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.
If you found this content meaningful and want to help further our mission through our Keter, Makom, and Tikun branches, please consider becoming a Change Maker today.
Allison, I love this post! I think of Ariel in the Disney animation and how she attracted the prince with her voice. And how Ursula the sea-witch used the same beautiful voice to convince him to marry her.
Even my 5 year old daughter likes to swish her hair in the tub like Ariel as she sings “ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah….”
It’s a very magnetic song. I’m sure they spent hours and hours trying to cast that character – to get just the right voice!
I think it’s sad men (and women) are conditioned in our Western society (and some other places)to think about sex so easily. Whether a woman is completely dressed or not, he’ll think about it. In Africa (I only went to 1 country) a girl showed her boobs and nobody cared, I love that about them. There simply shouldn’t be a big hoopla about bodies in general, we all have one!
Galit, I don’t think Western society conditions people to think about sex (it’s part of human nature) – I think it just bombards them with constant images of it, and ends up desensitizing everyone to it. You’re obviously entitled to your opinion, but I’d be curious if any married women reading this would agree with you and want their husbands to not care about the sight of their “boobs.” I’d also be curious if any married men reading this would hope for a day when the sight of their wives “boobs” would be no big deal to them.
I think this is the most antiquated rule as I believe music being an integral part of life and a God given talent. Unfortunately for me this is a deal breaker so I would never embrace orthodox Judaism
Thanks for your comment, Pauline. First of all, there are many women who perform for female only audiences and record their songs, so they get to use their God-given talent. Second of all, Orthodox Judaism isn’t all or nothing. Everyone struggles in different ways. It is possible to observe the parts that come easily to someone and admit that other parts are theologically or practically challenging.
As a former worship singer, I am very interested in this idea. I am a Christian who embraces Torah.
I have seen this seductive issue with both men and women worship singers. Many a woman and man have been caught up in inappropriate and damaging sexual relationships.
My husband is a musician and had put aside his instrument for the time being as he is seeking Hashem for a way to “play” Holy.
I do agree that women’s very nature makes it more of an issue- especially if said woman is being influenced by the world culture and has not learned to, or does not care to, restrain her soul.
I, myself, have struggled with this.
I am no longer singing publicly- and at our Torah group do not sing – very rarely-and I believe this is why our leader has chosen not to include this. Although one lady knows many Hebrew songs and does sing- but she is not in the least seductive.
I wanted to ask, in all due respect, of the singing of Miryam ( Shemot 15:20)- What is thought of this in Jewish Orthodoxy?
Thank- you for your time and consideration of my inquiry.
Group singing is OK. So common belief is that it was a group song.
My husband’s allowed to stop caring about mine when I turn 80, but even then it would probably annoy me if he did.
Thank you SO much for explaining kol isha! I knew the rules but nobody ever explained to me the REASON behind the rules. It’s why I’m such a fan – you give cause to the laws. I hope your pregnancy is going well, Allison, and I look forward to your next article.
I am still surprised that in today’s day and age, that this excuse is used to deny women work. Men that get turned on by listening to a woman sing opera, sing rock and roll? I don’t think so. A seductress such as Marilyn Monroe (who most men looked at and fell over) was winning men over by her singing!
It’s denying a woman her rights. As a Jewish woman that works in a Jewish organization I am so annoyed that we have to bow to Orthodox rules. It is offensive as a Jewish woman.
No where in the Bible does it say women can’t sing alone. Are you saying in Israel there are no female soloists? And as far as modesty goes if a man finds a strangers backside attractive when they bend over to pick up something, are we going to have a rule about that? How many laws do we have to ensure because a man finds what we are doing attractive?
Thanks for your comment, Deborah. I think it’s fair to say that there are numerous songs that a woman could sing that would not turn a man on and some they could sing that would. But, outside of recorded singing, singing in groups, and children’s songs or possibly Torah verses, the Halacha does not make the distinction about when a song it too arousing. And that’s probably because it would be hard to describe the exact scenario. I don’t believe that following Jewish law is discriminatory or an act of sexism. More and more female singers are finding creative ways to sing for only women and make careers out of it. I don’t disagree that it’s a difficult law and difficult to understand, but when I became orthodox, I made a decision to attempt to keep all Halacha. Not that I am able to be perfect, or that I understand everything. But in the act of trying to keep it all Judaism is preserved. When we start picking and choosing what we like and don’t like, that system unravels. Now anyone is free to do that. But for me, living with some parts I like less in order to preserve it all is a worthwhile tradeoff.
What about if a woman is singing a song of praise to G-D? Singing a prayer from the Psalms? What if it a song in a religious context?
There are certain leniencies. A child’s song could be one. Not sure about psalms. I can ask.
This article really reinforced the explanations I’ve heard concerning kol isha. I’ve been offerred the opportunity to perform gigs this year and really use my musical talents as a job. I’ve just recently started returning to Judaism through dressing tzniut and keeping shabbos and shomer nagiya etc. But being a singer/songwriter is will be hard for me to tell the man who “discovered” me at my Mother’s friends birthday party that as Jewish girl, it’s not proper to make a proffesion out of my songs for the modern world.
