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This article seeks to cast light on a halakhic responsum of Rabbi Joseph Messas, one of the great halakhic authorities of the twentieth century in North Africa. The responsum deals with the questions of whether a barrier between men and women in the synagogue is necessary, and of whether women may be "called up" to the Torah. It offers a new understanding of the concept of "the dignity of the congregation" as well as fascinating accounts of Jewish women being called to the Torah, wearing the attire of Muslim women. Through analysis of this responsum, I shall map out various views and understandings of "the dignity of the congregation" and look at R. Messas's position through the prism of contemporary gender research.
I wish herein to examine a halakhic responsum that considers the development of the prohibition against women's participation in the public Torah reading in the synagogue and suggests that the concept of "the dignity of the congregation," the rationale usually cited for not giving women aliyyot to the Torah, has masked the true reason for this prohibition. At the same time, I will attempt, by focusing on the subject of aliyyot for women to the Torah, to map the diverse positions that have been taken regarding kevod hatzibbur, "the dignity of the congregation." (1)
Kevod hatzibbur is invoked in connection with six prohibitions cited in the Talmud: against reading publicly from a humash (i.e., a scroll containing only one part of the Pentateuch; BT Gittin 60a); against a kohen ascending the platform to bless the congregation with his shoes on (BT Sotah 40a); against the Torah being read in public by a minor dressed in ragged clothes (BT Megillah 24b); against rolling a Torah scroll (to the part that is to be read) in the presence of the congregation, which is thereby subjected to the inconvenience of waiting (BT Yoma 70a); against the prayer leader removing the cover from the ark (BT Sotah 39b); and against women and minors being called up to the Torah, a practice permitted in the Tosefta but prohibited by the Talmud (BT Megillah 23a).
The nature and meaning of this concept of "public dignity" or "the dignity of the congregation" have drawn the attention of academic (2) and rabbinic (3) writers alike. The issue, moreover, is inextricably tied to the contemporary (and ideological) halakhic examination of the place of women in the synagogue and in Jewish society generally. (4)
I do not presume here to enter into the historical debate regarding the Talmud's understanding of the term kevod hatzibbur; I will not investigate the transformations in the usage of the term from the time of the Talmud through the early and late middle ages and into modernity; (5) and I do not intend to enter into the contemporary debate over halakhic practice. My purpose here is to add an additional layer to the analysis through a new reading of a largely overlooked (6) ruling by one of the greatest North African sages of the twentieth century, Rabbi Joseph Messas. His ruling, I believe, affords us a novel perspective on the concept of "the dignity of the congregation."
Discourse regarding the invocation of kevod hatzibbur with reference to the prohibition against women being called to the Torah has been of two sorts. First, the term has been understood to express the sexual tension involved in women being called up in the presence of men. That is the rubric under which Rabbis David Novak and Moshe Meiselman (7) wrote about the issue, and Rabbis Mendel Shapiro, David Golinkin, Yehuda Herzl Henkin and others have noted this point as well.8 The scope of the sexual concern regarding a woman being seen and/or heard by an audience of men has been analyzed by several halakhic decisors, some seeing it as pertaining only to singing by women, while others regard it as encompassing speech as well. In a responsum on the prohibition against a woman lecturing in public before men, Rabbi Samuel Halevi Wosner describes the harm in hearing a woman's voice:
And even to hear the voice of [a woman] or to see her hair is forbidden, implying [that this is so] even if it is not the voice of singing ... and haga'on [the author of] Be'er Sheva [R. Yissachar Dov Eilenberg, 1570?-1623] has spoken out regarding this at the end of his book Responsa Be'er mayim fayyim, [section]3, and see also Sefer Hatam sofer [by R. Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839] on this. They inferred this from the [rabbinic] statement that a woman's voice [is nakedness], that a part of the voice arouses desire, and that is because it is written [Song of Songs 2:14] "Let me hear your voice ..." See Berakhot 25a. (9)
