Women can perform the act of aliyah la-Torah and even read from the Torah, says Professor Rabbi Daniel Sperber, an Orthodox rabbi who is also the chairman of Hemed, the public council that advises the Education Ministry about national religious education.
The word aliyah means "ascending" and refers to the act of going up to the Torah (which is read from the bima on a level higher than that of the congregation, signifying its holiness) and reciting the blessing over the Torah. The question of whether women are allowed to perform the act has been one of the most contentious issues between Orthodox Jewry and other Jewish schools of thought.
Sperber, a Talmud professor and an Israel Prize Laureate, stated this opinion in the recent issue of Deot, a publication of one of the liberal movements of religious Zionism.
Although Sperber is careful not to refer to his article as a ruling, this is apparently the first time an Orthodox rabbi permits women to perform the act of aliyah.
Sperber states that the prohibition on women was limited from the outset. According to Megillah tractate of the Gemara, "All may be included among the seven [called to the Torah on Shabbat], even a minor and a woman," but the Sages said a woman should not read from the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation (kevod ha-tsibbur).
Sperber quotes a popular interpretation for the phrase "dignity of the congregation," according to which this dignity is only compromised when none of the men present can read the Torah, and if a woman reads the men will be shamed. Therefore, ostensibly, in this day and age when most men can read the Torah, this reason to bar women is no longer relevant.
Moreover, Sperber notes it is not clear whether the statement that a woman should not read from the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation was ever a categoric ruling or a mere recommendation.
Sperber also quoted some relatively recent Halakhic rulers who said the prohibition is limited to certain circumstances. Rabbi Meir (the Maharam) of Rutenberg, a 13th century Jewish scholar who was considered quite a conservative where women were concerned, stated that, where there are not enough men who can read, "the dignity of the congregation will take second priority."
Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of Shulchan Aruch, stated that "everyone can be among the seven called to the Torah, even women," and it was only later interpreters of his writings who hedged this statement and set the condition that not all seven be women or minors.
The decisive argument, according to Sperber, is the argument that the concept of the dignity of the congregation, which from the start was unclear, is now offset by the value of kevod ha-briyot - the dignity of individuals; in this case, the dignity of women who are barred from reading the Torah.
Sperber offers proof that the reasoning of kevod ha-briyot was throughout generations used as a decisive factor whenever there was doubt in Halakhic rulings; it should be applied in the same way in this case, Sperber states.
Sperber explains that his article is not in response to women who have recently started reading the Torah alongside men at Shira Hadasha community in Jerusalem. Rather, he is responding to a debate in Edah, a publication of the modern Orthodox community in the United States.
Sperber's article will likely enable many women and perhaps entire communities to allow women to perform the act of aliyah. However, Sperber feels that, in his own synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, his point of view will not be accepted. "They are so conservative that I cannot even convince them that a woman can dance with the Torah scroll on Simchas Torah."