I don’t get it. Well, actually I think I do, but I don’t like it. If a woman is a gifted singer, she can’t sing publicly because strange men may be aroused by it. Why should a woman be responsible for a man’s inability to control his thoughts? Why should a woman be required to use her vocal gifts only around her family? What if she never marries? She never gets to sing in public? And how is this different than hair-covering? Single women are allowed to have their hair uncovered in order to help them find a husband. Why wouldn’t single women who are good singers be allowed to sing around men for the same reason?
Thanks for your comment, Batsheva. I understand your frustration, but let me clarify a few things. This isn’t a one way street – it’s not only that a woman isn’t supposed to sing in front of men – men are equally required to avoid hearing women sing. The onous is on both parties, so a woman technically could start singing in public, but then the man would have to take pains to avoid hearing her. We look at modesty as a partnership in general. Women try not to be sexually provocative around random men (they can and should be plenty provocative around their husbands!) and men should try to avoid random women that are being provocative.
A woman *can* sing in public, and marriage has nothing to do with it, but it can only be for an all woman audience or according to more lenient opinions, it can only be in a duet or larger group (as opposed to a solo).
In terms hair being used to help a woman find a husband and singing voice not, while you’re right that hair is a permitted part for a single woman, thighs and upper arms, for instance, are not. A person could easily argue that mini-skirts or sleeveless shirts should also be permitted so that a woman can find a husband, but that’s not where the cut off is.
At the end of the day part of accepting this law (and many other laws) is having an appreciation for the system of Jewish law. It’s not something that is be easily understood by just reading a short blog entry, but if a person is interested in understanding why many Jews do respect the system of Jewish law (and the rabbis that help expound it) in depth study as well as practice is necessary.
This issue is being presented purely from a point of view of popular culture, somehow when a woman sings in a way that is exclusive of the “pop” side of things, the accusations made about what would prompt “kol isha” then could possibly largely evaporate.
Examples of this would be Grand Opera and/or soloists and choruses that would appear, for example, in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; no sultry “Happy Birthday” here!
Even on the more serious side of what might still be considered Popular Music, such as Ella Fitzgerald singing “standards” (I’m now sure that you or your audience would know what a “Standard” is) this obviously does not apply, at least in the given description of “Kol isha.” After all, an Ella Fitzgerald will approach this material, within her own style, of course, with pretty much the same, basic musicality of the true purist much as a male in the same field would, such as Frank Sinatra or even Bing Crosby. Nothing overtly sexy about the singing of these two!
Somehow a woman’s singing can never be that of classical music or the Rodgers & Hart Songbook; this arena is too sensitive to be trod upon.
Yep, it’s the same old story; the religionist has to justify what she does by defining secular society as a place of “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll;” secular culture is somehow never defined as Maria Callas singing Bellini’s “Norma” or Jonas Salk spending seven years trying to figure out a polio vaccine.
Typical anti-intellectualist cop-outs from the religionist.
Thanks for your comment, Michael, but there are two things I would like to address. First is your observation that not all songs are overtly sexual and second is how Orthodoxy views the secular world.
Let’s start with the issue of the songs. You’re absolutely correct that not all songs have a sexuality or even sensuality to them. Not all voices do either and frankly not all people are sexy or even the least bit attractive. So what then? Should Jewish law permit only tone-deaf women to sing and only flabby, cellulite legs to be shown? No. Jewish law does not discriminate when it comes to modesty. If something is in the category of things that *could* cause arousal, then it applies in all cases.
In terms of how Orthodoxy views secular culture, there’s a bit of a disagreement here even within the Orthodox world. The Talmud states “yesh chachma bagoyim” (there is wisdom within the non-Jewish nations), however the ultra-Orthodox community has decided that despite that wisdom that one could learn from the outside world, getting to involved in it is dangerous as it could lead an observant Jew from a Torah life and therefore the party-line of ultra-Orthodox Jews (in general) is to avoid the secular world as much as possible.
Modern Orthodoxy, however, looks at the fact that there is wisdom within the secular world as an opportunity to strengthen Torah knowledge and committment which is why the motto of Yeshiva University (the headquarters of Modern Orthodox learning) is “Torah U’Maddah” (Torah AND secular knowledge). There certainly are some Orthodox Jews who view secular culture as nothing more than sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but at the same time, there are plenty of Orthodox Jews who use secular knowledge, wisdom, and culture inasmuch as is permissible within Jewish law.
Allison, I’ve heard this argument about kol isha before. What you seem to be leaving out, however, is that there’s a clear double standard here. Men are not supposed to hear women sing, yet women can hear men sing? Is there no reason to suppose that women will be so aroused by men that they will lose control? This is why kol isha is such an objectionable concept to us Conservative (and Reform, and Reconstructionist) Jews.
