Jewish Law- Halakha

by Natalie Bergner

Halakha literally means “to walk” or “to go” but within Jewish practice it refers to biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic law as well as customs and traditions. There are certain halakhot, such as the prohibition against worshiping idols which are fixed and observed by all Jewish denominations. Other halakhot, such as whether or not women can wear tallitot, vary in different Jewish communities because of the number of halakhic authorities who have disagreed with each other across generations and have formed their own sets of practices and legal rulings. It is this diversity of opinion in Jewish legal interpretation and practice that has brought internal conflict to the Jewish people; it is also this diversity that brings depth, complexity and beauty.

The Torah (Exodus 35:25) teaches that the wise and skilled women of the desert generation wove a cover for the ark, creating a cloth of many hues that blended into a harmonious whole. We, at Women of the Wall, view our services as a similar offering to God, utilizing all our talents, all our differing theological views, to create a united service[1].

The Western Wall stands today as a reminder of the First and Second Temple. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2) states that the Shekhinah, God’s immanent presence in the world, has never left the Western Wall. It is a holy place that should be open to all Jews and should be open to different interpretations and expressions of halakha.

But how is halakha used within Israeli society and particularly at the Western Wall? The chief rabbinate of Israel which is led by two Chief Rabbis -one Ashkenazi, one Sephardic- holds halakhic and spiritual authority over the Jewish people in Israel. The rabbinate is a part of Israel’s judicial system managed by the Ministry of Religious Services; it holds a monopoly over marriage, divorce, burials, conversion and supervision of Jewish holysites. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who was appointed by the Prime Minister’s office and by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, has been given the authority to oversee decisions at the Western Wall. Rabbi Rabinowitz has chosen to issue his rulings based on certain strict Orthodox interpretations of halakha. As such, Rabbi Rabinowitz imposes specific halakhc opinions which dictate local behavior at the Western Wall; halakhic precepts that are commonly accepted in the Orthodox community but that do not allow for women to wear tallit, sing prayers or read from the Torah among other behaviors. Because of the government’s authority, these practices are prohibited to women—but they are not prohibited by halakha. And while women are not obligated to perform such religious acts, they are not prohibited from doing so under many Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) warns that when Jews are not united, tragedy results[2]. Therefore, it is our hope that Women of the Wall can honor God in prayer at the Western Wall and transcend the differences within Judaism in a tolerant, loving and spiritual way.

[1] Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut, Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judiasm’s Holy Site, Vermont, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003., pXXI

[2] Chesler and Haut, Women of the Wall, pXX


  • Women and Torah

by Natalie Bergner

Qeri’at ha-Torah: Public Torah Reading

Women of the Wall seeks the right for women to read from the Torah at the Western Wall in the women’s section. When we first met as a women’s prayer group in 1988 opposition from surrounding Jews at the Kotel disrupted our prayers. However, the authoritative rabbi of the Western Wall at the time said that our group could continue to pray and finish our full Torah reading. Only since this initial meeting have we been banned from reading from the Torah at the Kotel.

This section will focus on the right of women to read from the Torah as part of a women’s prayer group. While there are sources that discourage or forbid women from doing so, there are also rabbinical commentators who do not prohibit the act.

The Talmud states: “Our Rabbis taught: All go up among the count of seven even a woman and even a minor; but the sages said: a woman should not read from the Torah mipnei kevod hatzibbur—out of respect for the congregation.” (Bavli Megillah 23a) This baraita[1] is the point of departure for the discussion of women’s Torah reading. It is important to note that first and foremost, the rabbis did not prohibit women from reading Torah. The use of the Sages in this passage is to indicate that this ruling is not a scripture-based prohibition, but a rabbinic prohibition.

The poskim[2] generally agreed with Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefliah 12:17): “A woman shall not read in public because of kevod hatzibbur.” However, here are several sources which are more lenient or accepting of women’s Torah reading:

In a section addressing whether or not women are obligated to read Torah, Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienne[3] (Or Zaru’a, Part 2, fol. 62a) writes that while women are not obligated, they can fulfill the obligation, “…for a person who is voluntarily fulfilling a commandment may fulfill the obligation of one obligated to do so by Rabbinic Law.” Therefore women are permitted, even if they are not obligated.

While the previous example allows for women to read from the Torah, there are ambiguous rabbinical rulings as well which follow the teaching of the sages, “a woman should not read from the Torah mipnei kevod hatzibbur—out of respect for the congregation.” (Bavli Megillah 23a) One such example is Rabbeinu Manoah of Narbonne[4] (Sefer Hamenuhah al Hamishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 12:17, ed. Horowitz, Jerusalem 5730): “If it were not for kevod tzibbur, [a woman] would read and bless, for just as the Torah was given to male Israelites it was given also to females.”  On the one hand Narbonne emphasizes that the Torah reading is for men and women but, on the other hand, for the sake of the congregation, women should be exempt from this act.

Rabbi David b”r Shmuel Kokhavi (Sefer Habatim)[5] goes on to define what is considered kevod hatzibbur: “A woman may read there [in her home] from the Torah, because it is not considered a tzibbur [a congregation] except in synagogue.” So, there is no fear of kevod hatzibbur if a woman does not read in a synagogue and there is no “congregation” present. This statement could allow women to read Torah at the Western Wall because it is not considered a synagogue, and because as a women’s prayer group we do not pray and read from Torah on behalf of a congregation.

Finally, there are two common beliefs that are given for why a woman cannot read from the Torah: the first is because of menstrual impurity, the second because of kol b’isha ervah. To refute the first claim, the Tanna[6] Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira (Berakhot 22a) states, “words of Torah are not susceptible to ritual impurity.” To discredit the second claim see the article on Kol Isha.

In conclusion, while women can be prevented because of kevod hatzibbur, there are compelling rabbinical sources that do not forbid women from Torah reading. Furthermore, because Women of the Wall does not consider itself a congregation or minyan, we can conduct our services halakhically in accordance with the primary ruling of the rabbis: “Our Rabbis taught: All go up among the count of seven even a woman and even a minor.”

For the last 27 years Women of the Wall has been banned from bringing a Torah to the women’s section despite the fact that it is our legal and halakhic right. Our hope is that in the near future we will once again be allowed to peacefully read from the Torah at the Western Wall, just as we did in our first meeting in 1988.


[1] A term used to indicate that the source is from the tannitic period in Talmudic redaction.

[2]  Jewish legal scholars who decide halakha in circumstances in which previous authorities and legal rulings were inconclusive.

[3] 13th century

[4] 13th-14th centuries

[5] 13th-14th centuries

[6] The era of the Tannaim spanned from 10-200CE

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