A Brief Note about “Women’s Only Torah Reading” on Simchat Torah
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America.
Modern Orthodox synagogues, like others, actively seek the participation of both men and women in synagogue life. A “women’s only Torah reading” on Simchat Torah is an issue that has surfaced within this context; I write to address this issue and express my view.
I should also note that the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was the founding rabbi for 14 years (retired in 2008), and where I am currently a member had such a “women’s only Torah reading” (without any brachot), for the first time this Simchat Torah 5773. I was not involved in the decision to have such a Torah reading, and do not favor such Torah readings. I write not to engage in a polemic or dispute regarding this particular synagogue’s decision – only the current rabbi decides matters of halacha for any synagogue and individuals with questions about this Torah reading should discuss any issues they have with him – but I write to clarify my view, lest anyone be confused about what is my opinion.
My own view is that a women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah (without brachot), like women’s tefillah groups generally, are unwise and halachically improper, although not a technical violation of halacha. I have two reasons for this position – the first is a halachic approach and the second a sociological one grounded in halachic values.
As an initial matter, let me note that I do very much understand the desire to promote women’s active participation in Orthodox synagogue life within the bounds of halacha, and I support that broad goal, but for the reasons outlined below I do not see the “women’s only Torah reading” on Simchat Torah as a way to achieve this.
As to the substance of my view: I favor increasing women’s participation in Orthodox life and in the synagogue through increased participation in Torah study and other mitzvah-centered activity. As a general rule, I believe that women should be supported and encouraged to do genuine mitzvot, and not directed to activity that only has the superficial appearance of a mitzvah. The halachic defense of women’s torah reading (without brachot) is exactly that it is not a proper Torah reading at all (because no minyan is present, women are reading, etc.), and thus I think it an unwise idea because it focuses women away from the central purpose of religious conduct – the performance of mitzvot. Although I do not feel such conduct is assur in the technical sense of the word, I think it is imprudent and unwise, since it is conducted in a way that is designed to mimic the mitzvah of Torah reading in the synagogue, without fulfilling that obligation at all. Women are better served as a matter of halacha attending a regular Torah reading and not merely mimicking a mitzvah. This is in contrast with a women’s megillah reading where a woman who attends such a reading fulfills her obligation to hear megillah.
Based on this analysis, when I was the rabbi at YITH, I instituted a women’s megillah reading because this is a mitzvah in which women are obligated and which they can fulfill for themselves. There are many such examples where the conduct is a mitzvah, and we ought to encourage women (and men) to do mitzvot. Indeed, I think that our job is to encourage people to do mitzvot in which they are obligated and mitzvot that they get reward for doing. I do not believe it is wise or prudent to encourage untraditional ritualistic performance of what appears to be a Torah reading, but actually is without any halachic quality.
My second reason to oppose this practice is more sociological, but grounded in halachic ideas of community, and no less important. Women’s halachic matters can be very divisive even within Modern Orthodoxy, and all of us favor less divisiveness. That does not mean, however, that good ideas should be dismissed simply because they might make some people uncomfortable. And so we are faced with the question of where to draw the line; when should we be comfortable with diversity, even when we know it might become divisive? My answer to that question is also mitzvah focused, because I believe that halacha provides such a line. Simply put, we need to encourage men and women to do mitzvot and if others find this divisive, that is sad, but a price we ought to be willing to pay for more mitzvah fulfillment, because we vitally need to encourage people to fulfill mitzvot, even if others object to this conduct. However, absent a mitzvah component, I am more leery of implementing ritual conduct that might be divisive and is untraditional.
Simply put, new rituals, especially those that are closely connected to halachic issues, can be difficult and divisive. It is particularly important for an inclusive and broadly-based halachic institution to recognize the diversity of thinking and feelings on such new departures; hewing closely to the traditional halachic norms while weighing new approaches has always been a good approach. This is not to say that we should never consider new approaches that are not technically prohibited, but we should weigh them carefully, and certainly within any synagogue consider carefully the impact of such decisions as creating diversity. My own viewpoint as noted above is to focus new departures on the performance of mitzvot. If we are going to divide our community, I want to do so over matters of halacha, and generally oppose engaging in divisiveness absent a genuine heightened mitzvah component. Since all concede that a women’s Torah reading does not fulfill the mitzvah of Torah reading (that is why brachot are not recited) I favor heightened unity over increased diversity with respect to this matter.
I do understand that many women find these Torah reading groups to be a meaningful experience and it is not my intent to cast aspersions on anyone’s motivations or to distance women or men from Judaism, but I think that it is very unwise to craft any Torah reading rituals from a Torah scroll that are not a mitzvah.
Others are entitled to disagree with my view, of course, but I end by repeating that which I hold proper. I think women’s Torah readings (without brachot) are unwise and improper, although not assur as a matter of technical halacha, because they inappropriately mimic a mitzvah, while not fulfilling any Torah reading mitzvah, and they might create communal divisiveness without any increased mitzvah performance.
I welcome conversation and dialogue with others concerning my views and the best path for the Orthodox community.
 See here for a widely shared report on this and a recent column by a YITH member here.
 Let me give you an incomplete analogy. A bar mitzvah boy is scheduled to read Torah for his bar mitzvah celebration on a specific Shabbat, and like many such young men, that is the only parsha he knows. It snows terribly on that Shabbat, and he cannot walk to shul due to the extremely dangerous snow. His bar mitzvah party is scheduled for the next day — should we let him take out the Torah and read it on Sunday (without brachot)? I do not think such is assur in the technical sense of the word “prohibited” (as on some technical level, anyone can read from a torah whenever they wish) but I think such conduct is extremely unwise and halachically imprudent and should not be done in an Orthodox synagogue. Women’s torah reading without a bracha is like such a case.
 I will shortly be publishing an article on women wearing a tallit that will flesh out some of these ideas more.