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.