Will Women Getting Called To The Torah Cause Men To Lust?

Historian Marc B. Shapiro writes:

…I quoted a responsum of R. Joseph Messas.[11] In this teshuvah he also explains why women can’t be given aliyot. As is well known, in earlier days this was permitted but the Sages later forbid it on account of kevod ha-tzibbur (Megillah 23a). There have been lots of interpretations of what kevod ha-tzibbur means, but Messas has a very original perspective. He claims that the reason women were banned from receiving aliyot is because this would lead to sexual arousal among the male congregants. Messas believes that this came from the actual experience of the Sages, who saw what happened when women received aliyot. He also assumes that these women would have been dressed in a Taliban-like fashion[12]: בהסתר פנים כמנהג נשים קדמוניות. But even such a woman, covered head to toe, still created problems with the sexually fixated men.[13]

ובדורות שאחריהם ראו שיש בזה מחשבת עריות, שהצבור היו שואלים זה לזה, מי זאת עולה . . . ואם היה קולה ערב מוסיף להבעיר אש היצר, ולכן עמדו ובטלו את הדבר.

Knowing how concerned the Sages were about avoiding situations that could lead to sexual thoughts, it makes sense that they would ban the practice if they thought that women’s aliyot would lead in this direction.[14] But Messas now has a problem, because the Talmud doesn’t give this as a reason for abolishing women’s aliyot. Instead, it states that they were abolished because of kevod ha-tzibbur. This leads Messas to offer one of the wonderfully original interpretations that can be found so often in his writings. He claims that because the Sages didn’t want to insult the (male) community by telling them the real reason why they abolished the aliyot, namely, that even during Torah reading men can’t control themselves from sexual thoughts, therefore they invented the concept of kevod ha-tzibbur! However, this is not the real reason, and therefore all attempts to explain the meaning of the term are irrelevant. The real reason is the male sexual desire which as Messas states, is always in need to being fenced in:[15]
וכדי שלא להראות את הצבור שחשדו אותם, תלו הטעם מפני כבוד הציבור, שלא תהא האשה הפטורה מן הדבר מתערבת עם האנשים המחוייבים בו וכן בכל דור היו גודרים גדרים בעריות

Based on this male weakness, Messas claims that the mehitzah has to be built in such a fashion that the men cannot see the women. He even has a most original way to explain to the women why they are placed in what amounts to a completely other room. Rather than being a sign of their insignificance, it is a sign of how important they are. The proof of this importance is that men are constantly drawn to look at them. Therefore, by building a high mehitzah we are able to save the men from themselves.

I haven’t yet mentioned the shawls that some women have started wearing (and which was the practice in the days of the Rambam; see Hilkhot Ishut 13:11) Most shawl-wearers are not so extreme as to completely cover their faces, and because of this the practice has been defended by some fairly mainstream people. According to R. Ovadiah Yosef’s son-in-law, R. Aharon Abutbol, and R. David Benizri, R. Ovadiah sees the practice in a positive light for those women who are able to take it on.[16] Among others who have spoken out in favor of the shawls are R. Yitzhak Ratsaby,[17] R. Avraham Baruch,[18] and R. Mendel Fuchs, a dayan for the Edah Haredit (who refers to the “heilige shawl”).[19]

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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