The Orthodox Egalitarian Minyan: An Analysis of Women and Public Torah Reading

            Julie Rapoport

The Gemara on Tractate Megilla defines the Jewish legal requirement for the presence of a quorum of ten men before certain prayers and related rituals may be performed. “All matters of sanctity should not involve less than ten.”[1] It is traditionally believed that the Divine Presence rests in this ten, called a minyan, and thus it is preferable for men to pray as part of such a quorum.[2] The emphasis on males in community ritual involvement has often relegated women to a position of insignificance and invisibility within their prayer communities. In recent years, many women have expressed the desire to progress and take on a more active role in their synagogues. The “partnership minyan,” or Orthodox or halachic[3] egalitarian minyan, was conceived as a response to the need for inclusion in community rituals felt by many modern Orthodox women.

Such a conception of a minyan is revolutionary. Jewish legal authorities have expressed varying opinions on the innovation, ranging from support of these congregations to prohibition of them. While much of the discomfort with these minyanim stems from social norms and expectations, authorities have been forced to wrestle with potential issues of halacha (codified Jewish law). In particular, they have been asked to comment on those issues involved with a woman reading from the Torah scroll on behalf of the congregation. The establishment of such minyanim requires an understanding of the historical and social factors behind the controversy as well as a thorough analysis of the relevant halachic material.

Since Temple times, the role of women in synagogues and general ritual life has continually restructured itself according to the traditions and norms of each community. Before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. women attended Festival pilgrimages and brought their own sacrifices.[4] The prophets Ezra and Nehemiah count male and female singers while listing members of the congregation, indicating that there were female singers during Temple times.[5] Though women could not serve as priestesses, they certainly had a place within the congregation. Rabbinic sources imply that women were commonly present in ancient synagogues and were even granted honors in the synagogue community. Archaeological discoveries indicate that some women had seats of honor in the synagogue. Other women received official title such as “Head of the Synagogue,” “Leader,” “venerable woman,” and “Mother of the Synagogue.” Such practices reflect a certain level of respect afforded women in these ancient communities.[6] In medieval Cairo, Egypt, many educated women were active in the religious community. Females took the role of caretaker in synagogues, performing such tasks as caring for the mikvah, or ritual bath. Other women donated Torah scrolls, books, and other necessary materials to area synagogues.[7]

Jewish Europe in the Middle Ages reflected common practices of that generation, that men ruled over women and most male-female interaction was discouraged. Accordingly, women were generally separated from the male-dominated religious community and prevented from taking an active role in public Jewish ritual life. However, Worms, Germany did maintain a women’s synagogue in a room next to the men’s, mainly comprised of and conducted by the learned wives and daughters of rabbis. During this time period, women translated religious and prayer literature as well as wrote tehinot, prayer literature written in the vernacular. Some women served as firzogerin[8] during synagogue prayers, telling women what to say and when to sit or stand. This particular practice disappeared, however, with the reorganization of the synagogue that stemmed from the Enlightenment.[9] Women began attending synagogue regularly in the fifteenth century, and so influenced communities to build their synagogues with women in mind, constructing sections especially for the women.[10] Women maintained a secondary position in synagogue and ritual life for many decades, and many Orthodox women continue to do so.