Thanks for your comment, Jeffrey. I wouldn’t call it a double standard – men are more restricted in what they can hear, but free in where they can sing. Women are more restricted in where they can sing, but free in terms of what they can hear.
Why the different treatments for the different sexes? Because Judaism believes that men and women are different – not just physically, but emotionally and spirtually as well. One is not better than the other – just different. First off – the prohibition of arousal is scientifically different for men as there’s an issue with “spilling seed” that women just don’t have.
But that aside, your average man and woman still think differently about sex objects. A fantasy with a sports car for your average man would be to have a hot, naked woman sprawled on top of it. For your average woman, the sports car fantasy would be to have a hot – fully clothed man – driving the car to pick her up for a date. Are there exceptions? Sure! But Judaism recognizes that in general there are certain differences between men and women and it tailors the laws based on those differences.
Here’s a post I wrote about why modesty is different between men and women in Jewish law: http://www.jewinthecity.com/2007/11/why-orthodox-men-dont-wear-wigs/
My wife and I wanted to commend you on the amazing work you are doing.
We stumbled upon your shabbos video on youtube, and have been devouring your articles, Q&A’s and videos ever since.
May Hashem grant you the strength and chizuk to continue the amazing work you have undertaken.
Eli & Chanie
Amen! Glad you’re appreciating JITC so much!
i love JITC!GOING ON!
I came to this site as a result of reading about the actress who plays Amy Farrah Fowler. My personal background is Protestant and Unitarian, and now I regularly attend Roman Catholic services with my wife, a lifelong Catholic.
A few years ago I went to a New Years Eve interfaith service held at a Catholic Church. Among the participants was a woman cantor from a Jewish congregation. I am now a little bit amused to learn that, just as the Catholic Church rejects female clergy, Orthodox Judaism rejects not only female clergy, which I knew already, but even female singing. She was probably from a Reform congregation. But maybe this was already a given, being that it was an interfaith celebration at a Catholic Church (Protestants and Muslims were there also).
In his book The Heart of Man, which I consider very wise, Erich Fromm says “The purpose of all the true religions is to help man overcome his narcissism.” I regard this as a modern paraphrase of Hillel’s famous one-sentence summary of the Torah.
May the human community eventually be well, happy, and at peace.
Bs’d I just wanted to say to Shaina (I hope she gets this) that she absolutely can make a career out of singing and I hope she does! Obviously it will be to women only audiences but there is a great market for that and we look forward her debut! Check out (aka Google) my new friend Chanale Fellig (and I am sure there are many others) for inspiration! Women only, of course.
I read somewhere that Kol Isha applies to women talking as well. Is this true? Are little girls allowed to sing “Ma Nishtana” at the seder?
Good Lord, no! Or else I’d be in serious trouble! Yes, little girls sing “ma nishtana” – the “nakedness” in the voice is only for older girls and women.
In the time of the Beit Hamikdash, wasn’t a women allowed to sing when she was not in Nidah? Doesn’t this bring into question the true purpose of the laws? Thanks!
I never heard of that – what’s your source?
Thank you so much for your analysis, I always enjoy reading your posts. I just want to have a little discussion about women, singing and kol isha.
First of all, I know several female cantors of the Conservative and Reform variety, who are very Religious, yet probably not to Orthodox standards. All wonderful women who make up about 40% of the Reform, and 20% of the Conservative Cantorate. There is nothing licentious about their singing, when liturgical. Secondly, I am a man, but I do consider myself a Jewish Feminist.
Since the Talmud only mentions a woman’s voice being construed as licentious twice, once in tractate Berachot (24a), we are almost there in the Daf Yomi cycle, in a discussion of ervah regarding reading the Shema, and again in Kiddushin (70a) in the context of exchanging greetings with a married woman, doesn’t is stand that kol isha, in its base form, should only be applied in these instances, if even.
In fact, is it not said in a key discussion in Berachot (24a):”R. Yitzchak said: An [uncovered] handbreadth is ervah. In what context? If regarding looking [at a woman], did not R. Sheshet say:…Anyone who gazes
even at a woman’s little finger, is as if he gazes at her private parts?” Now, to that end I have seen your hands in the JITC videos, and I am not in the least moved by your little finger.
I understand that some very extreme Orthodox men may interpret the voice to be a slippery slope, to looking at the little finger, but the same is true of the response. Those that follow the politics of the Women’s side of the Kotel, should know about the Women of the Wall, and that they pray and sing, while reading from Torah. Yet are constantly harassed by people who cling to the precept of kol isha in its most extreme form. I have heard you talk about these types of insular men as “Sikkarim” in the past. Some of these men even wrench the Torah away from female arms, so as to actually try to damage the “Tree of life”.
I know you to be a great speaker, a great writer and a truly learned woman. I would hope that you would agree that liturgical music is not licentious and there is a place for women at the Kotel to lift their voices in prayer… If not, we can definitely discuss more in depth later.
