On the question of hearing women’s voices

On the question of hearing women’s voices

In September 2011 an IDF entertainment troupe was performing at an event attended by the staff and cadets of the IDF officers training base Bahad Ehad. When a female soldier began to sing solo, nine religiously observant cadets got up and left the hall, because (they held) halachah forbids men from hearing the voice of a singing woman.

Many other religious cadets remained seated. The dramatic departure of the nine cadets was reported by the media and caused a public uproar. Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Yonah Metzger, justified their action, and said that the IDF should invite only male singers when religious soldiers are present. Many yeshivah heads agreed. Indeed, what else could they do – do not the classic sources of halachah state that “A woman’s voice is nakedness”?

Well, what they could have done was what Rabbi Professor David Golinkin does in pages 77-90 of his recent book, “The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa,” published in Jerusalem last year by the Center for Women in Jewish Law and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Golinkin, a Conservative/Masorti rabbi, is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and a major halachic authority in the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel.

In his book, Golinkin locates the classic Talmudic sources, reads them carefully in context using the best tools of textual analysis, and thus arrives at a good understanding of what seems to be the original meaning of this phrase.

Then, they could survey the post-Talmudic rabbinic literature from earliest times to the present, and identify the various ways in which the phrase has been interpreted. Finally – after doing all that spadework – they could determine how best to apply the relevant halachah in current time and context. After doing so, they might realize that the position that they advocate – that men are permitted to hear women speaking but forbidden to hear them singing at any time – does not appear in the Talmud or in any of the Rishonim (pre-16th century scholars). Indeed, the first scholar to hold that position was Rabbi Moses Sofer, who died in 1839.

Is it purely a coincidence that Rabbi Sofer was the great champion of resistance to modernity, under the slogan “Torah forbids the new”? If many great rabbis over the generations understood the Talmud to prohibit hearing a woman’s voice only when reciting the Sh’ma, why choose to follow Rabbi Sofer? And what of the religious value of not denigrating others (the female singer, in this case, or fellow cadets) or hurting their feelings?

Rabbi Golinkin’s balanced and rationalistic mode of dealing with the sources clearly indicates his position with regard to the ground of halachic authority. A novel type of halachic authority has emerged in modern times, grounded in what is called da’as Torah, perhaps best rendered as “Torah clairvoyance.” Originally an offshoot of the chasidic concept of the tzaddik, the ideology of da’as Torah infiltrated the non-chasidic yeshivah world through the mussar movement. Since World War II, it has become the touchstone of ultra-Orthodoxy.

In this view, certain people have attained a level of insight and vision that far surpasses the capacity of mundane human beings. This enables them to serve as infallible guides to the rest of the Jewish people, who are called upon to follow the directives of da’as Torah faithfully and uncritically, in acknowledgement of the unbridgeable gap between their knowledge and ours.

Obviously, Golinkin does not regard himself as such an authority, nor does he wish to be so regarded. Rather, by his mode of writing he places himself within the classic tradition of halachah, in which halachic decisors were respected and followed because of their intellectual eminence in the subject matter. They knew the sources, were able to analyze them in depth, and could demonstrate convincingly the applicability of texts and precedents to the issue on which they were ruling. This is the classic Lithuanian (“misnagdik”) tradition, and Golinkin clearly subscribes to it.

In another exemplary responsum, devoted to the issue of women and prayer, Golinkin integrates the tools of philology and history into the fabric of halachic discourse. A man is obligated to pray the standard 18-benediction tefillah thrice daily; is a woman equally obligated? Golinkin points out that there are major textual variants in the talmudic manuscripts, and that the halachic positions of great medieval decisors were contingent upon the texts that they had before them. However, all agreed that the commandment to recite the tefillah was incumbent upon women as it was upon men. Golinkin then cites historical descriptive texts, from talmudic and medieval times, that tell of women attending daily services in the synagogue. Indeed, the 16th-century Shulchan Aruch ruled that the obligation to pray rested equally upon women and men. However, a major commentator, Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (1637-1682), noting that in his time Jewish women in Poland did not participate regularly in services, tried to justify their behavior by arguing that there was no clear requirement for them to do so. Golinkin argues – convincingly, to my mind – that Gombiner’s ex-post-facto and ad hoc defense of the practice of his female contemporaries cannot refute the very clear evidence of the rulings of the major rabbinic and medieval authorities that women are required by halachah to pray thrice daily. Surprisingly (to some), the Masorti position on this issue thus turns out to be more stringent than what is currently accepted in many Orthodox and charedi circles.

In both of the cases described above, Golinkin totally refrains from any halachic argumentation based on context. Thus, in the first case, he does not suggest that there is anything in the context of modern Western culture and society that should lead to a more relaxed view of women’s singing, and in the second case he does not indicate that in today’s context we should be interested in equalizing the halachic obligations of men and women.

I must confess that I was surprised by this, as such contextual considerations are rife in much of classic halachah, and especially prominent in the writings of Sephardic rabbis in modern times (see my “Rabbinical Creativity in the Modern Middle East,” forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press). To be fair, Golinkin does employ such an argument, beginning on page 330, but in general does so very sparingly. In this, too, his Lithuanian tendencies are manifest.

In sum, Rabbi Golinkin’s evident erudition in the vast realm of halachic sources, coupled with his command of academic studies and – not least by far – his sincere commitment to halachah speak well of the capability of a representative of Masorti Judaism to participate as a serious player in the field of halachic discourse. The publication of this volume should be welcomed by anyone interested in contemporary halachic writing who is not a-priori biased against anything written by a non-Orthodox scholar of halachah.

This op ed was published first in the Times of Israel and reprinted with permission from the author.