot more than I do. Personally, I wouldn't accept an aliyah if you paid me. I don't count women in a minyan, even when I'm in a shul that does. (I wouldn't say Kaddish or respond to anyone else's Kaddish or say any of the prayers that require a minyan if there are fewer than 10 adult Jewish males.)

  7. Robbie Goldstein says:

    We already have that problem- and it is because women have been excluded. Go and ask secular and reformed women exactly "WHY" they do not want to become T.O. Most will tell you that they find Judaism is far too exclusionary toward women, and as a result, they simply turn away from it. Go and ask…

  8. women are already writing the checks! So many are expected to shoulder almost all of the financial burden, or at least half.—all if their husbands are in collel only to have new and unusual tznius chumros and bans thrown at them, lest they get "uppity"

  9. What a wonderful article! As a youngster I was one of those who felt slighted by Judaism for being a girl. A year ago I accepted an aliyah at my niece's Bat Mitzvah. Such a joyous moment and yes, I muffed it just a little. Now I am older, wiser and happier knowing I don't have to get out of bed early like you guys! :)

  10. Ariel Dahan says:

    It's one thing to advocate for something that doesn't go fully against halacha like aliyot. Others, like the minyan and other restrictions, have halachic lines and therefore the issues should not be lumped together.

  11. Jeff Rosner says:

    Rabbi Brown can you you substantiate what you say the Rav said in any of his writings? Did he say this in front of 3 other Rabbis?

  12. Kenneth B Ossip says:

    Speaking of being progressive, it is progressive that the woman in the photo wasn't forced (as a child) to write with the right hand (like my grandfather was).

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