Sources: Kol Isha by Rabbi Saul Berman, Yeshiva University,
Jewish Feminism in the United States by Paula E. Hyman, 2005
Thanks for your comment, Martin. I’m not a posek (a decider of Jewish law), so I don’t make rulings in Jewish law. I’ve seen certain heterim (allowances) for women singing – in groups, recorded music, songs sung to children. I haven’t seen anyone with authority speak about singing liturgy – if there are experts in Jewish law who say it’s OK, then I’m fine with it being in the spectrum of excepted opinions.
The women of the wall – since they’re singing in a group and are behind the mechitzah – shouldn’t actually be such a problem according to some opinions.
I personally have another issue with women’s prayer groups. My issue is that mitzvos are not about doing something that makes *us* feel spiriutal – they’re about doing something that halacha requires us to do.
So if someone observed Shabbos – totally in accordance with Jewish law on Thursday night/Friday and told me how incredibly spiritual it was, I would respond that they didn’t fulfill any mitzvah by refraining from work and having shabbos meals/kiddush/hamotzi.
Similarly, women don’t have a mitzvah to create a minyan or read from the Torah. They’re not even allowed to say a blessing over reading from the Torah, so they leave a blessing out of their morning blessings and then say it later before they read Torah. It’s a whole lot of cutting and pasting going on in an attempt to be more like men and to fulfill men’s mitzvos. But I don’t see how God is being served exactly. It seems a lot more like serving oneself. So my issue is not about kol isha – I think women should be able to sing kabalat Shabbat at the kotel, for instance. But trying to create a minyan and read from the Torah when the mitzvah doesn’t even exist for women, I find problematic.
Wow! Very well spelled out Allison! I was hoping you would touch upon that topic – women of the wall – that is.
I think my biggest problem with kol isha and your mentioning of pop culture’s breast exposure is that ignores what women find sexually interesting. I know plenty of women who find a man’s voice sexy, or a man’s exposed chest. And yet consideration for them is not taken into account.
It’s as if the only people with a sexual yetzer hara are men.
Part of it is culture. For example, the commenter who mentioned Africa and people not caring about breasts in public. That doesn’t mean that a man doesn’t enjoy his wife’s breasts. It just means that he doesn’t view them as “inappropriate,” that in public they are not necessarily sexual.
We do the same thing. There are many sexy and beautiful things about people that are viewable even when observing the laws of tzunis.
Thanks for your comment, Rueuven, but men being sexually aroused has different ramifications than it does for a woman in terms of Biblical prohibitions against spilling seed. I also believe that shomer anayim is the men’s equivalent of tznius – please see this post to understand what I’m referring to http://www.jewinthecity.com/2007/11/why-orthodox-men-dont-wear-wigs/
At the end of the day, something that remains covered is going to be more exciting when you uncover it. Our sages decided that the things they consider “ervah” (naked) should off limits for public consumption. In my opinion, so that these things could remain more exciting and special.
I know that you are not a posek, and cannot decide Jewish law, however you are a learned person who has a voice and uses it for the good of our community. I do get where you are coming from on the use of ritual to be self serving. When I met my wife, she was uncomfortable with my wearing of a kippah, because her experience of them was men showing off how religious they could be in public, while not being true to Torah Judaism at home. It took a while to see that I was a keeper, kippah or not.
I would really like to clarify the point of “not being allowed to say a blessing over reading from the Torah” when I consult to Talmud on the opinion of the Sages, I do not find where women are not allowed to read the blessing over Torah. What I do see is even in the minority opinion women are welcomed to say the blessing and even fulfill the mitzvoth for a man hearing her say the blessing. Women are not obligated, but are still welcome to do the non time bound positive mizvoth.
Now in another opinion, which I think is a very extreme, the Talmudic sage Rav Eliezer took an exemption of women from the mitzvoth one step further, and declared that “he who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her lechery.” This hard line approach is just one of the many opinions in the Talmud, as it is a discussion with many windows into Halakhah. I can see that this extreme opinion may bleed over into other blessings over everything from the mikveh to the food table if it was used as a basis to stop women from saying their many blessings of the day.
I understand that the main source which deals with this question is a beraita in Bavli Megilah 23a: “Everyone goes up to read among the seven who read from the Torah, even a woman, even a minor. But the sages said: a woman may not read from the Torah [in public] because of kevod tzibbur [literally “the honor of the congregation.” And if we look closer, minors are not obligated to perform all the mitzvoth just like women, and slaves, and all manor of non men. In the end, it really comes down to community standards, rather than any hard and fast law.
Even some of the Sages must have seen the usefulness of not forbidding women from study of Torah, I mean women like yourself, raising children, and leading kosher homes have to know what they were doing. I understand that you may have issue with some prayer groups, women or men, who use the Torah, or G!d, to serve their own selfish needs, I would too if I knew of any.