            However, the onset of the feminist movement in the Western world fueled a desire in many Jewish women for a more significant role in the synagogue.[11] In the more radical Jewish movements, this desire eventually translated into the ordination of women into the Reform rabbinate and the 1973 Conservative decision to count women in the minyan.[12] Wishing to maintain the integrity of halacha, some members of the Orthodox community sought to fill this need in the form of women’s prayer groups. Although those members found a basis for such services within the context of Jewish law, many others rejected the practice of women’s Torah reading on the bases of social propriety and customs. In 1984, five rabbis from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) famously came out against the establishment of these women’s services. Called the Riets Five Responsum, the issued statement forbade women’s dancing with the Torah scroll, Torah services, and Megillah readings on the grounds of three arguments: (1) The rabbis felt such actions created a falsification of the Torah by creating a false minyan, (2) Such establishments violated tradition, and (3) These actions were perceived as a result of the feminist movement, whose goal was thought to be promiscuity. Each of these reasons stems from social concerns, however, not issues of Jewish law. When asked for an opinion regarding women’s Torah readings, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein stated that in theory it might be permissible for women to read Torah publicly. However, he held that those women must be exceptionally righteous women, and it is essentially impossible to find such women.[13] In 1988, Orthodox New Yorker Rivka Haut organized a women’s prayer group at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Their women’s Torah reading spurred ultra-Orthodox anger and violence, an extremist reflection of the widespread negative sentiment towards women’s Torah reading.[14]

As these prayer groups have become more accepted in many circles, some Orthodox Jews have begun to institute a seemingly more radical solution to women’s secondary status, the Orthodox egalitarian minyan. Examples of this synagogue style include Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, the D.C. Minyan in Washington, D.C., and Darchei Noam in New York City. A Guide for the “Halachic Minyan” which outlines the practices of Orthodox egalitarian minyanim begins with the explanation that “despite our departure from traditional practice to include women, we may only innovate as far as the Halachah, as recorded in the writings of traditional decisors, permits.”[15] It is important to clarify the essential halachic issues that arise with the question of women’s participation in public Torah reading.

First one must define a woman’s obligation to read Torah in relation to the obligation of a man. The eighth mishna of the third chapter of Masechet Rosh Hashana states, “A deaf-mute, fool, and a minor cannot fulfill the obligation of the many. This is the rule—all who are not obligated in something cannot fulfill the obligation for others.”[16] The following Jewish legal concept is derived from this mishna: one person can fulfill a commandment on behalf of another person or group of people only on the condition that the person serving as the shaliach[17] has an obligation to fulfill the commandment that is equal to, or greater than, the obligation upon those for whom the person is fulfilling the commandment. Thus, for a woman to read Torah on behalf of the congregation, she would need to have at least the level of obligation equivalent to that of the other, male members of the congregation. In addition, a man is obligated by Jewish law to study Torah and to teach it to his children, a commandment learned directly from the Bible, “and you shall teach them to your sons to speak about them.”[18] Twelfth century scholar and philosopher Maimonides states that “women, slaves, and minors are exempt from Torah study; but a minor, his father is obligated to teach him.”[19] Based upon these halachic principles, many contend that because a man is obligated to learn Torah and a woman is not bound to do so, a woman cannot read the Torah on behalf of the congregation. However, this logic is based on a significant assumption: that the obligation to hold a public Torah reading is the same as the obligation upon each man to study Torah.

In fact, thirteenth century scholar Nahmanides explains that the obligation to hold a public Torah reading is a communal obligation rather than a personal one. That is to say, ten men are obligated to provide a Torah reading service, but no single one of them is obligated to hear the reading of the Torah.[20] Rabbi Menachem Meiri, a thirteenth century scholar, states that even a minor may read from the Torah scroll for the community. He believes that one’s obligation to read the Torah publicly is not one that falls under the halachic concept explained previously, that a person of lesser obligation cannot perform a commandment on behalf of a person with a greater obligation.[21] Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, or the Rosh, agrees with Maimonides and the Meiri. He writes that the obligation to read Torah is an obligation on the community, and that the idea of one person fulfilling a commandment for another only applies to personal obligations.[22] Modern halachic authority Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef follows the previous opinions. He holds that women may be called up to read the Torah because the obligation is communal; if the Torah is read and understood by the minyan, the obligation to read Torah has been fulfilled.[23] There seems to be no distinction between the personal obligations upon men and women to read Torah publicly; the obligation rests upon neither individual, but rather upon a prayer quorum.

