Thursday, December 29, 2011

A responsum on "ladies assisting with their vocal powers" from 1847.

Here's an interesting letter from London Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler printed in the Occident in August 1847, concerning whether or not it is "correct to permit ladies to assist with their vocal powers at the consecration of a Synagogue":

The questioner, the Rev. Ansel Leo (1806-78), was a chazzan in New York's Bnai Jeshurun (aka Elm Street Synagogue). He refers to R. Max Lilienthal as "Chief Rabbi here," because he had been appointed rabbi of a United German" kehilla in 1845.

This was picked up by quite a few newspapers across the country. Here is a mention of it in the New Jerusalem Magazine, 1848:


  1. Incidentally, Rabbi Adler's son, Hermann Adler (who suceeded his father as England's chief rabbi), turned a blind eye when some shuls under his jurisdiction introduced female voices in their choirs. According to the book, "The Cheif Rabbis," Hermann Adler was not happy (although it seems like he thought there was room to be meikel), but did not put his foot down as he thought he would lose. These mixed choirs apparently died on their own accord.

  2. When my grandmother lived in London in the late '70's and early '80's, she was surprised to find that the Hampstead Synagogue still had a mixed choir. In a letter dated "spring 1987," Chief Rabbi Jakobovitz responded to a "rather angry letter" from a Hampstead congregant who protested against the recent abolition of this choir, which had happened when a new shul rabbi was appointed. The Chief Rabbi said that he had made his opposition to the choir known as soon as he assumed his office, but that it had taken the congregation officers 19 years to implement their assurance to him that the choir would be discontinued. He went on to note that at the founding of the synagogue, Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler had refused to allow a mixed choir to take part in the ceremony. He added that "there may have been times when rabbis and ministers were 'not so particular.' But we live in a different age..." ("Dear Chief Rabbi," ed. Jeffrey M. Cohen, 1995, pp. 92-93).

  3. Note that in the time of Chazal women very much took an active role in funerals with the ritual wailing.

  4. It is my understanding that women of the east, (*coughOrientalismcough*), including Jews, did so and do so to this day. Same thing with happy occasions. Go to the kotel and watch an edot hamizrah kid have his bar mitzvah. I don't believe for a minute that the women started ululuating in Israel.

    As far as תרי קלי being permissible, see the ChasaN Sofer. Of course here we are probably not talking about a strictly halachic issue, if there is such a thing.

  5. Princes Road, Liverpool, still has a mixed choir.
    I believe it is much newer than Hampstead's.
    The result of losing the me to military service in WW2.

  6. If I'm not mistaken, the Seridei Eish makes use of the תרי קלי reasoning as part of his argument too (not that I agree).

    I can't find it on Hebrewbooks but it should be in the second volume of the Kook edition, siman 9 or so.

  7. Just checked, it's 8:4. He actually doesn't agree to the sevara, but he quotes it in the name of R. Esriel Hildesheimer.

  8. I'm sorry I missed this post at the time! I documented the whole mixed choirs story in Anglo-Jewry in:

    'Did the Chief Rabbinate move to the Right? A case study: the mixed choir controversies 1880-1986' Jewish Historical Studies 39, 2004, pp 121-151



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