PS – Women did sing in the Beit Hamikdash according to cites:
This may explain the terms “‘al ‘alamot” and “‘al ha-sheminit.” On account of the important part which women from the earliest times took in singing, it is comprehensible that the higher pitch was simply called the “maiden’s key,” and “ha-sheminit” would then be an octave lower.
The women choristers, however, were heard in dirges in honor of the dead. “All the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations” (II Chron. xxxv. 25). R. Meïr says those were the wives of the Levites (Pirḳe R. El. xvii.).
Thanks for your comment, Martin, but regardless of your sources, the Orthodox women who participate in Torah reading do not say the birchas haTorah in their morning brachos because it seems that even their rabbis find it problematic for them to make a blessing over Torah reading.
My main point, which you said you agree with, is that performing something that smells like a mitzvah, but is not *actually* a mitzvah seems much more self-serving than God-serving. I have no problem with women learning Torah. We weren’t even talking about that! The post was about kol isha to begin with!
“fazed”, not “phased”
just wanted t otell you how i absolutly LOVE your site!!
i love reading each and every post!
you aswer people with such levelheadedness and cleverty- its a blessing!
I am enjoying your posts! Though I am a Catholic, I deeply love learning about Judaism. (my Savior was Jewish! )
I would like to hear more on a question asked above- what about a woman who is moved by a man’s voice singing? Just watch a Josh Groban concert to find that men’s beautiful voices affect us just as much as a beautiful voice affects a man. We love beautiful singing and speaking voices. In fact, I think women are more attracted to sounds and voices than anything else. How does that fit in with Jewish Law?
I will check more of your posts- very educational and well written.
A Christian fan
Thanks for your question, Angela. I think this post will be helpful to understanding how modesty works in Jewish law http://www.jewinthecity.com/2007/11/why-orthodox-men-dont-wear-wigs/
But the basic answer is that one of the major reasons for modesty is to keep a man from getting aroused to the point of spilling his seed (as that is a Biblical prohibition). But men are just as restricted as women are when it comes to modesty – their restrictions are just in the opposite direction to take their needs into consideration.
Spilling seed is not a Biblical prohibition
Is it okay for a teenager who is not married to be in choir for example and have a solo and have boys and girls as an audience?
Thanks for your question, Bri. I’m not an authority on these laws, but as far as a know, once a girl reaches the age of bat mitzvah (12), she’s obligated in this law and therefore couldn’t have post-bar mitzvah age boys and men in the audience. However, she could sing in front of younger boys (below the age of 13) in some circles.
I was raised Jewish, and I reject Tzunias law – COMPLETELY!! I agree that Western society is over-saturated with sexual images that are unhealthy to society, but the laws regarding women singing in public are unfair and about control, not modesty. Gifts should be shared. A beautiful voice comforts others and provides inspiration! I seriously doubt that a married man is going to dump his wife and children over a beautiful voice, and if he does, he wasn’t worthy of his wife and children in the first place. Furthermore, Tzunias law ignores the very blatant fact that women can become just as aroused by a man’s vocal gifts. Ever heard of groupies??? 99% of groupies are females who follow male musicians around. Why do they follow them around?? Because these women heard their beautiful voices or musicianship skills, and they were so impressed and aroused that they are now willing to dutifully follow these men around and do anything, and I mean ANYTHING they can to win their affection. This is an observable fact in our society. If the goal is to prevent others from being aroused by a beautiful voice, then nobody should be allowed to sing in front of anyone for any reason, and then, oh what a wonderful world we would live in! Tzunias law is more about controlling women’s bodies and behavior than creating a respectable and modest society, just as Shariah law is. The sexual repression created by Tzunias law causes men to become obsessed with sex, which is why they become so aroused by the sight of a woman’s elbow or the sound of her musical voice. Men and women have to live together in this world, and we’d all be better off if we could learn some self control rather than trying to restrict and control the behavior of others.
Hi, Corinne! You’re free to disagree, but your understanding of the matter is somewhat different from my own (and, I assume. Allison’s). The laws of “kol isha” (a woman’s voice) are unfair? To whom? I say to men! My wife can go to any concert or Broadway show she wishes but I can’t go to most musicals and many, many concerts! The reality of the matter is that each gender is impacted by this law, albeit in a different way. It’s not inherently anti-woman – women are impacted by not singing publicly and men are impacted by not hearing women sing! It’s kind of a wash in the fairness department.
I also disagree that it’s about control. If you ask me, tzniyus is about empowerment. It frees women from so much baggage that those in secular society have to endure. Women don’t have to be frumpy or veiled but they’re also freed from being seen as sexual objects. Tzniyus is meant to level the playing field by NOT objectifying women! (I’m sure you’ll agree that objectification is very much a problem in our “anything-goes” society. Freedom to wear as little as one desires has exacerbated that problem, not eliminated it!)
