July 31, 2009
The Voice of Women
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.