Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later founding chief rabbi of the Israeli settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, this week told a conference of Ne’emnei Torah V’Avoda that women should not lead prayers nor receive aliyahs to the Torah in Orthodox synagogues.
Rabbi Riskin, who is among the more liberal Orthodox rabbis, which includes his preparing women scholars to become teachers of Jewish law, was asked in a Q&A session whether his support for educating women halachic advisors contradicted a recent statement from the OU in the US regarding the ordination of female Orthodox rabbis.
It should be noted that the OU report did not exclude women from advising on halachas that have to do with “family purity,” a broad term related to the entire scope of family relations in Jewish law. Indeed, Rabbi Riskin noted that he did not think the OU actually prohibited women’s halachic advice across the board.
He then stated that women must not take part in some of the central roles in the life of the synagogue: leading public prayer and being called up to the Torah.
The central argument in his opinion had to do with the halachic principle that one who is not obligated to perform a certain commandment is unable to perform it for another. In this instance, women, who are normally absent from the weekly cycle of daily prayers, do not qualify to lead the congregation in prayer on Shabbat. Likewise, since women are not legally obligated to go up to the Torah, they are unable to bless the Torah as representatives of the public at large.
The Ne’emnei Torah V’Avoda conference this year was titled “Babylon and Jerusalem,” and dealt with the complex relationship between the Jewish State and Jewish communities in diaspora.
Incidentally, Rabbi Riskin ignored a minority view in the Talmud (Megilah, 23A) as well as the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 282:3), which say minors and women are permitted to go up to the Torah, however, the sages have barred women from participating because of the need to respect the congregation.
One explanation as to this unusual ruling has to do with the fact that aliyahs in past years meant–as is still the case in some congregations today–that you yourself read your portion of the weekly parsha. Since there were men in the community who could not read or right, and so never received an aliyah, it would have shamed them had women been called up while they were not.
While it is to be expected of the Talmud to include a halachic ruling which is eventually denied, it is intriguing that the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo, chose to include it in his code, even though it does not change the fact that women are not permitted to go up to the Torah.