Some gifts should be shared but others are meant to be private. No one thinks a man is going to leave his wife for a woman he hears singing but that doesn’t mean she should put that part of herself on public display. Allison posted a link to a topfree demonstration. There are also “swingers” (i.e., “wife-swappers”) who are married but okay with sharing sex. I assume you draw the line somewhere; your line, my line, a topfree protestor’s line and a swinger’s line will all be in different places. Mine may be to the right of yours but yours will invariably be to the right of someone else, who will consider their way appropriate and yours to be “prudish.” Ah, well – that’s what makes life so interesting!
Finally, it may interest you to know that there *is* an opinion in the Talmud that men’s voices can also incite women. The sage Rav Yosef in tractate Sotah said that a man’s voice to a woman is bad enough but the effect between men and a woman’s voice is exponentially stronger. So we acknowledge that reality but the degree of the effect is quite different. (I think groupies are more about fame and prestige than about the singer’s vocal skills.)
I don’t expect to change your feelings any more than you could change mine, but please understand that the way you see it is not the way it is felt by the men and women who embrace a tzniyus lifestyle!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
I think groupies are more about fame and prestige than the man’s vocal skills.” So if women are prohibited from exhibiting characteristics men find attractive, Then why aren’t men prohibited from exhibiting characteristics women find attractive, such as their fame and prestige?
That’s a good question. For starters, fame and prestige are fairly nebulous concepts. Am I famous? In my circles, perhaps, though I don’t have the name recognition of, say, Shmuley Boteach. A physicist might be famous in his field but most of us couldn’t name a physicist other than Stephen Hawking. So who’s to say how famous is “too famous?”
As far as prestige, I’ll tell you a joke.
A man rolls into town one night looking for the rabbi. He asks a stranger, “Where can I find the rabbi?” The stranger replies, “That crook? That thief? Take this road about a mile.” Moving on, the traveler comes to the center of town and asks another resident, “Where can I find the rabbi?” The resident replies, “That lousy SOB! He lives on Elm St.” Finding Elm St., the traveler asks a neighbor which house is the rabbi’s. The neighbor says, “That ignorant fool? He lives right there.” The man knocks on the rabbis door. When the rabbi answers, the man says, “They couldn’t pay me enough to do your job!” The rabbi says, “I don’t get paid.” Befuddled, the traveler asks, “Then why do you do it?” The rabbi replies, “For the honor!”
Prestige is a double-edged sword. Does the President have a lot of it? Sure. Does at least half the country hate his guts at any given time? Sure. Obama, Bush, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Lincoln – they were all despised. But you know what? Somebody has to do it!
So fame and prestige are nebulous, unquantifiable concepts. Those are pretty hard to legislate. What we are commanded is not to become arrogant and think we’re hot stuff because of our positions or praise we may receive. If someone – male or female – is attracted to money, power, fame, etc., that’s unavoidable because there will always invariably be * someone * with relatively more money, power and/or fame. Our responsibility is not to abuse those gifts.
Putting up a kosher mezzuzah or 2 or 3 or more, cool – I’m there. Lighting Shabbat candles or yom tov candles, sure that’s doable. Buying kosher cheese – I can’t taste the difference with non-kosher cheese, but I make an effort to buy kosher cheese b/c that’s a good Jewish thing to do. But, kol isha? Are you kidding me? And, it’s not just rabbinic Judaism that comes down hard about this matter, apparently in Korea in the 1800s women were not permitted to sing in public. This kol isha thing is absolutely about control and a way to shut women up. It’s repressive. So, until there is a repeal of this cruel tradition, I happily remain ReConFormAdox 🙂
Thanks for your comment. A woman’s singing voice can be arousing to a man. Halacha believes a man should attempt to only be aroused by his wife. It’s not about control, it’s about commitment to one another in a marriage. No one is forcing anyone to practice this law, but that is the basis of it.
Dear Rabbi Abramowitz,
I’d like to know exactly what the Torah says about a woman’s voice being “naked.” Does it say that her singing voice is “naked,” or that her voice is “naked?” If it merely says voice, then there is no justification for prohibiting her from singing in public. I say it’s unfair, because, I love to sing, and I make my living singing. If everyone followed Tzunias law, I wouldn’t be able to earn enough as 50% of the population wouldn’t be able to enjoy my talents. Furthermore, I think comparing the gifts of the human body to the gift of talent is an unfair comparison. There are inherent risks to sharing your body with others. (As a matter of fact, it can be downright dangerous!) There are no risks to sharing the gift of music. Women can sing without presenting themselves as objects. It’s all in the presentation. If I were prevented from singing in the public arena, a fundamental part of who I am would be taken from me, and that’s a thought I cannot bear. I don’t sing to arouse others. I sing to comfort and inspire. I sing to give others a much needed break from the everyday stresses of life. Mostly, I sing to entertain children. I hope that my singing brings happiness.
