I have really enjoyed reading all your articles and watching your videos — they answer many questions (some that I didn’t even know I had). One of the many things you’re good at is explaining the idea of modesty within the Jewish tradition. I recently had a Sabbath meal with a somewhat famous rabbi from the most religious part of Jerusalem, and I mostly knew what to expect. But one thing caught me off guard — the women didn’t sing because it was considered immodest. He said this prohibition is called “Kol Isha.” I found that especially hard to grasp and confusing because I am a singer who is possibly interested in conversion. I thought that you could help to explain a bit about why this is, and if there are contexts that are different. This may be a decision between my future career and religion. Maybe some more information would help my decision.
Thanks for your question. The issue of women not singing in front of men (kol isha) is difficult for many people to grasp in this day and age, but let’s start with the practical side of the law before we get into the philosophy behind it. Practically speaking, not all Orthodox women at all Shabbos meals refrain from singing in front of men. The strictest view, as you saw at the meal you attended, is that women, under no circumstance, sing any type of song in front of men they’re not related to.
But there are more lenient opinions as well. As always, my goal is not to make rulings as to what my readers should or shouldn’t do, but rather to make known that there are a range of opinions on this issue (and many others) depending on what Orthodox community and rabbi a person associates with.
In my circles, women often do sing at Shabbos meals, though, no one ever belts out a solo! The first circumstance where one could be more lenient is if a woman sings with at least one other person, as the Talmud says, “trei kali lo mishtamai,” which means that two voices cannot be heard simultaneously, or in other words, a women’s voice will blend when mixed in with at least one other voice.
Another leniency that some people rely on is that there are certain types of songs which men do not derive pleasure from when a woman sings them. These apply to the types of songs sung at a Shabbos meal (zemiros), songs sung to children, and lamentations for the dead.
Finally, there are some who say that it is permissible for a man to hear a recorded song sung by a woman if he doesn’t know what she looks like since the Talmud states that, “the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is not interested in what the eyes do not see.”
Now, even if someone relied on every one of these leniencies, observing the laws of kol isha would still be somewhat restrictive for both men and women. So why, you might wonder, do we do it then? First and foremost, a Torah abiding Jew believes that the mitzvos brought down in the Torah and extrapolated in the Talmud are the will of God and are what we Jews supposed to be doing in this world.
But as rational beings, an explanation always helps, and understanding the philosophy behind this law is not as hard as you might think. The singing voice of a woman is referred to as “ervah” in the Talmud, which literally means “naked,” but is best understood as that which is not meant for public consumption. The Talmud also lists parts of the body that are meant to be kept private. For a woman, it’s the arms from the elbows and up, the legs from the knees and up and everything in between. A married woman covers her hair as well. (As with all laws of modesty, women are more restricted in what they can show, whereas men are more restricted in what they can see and hear. See here for an explanation.)
There’s a time, though it’s hard to remember now, when society recognized the sensuality to a woman’s singing voice. The legend of the sirens in Greek mythology (and was present in many other cultures’ folklore later on) is a great example of the seductive nature with which a woman’s voice was once regarded.
And even as recently as 1962, Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” serenade still caught people’s attention for its sultriness. Fast forward a couple of decades and enter Madonna who broke down every barrier there was in regard to singing and sexuality. After her, singing in one’s underwear was no longer a big deal. And now, in our Lady Gaga obsessed world, people are so bored with just plain overt sexuality that this singer has to go to bizarre lengths in her costumes (bird’s nests for hats, dresses made out of bubbles) and video themes to get people’s attention.
Now some people might think that this is a good thing. Why should something like a singing voice be off limits to the general public? It holds women back. The problem with such an argument is that it doesn’t end there. There are those who go a step further and believe that men shouldn’t be fazed by the site of a woman’s bare breasts either! In fact, a group of women recently marched topless down a street in Portland, Maine in an effort to fight what they consider a double standard between the way men’s breasts are viewed and the way women’s breasts are viewed.
Their goal was for society to have the same disinterest when seeing a woman’s chest as they do when seeing a men’s chest, but such a scenario would be nightmarish according to Jewish thought. Though we believe that sexuality is meant for a private setting only, we also believe that it is essential that a wife’s body be an object of desire for her husband and vice versa.
Unfortunately, with the over-saturation of sex in our society, it takes more and more for anyone to get excited about anything these days. That’s probably why someone like Tiger Woods – a man married to a gorgeous swimsuit model – was unable to stay satisfied within his own marriage.
Years ago, when I was a freshman in college, a Jewish acapella group performed a concert one Friday night. The singing was enjoyable, but basically uneventful until a female soloist emerged.
She was a pretty girl, but not in an eye-catching way. Most guys in the room probably wouldn’t have looked twice if they saw her walking down the street. But suddenly she began to sing. And with her beautiful, deep, sultry voice, I watched all the guys around me watching her, taken in by her song. I’m sure many of those guys thought of that singer again and not in the way they think about their sister!
Now of course not all women are blessed with such an instrument, but the laws of modesty are made across the board. The idea is that if a woman possesses such a gift, she should be saving it for her husband’s enjoyment only. As for the men out there – Judaism believes that they shouldn’t be deriving that kind of pleasure from a random woman on a stage. Passion like that should be reserved for one woman and one woman only.
Of course living a life based on modesty is somewhat restrictive, but we observant Jews, who have experienced the magic that can come with a modest lifestyle understand how much is gained with this sacrifice: if everyone walks around showing everything off all of the time, there’s never a chance to uncover. However, if you set aside certain parts of yourself only to be uncovered and discovered at a special time with a special person, it can create an excitement that even the richest golf star can’t buy.