Category: Jewish Law / Halakha

Calling a Blind Person to the Torah and its Implications for Women’s Aliyot

This past Shabbat I was asked a straightforward question: Can a blind person be called up to the Torah to receive an aliyah? On the spur of the moment – the Torah reading was well underway and I was functioning as gabbai sheni and did not have the time to double check. On the spur of the moment, I said, “no” based on what I remembered.1 At the very least I had enough of a reason assume safek berachot an instance where it is doubtful that a blessing should be said, in which case the default would be to refrain from saying the blessing.

When I had a chance to look into the matter, I found that my decision was in line with Shulhan Aruch O.C. 139:3:

סומא אינו קורא, לפי שאסור לקרות אפי’ אות אחת שלא מן הכתב

A blind person cannot read [from the Torah] for it is forbidden to read even one letter [of the Torah] not from the written scroll itself.

The immediate question which ought to come to mind is what does reading from the Torah have to do with getting called up for an aliyah? To answer very briefly, the initial custom, sustained for generations and still kept in some communities to this day, is that whoever was called up to the Torah was responsible for reading that portion.

In his gloss to the Shulhan Aruch, Mishna Berurah O.C. 139:12 provides a practical dispensation for permitting a blind person to receive an aliyah:

דכיון שאנו נוהגין שהש”ץ קורא והוא קורא מתוך הכתב שוב לא קפדינן על העולה דשומע כעונה

Since our practice is that the agent of the congregation [i.e. a designated reader] is the one who performs the reading and does so from the text [of the Torah scroll], we are not strict on the one who is called up to the Torah, for when one listens it is as if he has said it himself.

Thus according to Mishna Berurah, a blind person is permitted to receive an aliyah because our custom of Torah reading has changed. Since the one receiving the aliyah usually does not perform the actual reading, we need not be concerned with a blind person reading by heart.

It occurred to me that this rationale employed by Mishna Berurah (and ostensibly others) has fascinating implications for women’s aliyot.2 The Talmud in B. Megillah 23a explains why women are excluded from being called up to the Torah

הכל עולין למנין שבעה, ואפילו קטן ואפילו אשה. אבל אמרו חכמים: אשה לא תקרא בתורה, מפני כבוד צבור.

Everyone [is eligible] to go up in the quorum of seven [i.e. to read from the Torah] even a minor and even a woman. However, the sages say that a woman should not read from the Torah due to the honor of the congregation. [Emphasis mine]

From my own experience, I have found the topic of women receiving aliyot is most often framed in the context of (re)defining “honor of the congregation.” However, I would like to suggest that according to the logic employed by Mishna Berurah, the question of “honor of the congregation” is irrelevant. The Talmud only states that a woman reading from the Torah is an affront to the honor of the congregation, however, as noted above, the person receiving the aliyah does not actually read from the Torah.

To put it concisely: I suggest that if one permits a blind person to read from the Torah on the grounds cited by Mishnah Berurah, then there ought to be no halakhic objection to women being called up to the Torah. According to the position of Mishna Berurah, the Talmudic restriction would not apply, thus any opposition to women receiving aliyot would be based not on halakhic/Talmudic problems inherent to the action, but rather for more subjective social or political reasons.3

Comments welcome below.

1. I should point out that the individual in question had not yet been called up to the Torah. Otherwise, there would be another consideration of publicly embarrassing the individual.
2. I have not seen this analogy made, but admittedly I have not looked very hard. If anyone knows of another source which makes a similar argument, please let me know so that I may give proper credit.
3. Not to say that these reasons are irrelevant or ought to be disregarded, but it is my opinion that halakha and pesak should be presented as honestly as possible.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 1: Free Market Ethics in Torah

Rabbi Josh Yuter begins his special lecture series on Economics and Social Justice in Judaism with an introduction to methodology and a demonstration of a free market ethos existing within the Rabbinic legal tradition. Audio and sources included.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 1 – Free Market Ethics Sources (PDF)

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law- Free Market Ethics in Judaism

Episode 17 – Politics of Exclusion: Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim

In this installment of Politics of Exclusion Rabbi Yuter offers a general overview of the dispute between Hasidim and the Mitnagdim, focusing on the dynamics of the dispute with modern parallels.

Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim Sources (PDF)

Episode 17 – Politics of Exclusion: Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim

Episode 14 – Politics of Exclusion: Rambam on Leadership by Fear, Repentance

Part of Rabbi Yuter’s Politics of Exclusion in Judaism Series, this class concludes Chapter 3 of Rambam’s Laws of Repentance, discussing the Leadership by Fear and the redemptive powers of repentance.