Although Tzunias law does prevent society from objectifying women as mere “candy” for men, it objectifies them as objects that need to be contained and controlled, lest they arouse or cause temptation for men. Tzunias law does indeed try to control women in that it deems men as not responsible for their inability to control their sexual thoughts, desires, and urges. By forcing such modesty on women, you’re not exercising self-control and accountability. You’re passing the blame for your inability to control yourself on a woman’s “lack of modesty,” and that is dangerous. In a sense, all societies commit this sin. Why else would defense lawyers ask rape victims what they were wearing when the alleged crimes occurred during trials??? Because, deep down, most men still blame a woman’s lack of modesty for their bad behavior, and in that sense, women are still viewed as objects.
I disagree that “groupies” are more interested in fame than acceptance by someone they deem talented. While I agree with you that the prestige of associating with a famous person does play a role, there is something that initially attracts the groupie to one famous person and not another, and that is the musician’s talent. For example, I’ve seen women melt when listening to Andrea Bocelli sing. It’s obvious by the way he presents himself that he’s not trying to “arouse” women, but he most definitely does. Should his beautiful voice thus be banned from female audiences? I think hiding that kind of talent would be a sin. When G-d gives you a talent that brings joy to others, I believe you should share it (and I’m referring to spiritual and emotional joy that can be shared by husbands and wives together, not “joy” that only appeals to our base instincts). Many husbands and wives bond over beautiful music sung by beautiful voices, both male and female. Beautiful voices bring people together. They don’t tear them apart as Tzunias law would have you believe.
I very much appreciate your explanation, but I disagree. I thank you regardless:)
Hey, Corinne! 😀
To answer your question, the Talmud, based on Biblical sources, simply says “kol b’isha erva” – a woman’s voice is a private thing. It’s understood to mean her singing voice. To say that if it doesn’t specifically use the words “singing voice” then there is no justification to ban public singing would have merit except that the logical alternative is to ban women from speaking to men altogether! As much as many men might jokingly say they’d enjoy that, I think we can all agree that that would not be a viable alternative!
You say this law is unfair because you make your living singing. First, please understand that I would never push my trip on you and expect you to live my lifestyle. That having been said, the idea that a Jewish law is unfair because that’s how one makes his or her living is not a strong argument. Take your personal situation out of it: “I make my living driving on Shabbos/making cheeseburgers/as a female impersonator/robbing houses, therefore the laws of Shabbos/keeping kosher/cross-dressing/robbery are inherently unfair.” If one engages in an activity, whether for business or for pleasure, and he or she then discovers that it is at odds with Jewish law, one can choose to comply or to keep on doing the thing in question, but the conflict does not invalidate the law.
You also say that women can sing without it being sensual but then you go on to say that Andrea Bocelli arouses women without trying to. Doesn’t that kind of prove my original point?
I can tell you that I don’t try to objectify women – I love women! My mother was a woman! – and Orthodox women do not by and large feel objectified by these laws. (If anything, objectification is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish!) But it’s by no means meant to “blame the victim” for men’s inability to control their baser urges. Whenever someone claims that’s the reason for tzniyus laws, I categorically reject that explanation. (By the way, blaming the victim is reprehensible and we don’t believe in it in Jewish law.)
I’m not trying to convert you to my way of thinking but those who follow these rules simply don’t see things the way you do. There are no more insidious motives to this particular set of laws than to the laws of Shabbos or kashrus. Just like not everyone will buy into those lifestyle choices, not everyone will agree when it comes to the laws of kol isha and tzniyus. That’s each individual’s prerogative and people are entitled to say that a given rule makes them feel a certain way but they cannot then attribute others’ motivations to those feelings.
(I hesitate to use this forum to self-promote but if you want more information, I wrote a book on this topic called, appropriately enough, The Tzniyus Book. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)
I hope this helps! I wish you nothing but the best success, even if I won’t be attending your concerts any time soon! 😉
How does the song of Miriam [Exodus 15] figure into this?
You’ll notice two things about that: (1) the women sang separately from the men and (2) the women, unlike the men, used drums and tambourines. Between the separation and the sound of percussion instruments, the women’s singing was not clearly audible to the men.
Was there a command in the Bible prior to this time that women shouldn’t sing in front of men?
That’s an excellent question. We know that our ancestors voluntarily kept many mitzvos before the Torah was given. How obligatory these mitzvos were is a question that even Joseph and his brothers wrestled with. So, I wouldn’t say that the women who sang with Miriam were necessarily bound by law so much as that there was a mutually-agreed upon standard of behavior. “Das yehudis” refers to laws that started as grassroots practices accepted by Jewish women that were ratified by rabbinic law. (The idea of a binding community standard is true even today.)
Rabbi, this kind of answer does not explain Devorah and Barak singing together. According to the literal text they are not married. Additionally, In Shmuel, Barzilai talks about hearing women singing. Ezra the Scribe brings two hundreds women singers when he returns to Jerusalem. Moreover, there is no issue of kol isha when a woman sings in synagogue (see Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s responsum on a woman reading the megilla for a man.) Thankfully there is a spectrum of halachic thought on this topic. Rav Soloveitchik, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Rav Lichtenstein have no problem with women singing appropriate songs in public.