A second potential halachic problem with women reading Torah publicly is an issue of modesty. Rabbinic legal literature outlines a prohibition upon men against listening to the voice of a woman, called kol isha. The Rosh states that the voice of a woman is considered ervah, or a form of nakedness.[24] The Babylonian Talmud on Tractate Sotah says that “If men sing and women answer, this is lewd. If women sing and men answer, lust burns like burning chips of flax…If one cannot stop both he should prevent the latter.”[25] The legal authorities imply that while it is highly improper for women to answer the singing of men, it is worse for men to answer the singing of women. The Shulchan Aruch lists the prohibition against listening to a woman’s voice as a commandment to be observed. However, a distinction is drawn between a woman’s speaking voice and her singing voice; he writes that former is permissible but the latter is forbidden.[26] Perhaps surprisingly, the prohibition of kol isha does not appear to play a role in any of the halachic discussions regarding the issue of women reading Torah. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef does not list this prohibition as a factor in the evaluation of this practice. In his role as a contemporary halachic authority, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef must take into account all of the opinions of earlier scholars in addition to the basic legal texts. Since he includes nothing regarding the concept of kol isha, it seems that no authorities before him perceived it to be a central issue. One can also support this claim from the legal discussions regarding women’s public reading of the Megillah, during which the issue of kol isha is suggested. The scholars who deal with this issue seem to consider it irrelevant; a woman’s voice reading Torah or Megillah is not halachically similar to her singing voice.[27]

A third, logistical, issue arises as well. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately, divided by a physical barrier. Is it permissible for women to enter the men’s section for the purpose of reading from a Torah scroll for the congregation? The question can be addressed by the answer to a different question once posed to authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein regarding the necessity for a partition in a synagogue with only one or two women. In his responsum, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein refers to a previous work in which he proved that no partition is necessary to separate only a few women in a group of men. If one or two women come only on occasion then it is permissible for her/them to pray in the same area as the men without a partition. This answer is based upon a statement in the Shulchan Aruch, as well as the opinions of many earlier Jewish legal authorities like Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaky (RaSHi) and Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (Rosh). The presence of one or two women in the men’s section for the purpose of reading from the Torah does not appear to pose any insurmountable problem.[28]

Though most perceived halachic issues with women’s public Torah reading have been suggested by various scholars and invalidated by various others, the one that seems most difficult to disregard is the concern for kavod hatzibur, the dignity of the congregation. In a discussion of the seven readers required for the public reading of the Torah on the Sabbath, the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Megillah states: “All count towards the seven, even a minor and even a woman. But the sages said, a woman should not read the Torah due to the dignity of the congregation.”[29] This text implies that a woman might, indeed, be permitted to read the Torah publicly according to Jewish law. However, the statement of the sages erases that possibility with the prohibition of the practice with a vague explanation, the issue of the dignity of the congregation.

To clarify the terms of this concept, one must understand kavod hatzibur in terms of its application in other contexts of Jewish law. Maimonides refers to the issue of kavod hatzibur in two different areas of Jewish law. In his code of laws of prayer services, he writes that “someone who does not have a full beard should not be the shaliach tzibur[30]; even if he is very wise he cannot be a shaliach tzibur because of the honor of the congregation.”[31] Regarding the laws of the public reading of Megillat Esther on the holiday of Purim, Maimonides says “one does not read for the congregation sitting down, ideally, because of the honor of the congregation.”[32] The examples brought by Maimonides do not help one determine a specific category or circumstance for the application of the concept of kavod hatzibur. Thirteenth century scholar Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli, the Ritva, discusses the issue of kavod hatzibur in his commentary on Masechet Megillah. He asserts that, like men, women are obligated in the commandment to listen to the reading of the Megillah. Though the statement of similar obligation seems to imply the capacity of a woman to fulfill a man’s obligation to hear the Megillah, the Ritva states that a woman should not read the Megillah for the congregation because of kavod hatzibur.[33] Each of the sources that cite kavod hatzibur as an issue concern a situation relating to appearance and public worship. The Ritva explains as well the concept of kavod hatzibur as the concern for a congregation’s reputed level of religious knowledge and training. If a woman were to read the Torah on behalf of a congregation, others might conclude that none of the men in the community are capable of reading; such an impression would reflect poorly on the status of a community.[34]