Politics of Exclusion – Rambam, Leadership by Fear, Conclusion & Repentance

Episode 12 – Mesira / Informers in Jewish Law

In this special class Rabbi Yuter discusses the parameters of Mesirah – Jews informing on other Jews to secular authorities, focusing on Talmudic sources.

Mesirah Sources (PDF)

Episode 12 – Mesirah / Informers in Jewish Law

Episode 11 – Politics of Exclusion in Judaism: Rambam and Separating from the Community

Part of his Politics of Exclusion Series, Rabbi Yuter discusses Rambam’s view of Poreish Min Hatzibur – Separating oneself from the community.

Episode 11 – Politics of Exclusion – Rambam and Separating From the Community

Episode 9 – Politics of Exclusion, Rambam on Tzadok and Baitus

Episode 9 – Politics of Exclusion – Rambam on Tzadok and Baitus

In this part of his Politics of Exclusion Series, Rabbi Yuter discusses Rambam’s description of the Sadducean and Baithusian sects with its implications for today.

Episode 8 – Encountering Avoda Zara

The first Tuesday of every month I lead a Beit Midrash session at the Stanton St. Shul. These topics vary from month to month, often coinciding with the Jewish or secular calendar. This month, I chose to deal with some issues of Avoda Zara due to some questions which kept coming up lately in shul.

This class is by no means comprehensive; covering this topic properly would probably take at least a year. Still the point is to raise certain issues and hopefully lead people to ask better halakhic questions.

Episode 8 – Encountering Avoda Zara

Episode 7 – Politics of Exclusion: Rambam and Rebellion

By popular request I started recording my classes. While I hope to organize and post them on the shul’s website, for now I’ll add it as one of my podcasts. I’m currently in the middle of a series called The Politics of Exclusion in Judaism where we define Who is a Jew by who doesn’t make the cut. We started months ago with Biblical Sources, followed up by Rabbinic sources, and we’re currently in the middle of going through Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva. Today’s class covered Hilkhot Teshuva 3:9, copied below for reference.

רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק ג הלכה ט
שנים הם המומרים מישראל: המומר לעבירה אחת והמומר לכל התורה כולה, מומר לעבירה אחת זה שהחזיק עצמו לעשות אותה עבירה בזדון והורגל ונתפרסם בה אפילו היתה מן הקלות כגון שהוחזק תמיד ללבוש שעטנז או להקיף פאה ונמצא כאלו בטלה מצוה זו מן העולם אצלו הרי זה מומר לאותו דבר והוא שיעשה להכעיס, מומר לכל התורה כולה כגון החוזרים לדתי העובדי כוכבים בשעה שגוזרין גזרה וידבק בהם ויאמר מה בצע לי להדבק בישראל שהם שפלים ונרדפים טוב לי שאדבק באלו שידם תקיפה, הרי זה מומר לכל התורה כולה. +/השגת הראב”ד/ לכל התורה כולה כגון החוזר לדת העובדי כוכבים. א”א ומי שחוזר לדת העובדי כוכבים הנה הוא מודה באלהיהם והרי הוא מין.+

Episode 7 – Politics of Exclusion Rambam and Rebellion

Why I Voted “No”: An Essay on Rabbinic Leadership

The opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect those of any individual or organization.


This past week the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), voted on whether or not women ought to be admitted to the organization. This was not the first time the IRF considered such a proposition. In 2008, before the advent of “Maharat” or “Rabba“, the IRF recognized that women have been functioning as religious leaders within Orthodox Judaism. In Israel women serve as “To’anot Beit Din” – advocates for women in religious courts and “Yoatzot Halakha” – halakhic consultants regarding family purity. Even without formal titles women serve as Torah educators alongside men and several synagogues employ women in some religious capacity. In fact the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), under Orthodox Union (OU), sends married couples to college campuses across the country with the expectation that the wife serves the campus Jewish community alongside her rabbinic husband. Regardless of the semantics of titles – or lack thereof – Jewish women assume professional roles similar to those performed by male rabbinic counterparts and thus should not be excluded from conversations affecting the Jewish community at large based solely on gender.

When I was first confronted with this question I supported the theoretical inclusion of women into the group, even if it meant removing “Rabbinic” adjective from the organization’s name. I even submitted to a subcommittee my own proposal defining criteria for women to be treated as rabbinic colleagues given that no comparable title existed at the time.1 And yet despite my earlier positions and after hearing passionate arguments in favor of admitting women, when the IRF finally voted on including women, I voted “no”. My decision may appear at first glance to be inconsistent, dishonest, or indicative of intimidation from opposition. On the contrary, as I will explain in this essay my principles remain intact. My position is not based on the identity politics of gender but on what I perceive to be the role and function of rabbinic leadership in Judaism.