RR 40-42

Women Called to the Torah

There is a responsum somewhere in the literature to the effect that “in a Jewish community which is com posed of Cohanim a woman should be called up to the scroll for the reading of the part designated for Yisroel. ” Where is the responsum and what is the source of this particular tradition? (From Rabbi Selwyn Ruslander, Dayton, Ohio)

First, let me say, in general, that the whole question of the rights of women to conduct or participate in the service is dealt with in Reform Jewish Practice (Vol. II, pp. 67 ff.), but this specific question is quite interesting. By the way, the question is not theoretical. In Palestine, of course, there were cities predominantly or exclusively inhabited by priests; also, in the Diaspora this must have been the case. We know, for example, that even today on the Tunisian island of Djerba, one of the two ancient congregations is composed entirely of Cohanim.

The Talmud (in j. Gittin V, 9) states a general rule in the case of a city composed of priests. It asks who shall go up to the platform (Duchan) to bless the people? The answer is, they all go up since they are all priests. But whom do they bless? They bless their brothers elsewhere, that is, in other cities and in the fields. But who says “Amen” to their blessings? The women and the children who are present. Generally, in normal congregations, a priest is called for the first section of the Torah reading, a Levite is called for the second, and an Israelite for the third. But in a city of priests, who shall be called first and second and third to the Torah? The Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayyim 135 : 12) says that in a city composed entirely of priests, if there is one Israelite among them, he is called first, Mipne Darchey Shalom, that is, so as not to create strife by trying to choose between the priests. If there is no Israelite present, the first two men should of course be priests. There is no insult thereby to the priest who is called up second because it is clear that the second priest is second not because of any flaw in his priestly descent but because there is no Levite present to be second. So far, Joseph Caro in the Shulchan Aruch.

Now, with regard to women being called up to the Torah: The basic law is in the Talmud (b. Megilla 23a), which says that all may be counted in the number seven (the seven who are called up to the Torah on Sabbath), even a minor, a slave, or a woman. What, then, occurs regarding this in a city composed entirely of priests?

Joseph Caro in his larger work, “Bes Joseph,” to the Tur (Orah Hayyim 135), quotes Rabbenu Yeruchem, who is frequently quoted in the Law. He is a contemporary of Asher ben Yehiel. Rabbi Yeruchem says that in a city composed entirely of Cohanim, a Cohen is called up twice (which is in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch), and then they call up women because “all may be counted to the number seven,” as the Talmud says (b. Megilla 23a).

So here is the exact reference. It is from Rabbenu Yeruchem, author of “Toldot Adam v’Chava,” a contemporary of Asher ben Yehiel and cited by Joseph Caro to the Tur (Orah Hayyim 135, near the end).

Although this question was asked mainly for information, it is clear that the subject has bearing upon our actual Reform practice. It is, of course, our principle that women have complete religious equality with men. Yet we are strengthened by these precedents, for they help us realize that our principle in the matter is not “out of thin air,” but is a development of a tendency toward equality, which is inherent in Jewish tradition. Whenever we have a girl confirmand read the Torah on Shevuos, or a woman recite the Torah blessings at a Sisterhood Sabbath, we are acting on principle and also have the clear Talmudic rule in Megilla 23a and the actual practice in priest-congregations.