A variation of the statement in the Babylonian Talmud exists in the Tosefta on Megillah: “All may be included among the seven, even a woman, even a minor; we do not bring a woman to read to the public.”[35] Though this statement does not suggest the problem of kavod hatzibur, its formulation echoes the previously cited source. The first half states that a woman may count as one of the seven readers, the second half simply rejects the idea of public Torah reading by women without providing an explanation. Another scholar of the thirteenth century, Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, interprets the statement literally, to mean that a congregation cannot bring in a woman from the outside to read Torah in the case that no men are able to do so. A woman may, however, be included in the seven readers if males are reading for the congregation as well.[36] This idea fits with the statement of the Talmud that forbade Torah reading by women on the grounds of kavod hatzibur. Based on the interpretation of the Ritva, that a woman reading Torah would indicate a lack of capable males, the presence of male readers would avoid the issue of kavod hatzibur by proving the existence of capable males. Rabbi Isaiah di Trani restricts the interpretation of his contemporary, Rabbi Isaac ben Moses, to the case where there are exactly seven readers, the Sabbath Torah reading.[37] Many scholars argue that while, in theory, public Torah reading by a woman is permissible, in practice it is unacceptable on the basis of the nebulous halachic principle of kavod hatzibur.

However, a different interpretation of the concept defines the concern for kavod hatzibur as sensitivity to the customs and practices of individual communities. In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo writes that “All may be part of the seven, even a woman and a minor who understands to whom he is saying the blessing; but the sages said that a woman cannot read in public because of the honor of the congregation.”[38] Modern halachic authority Rabbi Ben Zion Abba Shaul presents the example of a woman called up to read the Torah in a congregation comprised of her children and grandchildren, arguing that there is no issue of kavod hatzibur in such a situation. In theory, at least, the existence of the issue of kavod hatzibur may depend on the particular congregation. Though he cautions that the issue must be studied further before widespread application, his commentary presents a new perspective for deliberation.[39]

Modern Jewish and secular legal authority Rabbi Mendel Shapiro seeks to resolve the problem of kavod hatzibur to find permission for Orthodox egalitarian minyanim within the bounds of halacha. Assuming a stricter interpretation of the issue of kavod hatzibur, that it must be considered in all situations, he questions whether it is halachically permissible for a congregation to waive that kavod. He quotes the opinion of seventeenth century scholar the Bah, Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, who holds that kavod hatzibur in fact means kavod shamayim, the honor of heaven, or God. The Rabbis of the Talmud deemed it inappropriate for a woman to represent the community before God because, in that time, they would have deemed it inappropriate for a woman to represent the community before a king of flesh and blood. Such were the standards of society in that time period. Though this statement is used by many halachic authorities as proof for the compulsory nature of kavod hatzibur, Shapiro argues that the reasoning of the Bah is based upon a cultural norm that no longer exists; women in today’s world have as much education, status, and command as much respect as many men. He refers back to the statement of Maimonides that opposes young male prayer leaders due to the issue of kavod hatzibur, a practice that has since been rejected by many congregations. Since the issue of kavod hatzibur no longer applies to the latter case, perhaps the principle can be rejected for the former one.[40]

