The Voice of Women-The Importance of Leniency and the Leniencies that come from being Strict -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 31, 2009

Yesterday someone asked me why women on the women’s side in my Shul sing-along with the congregation whereas at the previous synagogue the person had attended the women had not been permitted to sing.  I explained that even though the Talmud says the voice of the woman is considered sexual, within Jewish law there are opinions that in holy places and in holy instances it is permitted.  For instance Rabbi Ovadiyah Yosef and and others who at times permit the voice of a woman in a religious context, do this based on the gemara that states that women can read the torah in the synagogue and receive aliyot and the gemarah does not see this as a violation of the halacha (the Jewish law) of hearing the voice of a woman singing (Talmud Bavli Megilah 23a).  Thus I explained that to take the strict approach would actually produce a leniency.  To be strict about not letting the women sing would be to be lenient about women’s involvement in prayer and their full participation in the congregation’s service of the heart, which according to the Mishna women are equally obligated in just as men.

This reminds me of the famous story of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk.  One Yom Kippur, there was a cholera epidemic in the city of Brisk.  After Kol Nidre Rabbi Chaim made kiddush and ate and made everyone else in the Shul eat.  Afterwards people asked him, wasn’t he being more lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur than the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) allows?  The Shulchan Aruch writes that one may only eat on Yom Kippur if their life is endangered, but no one yet had contracted cholera?  Rabbi Chaim answered, “I am not being lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur, but on the contrary I am being strict about the laws of guarding one’s life.

It is important for us to realize that the power of leniency, as the Gemara says, is very strong.  In fact, in almost every argument between Bais Shami and Bais Hillel, Hillel is more lenient and the law is like him.  Wouldn’t it be better, “more religious,” to be strict about Jewish law?   Yet we follow the more lenient opinion of Bais Hillel and in the several situations in which Shami is more lenient we follow Shami.  Perhaps the power of leniency is greater than the power of strictness.

There are times when we should be strict in hlacha.  But to think that we should always be strict, that this is better and more religious, is a mistake that many in our community make, I imagine out of ignorance.  They also do not realize that the other side of the coin of every strictness is another leniency, a leniency which might be inappropriate, a leniency that might distance us from God and Torah.  According to the Talmud Hillel knew more than Shami, Hillel knew his opinion and that of his opponent.  The same is often true today, those that are able to be lenient may in fact know more about halacha than those who are always strict, as the Gemara says, “kocha d’hetera adifa” the power of leniency is greater.


Bridging Religious and Secular Jewish Life in Israel -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 24, 2009

What Tzohar is doing to engage non-observant Israeli Jews and is there such a thing as Religious Zionist P’sak (jewish legal decisions)

I spent the past week in Israel at a meeting of Tzohar Rabbis.  Tzohar is an organization of several hundred rabbis, mostly Israeli, who want to create a “window between worlds,” -between the world of religious and non-religious Jews in Israel which right now is more of a wall.  Unfortunately not only has living in a Jewish country not led to residents finding a place for themselves in torah (or finding a place for torah in themselves), but it has alienated many from the torah.

It is not easy for an American, who takes freedom of religion, the right to self determine what my religious life will look like and to pursue it in a personal way, for granted, but it is hard to imagine the government making religious demands of me or regulating how my religious life must look.  If it did we can imagine how that religious life would not only become subsumed within the political arena but how working on a uniquely personal relationship with God could be difficult and perhaps become beside the point.

An interesting approach to Judaism and halacha (Jewish law) emerges when one sees their Jewish responsibility and the halchic decisions they make as pertaining not only to themselves, their family and their religious community, but to the entire Jewish country, religious and not-religious, as well.   Since the place in which religion meets the average secular Israeli is within life cycle events and things that define Jewish identity in the eyes of the state, Tzohar has begun with these.  Instead of a wedding or funeral being, in the eyes of secular Israelis, only about the government’s requirements and the Rabbanut’s procedures, Tzohar has tried to help make life cycle events more than just bureaucratic for the public but to facilitate bringing personal religious meaning and understanding to events such as weddings and funerals.

This focus on the whole Jewish people also demands a special approach to pesak (Jewish legal decisions).  This was well summed up by a festinating statement of Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and highlighted well the difference in approach and outlook between the rabbis of Tzohar and other more insular rabbis who see only their own community as the purview of their religious decisions.  The question under discussion was to what extent the utilization of lenient positions within halacha over strict positions should play a role in halachic decisions, and as related to this the meaning of the Talmud’s statement kocha d’hetera adifa (the power of leniency is stronger).