Rachel Biale has questioned this interpretation of what is meant by "the dignity of the congregation." (10) She argues that the sages never hid behind such vague terminology when dealing with matters involving sexual tension, for which they used such terms as "the evil impulse" (yetzer hara), "licentiousness" (peritzut), or "nakedness" ('ervah). (11)
The second line of interpretation takes "the dignity of the congregation" as a concept that may be understood, I believe, under the rubric of Michel Foucault's discussion of "fields of force." (12) Seen in this light, the term is a code name for a process concerned with maintaining male hegemony within society and denying power to women. Extending to women the opportunity to be called to the Torah and read from it blurs the line between the male and female force fields. Thus, Novak maintains that invoking "the dignity of the congregation" means that "the matter affronts the sensibilities of the congregation of the worthy; and they particularly forbade something that, God forbid, would demean the Torah in their eyes, that is, something that departs from the way of their world." (13) In a similar vein, Sanders Tofield sees in women's wish to be called to the Torah a "non-communal interest" (what we might nowadays call a "special interest") that opposes "public policy" (i.e., the masculine policy), as it might lead men to abandon their knowledge of Hebrew; (14) that is, if men were to rely on women to read from the Torah, their own expertise (and a source of masculine power) might be lost. Shapiro, Golinkin and Sperber, who favor allowing women to be called up, tend toward this second line of interpretation in analyzing the sources mustered in support of their positions. (15)
This second category of exegetical discourse expands the argument considered in Alick Isaacs's study, which describes the ontological dislocation associated with feminine involvement in Torah reading. (16) Isaacs maintains that violation of "the dignity of the congregation" expresses the immanent, ontological disturbance caused by the involvement of a minor, a woman, an incapacitated person or any other "non-masculine figure" in the ritual of public Torah reading. His argument is based on the implicit premise of the Talmud and the Rishonim (the medieval decisors of Jewish law) (17) that reading from a Torah scroll must express the masculine activity of a "standard" community of males; only such a community, in the eyes of the Rishonim, can draw "divine force" down into the lower realms. (18) The term "dignity of the congregation" thus is always connected to the situation of the Torah scroll. (19) Any impairment or defect that arises in this regard harms the ritual and its purposes. This is connected, moreover, with the personification of the Torah scroll, in the talmudic literature and, more intensely, within early Ashkenazi Jewry, and to the correlation made between the standard "masculine" status of the worshipping community, holding a Torah scroll, and the presence therein of the "divine glory" (hakavod ha'elohi; note that kavod, "glory," is the same word as that rendered "dignity" in kevod hatzibbur). (20)
Noteworthy in this regard is the distinction between the Ashkenazi and the Sefardi halakhic traditions. According to Isaacs, Sefardi Jews did not personify the Torah, and they regarded the ritual of Torah reading not as a means to bring divine "glory" down into the congregation but as an act of Torah study. (21) Maimonides therefore permits reading the Torah from a humash. (22) In his view, "the dignity of the congregation" is invoked with reference to women being called to the Torah (23) so as to clarify the basis for a prohibition that is only weakly grounded. Calling women to the Torah was sensed to be somehow improper, not fitting from a cultural point of view, and "the dignity of the congregation" was used to bolster that inchoate sense, providing an explanation for why women could not be counted among the seven called to the Torah, even though the Talmud, in principle, permits it. (24)
In sum: Invoking "the dignity of the congregation" to prevent women being called to the Torah can be understood as expressing masculine discomfort, either with the sexual tension said to be involved, or with the associated loss of social power. In the context of the first interpretation, those wishing to permit women to be called to the Torah will argue, of course, that views of what constitutes a socially unacceptable level of sexual tension have changed a good deal. In the context of the second, it may be argued that given the contemporary rearrangement of social force fields, the congregation may waive its dignity--especially when the alternative is to humiliate women, (25) and all the more so when the congregation as a whole is not conflicted over the matter. Ideas such as these can be found in the discussions of Shapiro, Sperber, Golinkin (26) and Tamar Ross. (27) A powerful statement of the humiliation and conflicts that are …