Modern scholar Dr. Daniel Sperber raises an alternative approach to the halachic analysis of the practice of public Torah reading by women. He begins his argument by quoting a passage of Gemara on Masechet Brachot: “It was taught: words of the Torah cannot contract tum’ah[41].”[42] Maimonides rules according to this statement that “all who are impure, even menstruating women and gentiles, are permitted to hold a Torah scroll and read from it, for words of Torah cannot be rendered impure.”[43] Sephardic Rabbi Yosef Karo echoes Maimonides in his discussion of this topic in the Shulchan Aruch, stating that “all who are impure, even menstruating women, are permitted to hold a Torah scroll and read from it.”[44] Rabbi Moses Isserles, the Ashkenazic commentator on the Shulchan Aruch, restates Karo’s ruling, but notes the following: “some have said a menstruating woman…should not enter a synagogue, pray, mention God’s name, or touch a scroll…the custom of these lands is in accordance with [this] opinion.” Although his opinion follows that of the Shulchan Aruch, Isserles provides much insight into the common practice of restricting menstruating women from participating in communal religious ritual, countering the law as stated by Maimonides, Rabbi Yosef Karo, and Rabbi Moses Isserles. However, Isserles adds that “even where a stringent practice is followed, they [the menstruants] are permitted to attend just as other women on the High Holidays, and on other occasions when many gather in the synagogue, for it would cause them great sorrow to remain outside while everyone else assembles.”[45]

Sperber uses this inconsistency between law and practice to outline a situation of competing principles in Jewish law. The leniency of permitting menstruating women to participate under certain circumstances expressed by Isserles is based on a piece of Gemara on Tractate Hagigah that discusses the laws of women bringing sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. Tanna Rabbi Jose is quoted: “Abba Eliezer told me the following: Once we had a calf to be offered as a shelamim sacrifice and we brought it to the women’s court and women laid their hands on it. Not because laying of hands applies to women, but to allow the women to feel pleased.”[46] This practice implies the halachic permissibility of an action that is typically forbidden on the basis of preventing offense to the women. A passage of Gemara on Masechet Brachot states that “great is human dignity, which supplants a negative commandment in the Torah.”[47] This piece outright states that halacha is, in fact, lenient regarding an issue of human dignity, or kavod habriyot. Sixteenth century scholar Rabbi Yosef ben Lev and twentieth century scholar Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook relate the principle of kavod habriyot to other situations in which women might be offended, using it to effectively override the negative commandment in question. Sperber lists numerous cases in Jewish legal literature for which kavod habriyot overrides common practice and argues that the issue of women and reading Torah is no different.

Many women have a sincere desire, a yearning, to take an active and spiritual role in the life of the community and its pursuits, and excluding them from the synagogue or from involvement in worship ceremonies is a cause of great distress…It thus seems clear that kevod ha-beriyot, individual dignity, must overcome kevod ha-tsibur, particularly when the concept of kevod ha-tsibur does not really pertain as it might have in ancient and medieval times.[48]


The establishment of Orthodox egalitarian congregations as a response to the need of women for fuller participation in the religious community has aroused significant and heated discussion among contemporary halachic authorities. The controversy of women’s involvement in religious rituals, particularly in the reading of the Torah, stems from a combination of historical and societal factors and varying interpretations of Jewish law. According to the extensive argument of Rabbi Menachem Shapiro, the issue with women reading Torah publicly is not necessarily a halachic one. “The explanation [of this opposition] lies not in halakhah per se, but in an ingrained conservatism, naturally suspicious of change, which is heightened by the perception of being under siege from a dynamic, attractive, and sometimes unsavory general culture.”[49] Instead, he feels the opposition to the practice stems from a need to cling to traditions and customs. To Daniel Sperber, however, the question of kavod hatzibur seems irrelevant. According to his reasoning, even if the issue is a halachic one, the principle of kavod habriyot takes precedence.




Works Cited:


Adler, Cyrus. "Minyan." Jewish Encyclopedia. The Kopelman Foundation. 16 Nov 2008 <>.


Babylonian Talmud. Schottenstein Edition, English Edition (ed. Rabbi Yisrael Simcha Schorr)


Bar-Asher Siegal, Elitzur A. and Michal. "Guide for the "Halachic Minyan". 9 Nov 2008


Chesler, Phyllis and Rivka Haut. "Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism." Jewish Lights 2003 22 Nov 2008 <>.