Outside of Israel rabbis may find themselves leaning toward a more lenient position when the repercussions of a more strict position will compromise the welfare of the asker or their spiritual life.   For instance in a question of nida (the forbidden nature of sexual contact after menstruation and before mikvah waters) if one can be lenient and not keep husband and wife from postponing the mitzvah of sexual union, many rabbis will try  to rely on a more lenient position rather than finding one that is strict.

In Israel the need to make halacha a part of the lived life of a whole country makes such lenient approaches even more pressing.  For instance explained Rabbi Cherlow, if a leniency is not utilized (which apparently some rabbis are not willing to do) enabling the police to fully do their jobs on the Shabbat, for instance taking fingerprints on the Shabbat then in a Jewish country where the police are all Jews, criminals will run free.

It is not enough to tell religious Jewish police to refrain from taking fingerprints in Israel we must take into account all Jews even those that are not religious.    The torah must thus be accessible to the entire Jewish nation.   In this sense indeed we must say, as I’m sure Bais Hillel would agree, kocha d’hetera adifa-the power of leniency is greater.


A Profound Disagreement on How to Live Jewish Lives –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 17, 2009

The Mishna in Berachot (53b) states: “With regard to one who ate a meal and forgot to say the bircat hamazon (grace after meals), Bais Shamai says they must return to their place and say the grace, Bais Hillel says they should say grace in the place they are when they remember.”

The Talmud on this Mishna comments: “We learned in a Berita (an uncannonized Mishna), Bais Hillel said to Bais Shamai, “According to your opinion, if one ate on top of a hill, are you saying they would have to climb back up to recite the grace after meals?”  Replied Bais Shamai to Bais Hillel, “If someone forgot their wallet on top of a hill would they not climb back up for it?  If one would return up the hill for their own honor, for the honor of heaven how much more so should they.”

This is an interesting and surprising argument between Bais Shamai and Bais Hillel.   Isn’t Bais Shamai right?  If we would go back up the hill for ourselves, should we not return to say the grace after meals for God?  What is Bais Hillel’s reason for disagreeing with Bais Shami’s opinion?

The following piece of Talmud (Betza 15a) may shed some light: “They say about Shami the elder that all his days he would eat in honor of the Shabbat.  If he found a nice animal one day he would say, “This one is to eat for Shabbat.” The next day if he found another one that was better than the first he would put aside the second one to save for Shabbat and eat the first animal.  But Hillel the elder had a different path, all of his deeds were for the sake of heaven, as it says in the verse, “Bless god each day.”

Though Hillel and Shami were both great sages they had very different takes on how to live a Jewish life.  To elucidate I will rewrite the preceding two arguments in the form of a conversation.

Bais Hillel: You can bench (say grace after meals) wherever you remember.

Bais Shami: No, you must bench where you ate.

BH: That may be better, but I’m sure you don’t really believe that, for, what if someone ate on a hilltop, surely you would not ask the person to schlep back up the mountain to bench?

BS: Wouldn’t you do that for your wallet?   So certainly you should for God’s honor; to bench!

BH: Who says this is about honoring God by schlepping?  Maybe we honor God by benching well, not after sweating up a mountain (with Yiddish accent)!

BS: Eating is very physical, Shabbat is holy, let us use the holiness of Shabbat to sanctify even the weekday meal.

BH: God is right here, everywhere, in every step, in every meal, not just on Shabbat and not just back up on the mountain top.  God must be an inherent part of our everyday lives!

BS: It’s better to go back up the mountain to bench….

BH: No, it’s better to let people bench and have some kavanah and not hock them to climb back up a hill…

BS: Climbing back up a hill is a great religious act since it enables one to bench in the best way.  Shouldn’t we make that sacrifice for a mitzvah?

BH: No, benching is a great religious act since by it we thank God for our food.  Yom Kippur for instance or giving up one’s life for the sanctification of God’s name, these are acts of sacrifice, benching though is thanking god for our everyday food in our everyday, real lives.  God is already a part of that.   Its what benching is.

BS: We fundamentally see religion and the way in which it can effect life differently, don’t we?

BH: Yes we do, at least we agree about that.

Both opinions are the word of the Living God, but the halacha (the law, the path) follows Bais Hillel, (Aruvin 13b).


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