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

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.

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

  1. menucha chwat says:

    Flawed Halachic logic.

    As opposed to the case of Rav Chaim zt”l, in this case there are not two halchic issues in conflict. Women have no halachic obligation of public prayer.

  2. MP says:

    a very nice piece, Rav Hyim. My personal view has always been that kula should be the goal–if only to make Jewish practice more available to people and to make Jewish experience a more positive one. What bothers me is the comment the shul attendee made: why is it that he is so bothered by women’s extra participation? The sad part about all of this is that for many people, the higher the mehitza–the more kosher is the shul–while my guess is that the mehitza height beyond halachic minimum of 10 tfachim has probably very little halachic meaning. Same goes for women’s singing–G-d forbid a woman sings Shir haMaalot. In my experience, in more haredi circles, this is actually not allowed in presence of men. Worst yet, women cannot talk in front of men. I was once told that a certain woman used to give Divrei Torah, but after moving to another community had stopped doing so because in that community this is not considered acceptable. I am not sure exactly why–but to me, this goes far and beyond any tzniut bounds. At another Shabbat table conversation, I was once told in all seriousness by a bachur of one of well known Baal Tshuva yeshivot that women should be not be teaching Torah to men. In that man’s mind, I guess, Nechama Leibowitz was committing heresy. Seems that to many how harsh and restrictive we are to women is a determinant of how frum we are. This is rather sad to me.

  3. MC says:

    What I want to know is why according to some of those who hold that women should not sing in shul allow for male Rabbis to teach college and/or high school girls?

  4. Rabbi Avraham Shamma, in his wonderful article on kol isha, makes an exquisite deadpan about how v’ahavta l’reakha kamokhah (hereafter: VLK) applies to even women as well.

    Rav Kook notes that ideally, the mitzvah of VLK would mean that men and women should be completely equal in every way. However, he says, the vicissitudes and vagaries of life, and the nature of sexuality mean that we must be strict on tzeniut and lenient on VLK. However, Professor Dov Berel Lerner, in The Ten Curses of Eve notes that ordinarily, a curse from Hashem is something for us to overcome; if women bear children in pain, then we must develop painkillers. If Rabbinic literature frankly admits that women are cursed to domesticity, then it is our task to overcome this curse. If so, then Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is surely correct in taking Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin’s inurement thesis to its logical conclusion, saying that ideally, men and women will be so inured to each other that we will be able to have a fully integrated mixed-sex society without compromise.

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