Ellinson, Getzel. Ha-Ishah VeHa-Mitsvot. Jerusalem: 1934.


Grossman, Susan, and Rivka Haut. Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue. New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1992.


Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. Mishneh Torah


Rabbi Yosef Karo. Shulchan Aruch


Shapiro, Mendel. "Qeri'at ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis." The Edah Journal 1:22001 1-52. 9 Nov 2008 <>.


Sperber, Daniel. "Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading." Edah Journal 3:2(2002) 23 Nov 2008 <>.


Sperber, Daniel. Darkah Shel Halacha: Kriyat Nashim B'Torah. Israel: Massa, 2007.


The Tanach

[1] Babylonian Talmud. Tractate Megillah 23b

[2] “Minyan”

[3] in accordance with Jewish law

[4] Grossman, Haut 24

[5] Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 7:67

[6] Grossman, Haut 41

[7] Grossman, Haut 54

[8] foresayers

[9] Grossman, Haut 64-67

[10] The Story of The Synagogue as cited by Sperber 198

[11] Grossman, Haut 139-140

[12] Grossman, Haut 172

[13] Grossman, Haut 146-147

[14] Chesler, Haut

[15] Bar-Asher Siegal and Bar-Asher Siegal 6

[16] Mishna. Tractate Rosh Hashana 3:8

[17] messenger

[18] Deuteronomy 11:19

[19] Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:1

[20] Rabbi Moses ben Nahman. Milhamot Hashem as cited by Shapiro 5

[21] Rabbi Menachem Meiri. Beit HaBehira on Masechet Megilla 24 as cited by Shapiro 6

[22] Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel. Rosh on Masechet Brachot, Chapter Seven 20 as cited by Shapiro 6

[23] Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. She’elot U’Teshuvot as cited by Shapiro 7

[24] Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel. Piskei HaRosh on Brachot 3:37 as cited by Ellinson 123

[25] Babylonian Talmud. Tractate Sotah 48a (trans. from

[26] Rabbi Yosef Karo. Shulchan Aruch: Even HaEzer 21:1 as cited by Ellinson 123

[27] Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. She’elot U’Teshuvot as cited by Shapiro 41

[28] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Igrot Moshe: Orah Hayyim Part Five 12 as cited by Shapiro 42

[29] Babylonian Talmud. Masechet Megillah 23a (trans. from Schottenstein Daf Yomi Edition, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

[30] (lit. messenger for the congregation) prayer leader

[31] Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Tefillah 8:11

[32] Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Megillah 2:7

[33] Ritva. Chidushei HaRitva on Masechet Megillah 4 as cited by Shapiro 24

[34] Shapiro 24-25

[35] Tosefta. Masechet Megillah 3:11 as cited by Shapiro 18

[36] Or Zarua I, 1982 as cited by Shapiro 19

[37] Rabbi Isaiah di Trani. Piskei HaRid on Masechet Megillah 267 as cited by Shapiro 19

[38] Rabbi Yosef Karo Shulchan Aruch: Orah Hayyim 282:3

[39] Rabbi Ben Zion Abba-Shaul, Sefer Or le-Tsion, Teshuvot II, Hilkhot Pesuqot—Orah Hayyim I  (Jerusalem 5753), p. 86 as cited by Shapiro 26

[40] Shapiro 26

[41] ritual impurity

[42] Babylonian Talmud. Masechet Brachot 22a. (trans. from Schottenstein Daf Yomi Edition, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

[43] Rabbi Moses ben Maimon Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Kriyat Shema 4:8 as cited by Sperber

[44] Rabbi Yosef Karo Shulchan Aruch: Yoreh Deah 282:9 as cited by Sperber

[45] Rabbi Moses Isserles Haggahot Maimuniyyot 4 as cited by Sperber

[46] Babylonian Talmud. Masechet Hagigah 16b as cited by Sperber

[47] Babylonian Talmud. Masechet Brachot 19b as cited by Sperber

[48] Sperber

[49] Shapiro 42