“this kind of answer does not explain Devorah and Barak singing together. According to the literal text they are not married”
You say it doesn’t answer what you see as a problematic situation but you preemptively excluded an important piece of information on the basis that it does not appear in the text. (It’s not actually contradicted by the text!) The tradition that Devorah and Barak were married does not exist as a justification of her song, it’s based on the fact that “Barak” (lightning) and “Lapidos” (flashes) are essentially synonymous (although “eishes lapidos” does not necessarily mean “the wife of Lapidos.” It could also mean that Devorah was “a fiery woman.”)
In any event, answering any of the situations you describe – if they are in fact problematic – would require relying upon extra-textual information. I assure you that Chazal (the rabbis of the Talmud) who said that “kol b’isha erva” (a woman’s voice is private) were well aware of all of these issues when they formulated that dictum.
As far as halacha l’maaseh, the famous teshuvah of the Sridei Aish is generally regarded as the definitive word on the subject (though people largely misunderstand that teshuvah and apply it in cases where the Sridei Aish would not have permitted it).
Hon, I’ll start doing things only for my husband’s enjoyment when he starts doing things only for mine.
Thanks for your comment, Liz. It’s a good point. Here’s my response to it http://jewinthecity.com/2007/11/why-orthodox-men-dont-wear-wigs/
I find your arguments to be extremely weak, to put it mildly. Society has evolved plenty from the Greek times. You mentioned sirens in Greek mythology and this is 100% irrelevant. Also in Greek society, it was acceptable for grown men to rape little boys. In 2014, outside of the Taliban rape dens, this is seen as absolutely beyond the pale of society.
So then you bring up Madonna and other modern singers. The issue is not their voice but the fact that Madonna wore a pointy bra. I don’t think any rational human being would claim Madonna has the best voice in the world. And someone like Adele – who has a far more beautiful voice – is not lusted after by men because of her appearance.
The fact remains that instead of telling women they have to cover up their bodies and voices, it should be incumbent upon men to learn how to control themselves. Otherwise, why not make women wear burqas? If men cannot control themselves, then ultimately that is what they should do.
If men learn self control, then women singing should be no problem at all. As an example, I attend a conservative shul with a female cantor. Every man has behaved with utmost respect towards the cantor.
I would like to add that your arguments make even less sense given that we live in a world of gays and lesbians. Some men will not be able to control themselves over the singing voices of other men. Should everyone cover up and avoid singing? Surely the answer is yes, by your logic.
One more thing. If we declare a woman’s singing voice (and her elbows, for that matter) is sexual, then instead of de-sexualizing the over-sexed Western society, we are actually adding more sexuality and repression.
Perfect (more extreme) example – if you go to naked beaches on Fire Island, do you know what you see? No problem at all! Naked people interacting with each other as if there was not a care in the world. No problem with rapes, no problem with sexual harassment.
In contrast, look at Lara Logan, who was totally clothed, and attacked and raped in Tahrir Square. Hell, there was an imam in Iraq who issued a fatwa to diaper goats. Why? Because otherwise the genitalia of goats was too sexy and enticing to men and the goat is pretty much “asking for it”.
Context matters. Being able to control yourself matters. Instead of placing the burden on women to cover up the burden should be on men to control their libidos.
Please forgive me for speaking for Allison but from what I’ve seen, her approach (like my own) is descriptive rather than prescriptive. She’s explaining why we do what we do, not telling you what to do. But you still seem rather angry about this. You keep coming back to rape and the supposed inability of men to control themselves, neither of which has anything to do with Allison’s points. Kol isha, like other modesty protocols, is not about control, it’s about respect.
I always say that kol isha is a two-sided coin. Is it that women aren’t allowed to sing in front of men or that men aren’t allowed to listen to women sing? My wife would be able to go to far more concerts and Broadway shows than the halacha allows me, so who is being “controlled” by the law, men or women? And, since you keep straying into Islam for extreme examples, while I don’t know any Muslimas who wear a burqa, I have several friends who wear the hijab and they all do so voluntarily because they feel it enhances their religious observance.
So nobody is telling you what to do. Go to all the nude beaches you want if that’s your thing! But if we choose an approach that works for us, don’t assume that it’s enabling a culture of rape or oppression because nothing could be farther from the truth.
Look – if a woman feels she is more spiritual and connected to God by wearing a hijab or a sheitel or not singing in front of men – fine. If they do so without any compulsion from a man – fine. As long as they do not in any way believe that wearing hijab or a sheitel is necessary to help men control their libidos, or if they do not wear said garments, then they are enticing men to sin. If they see these garments as little more than a prayer shawl – that is their business.
However, by telling women that their singing voice is too sexy or alluring for anyone but their husbands to hear, or even by linking something as benign as a voice or the female head of hair to sexuality, then inherently you are sexualizing the female body far more than Western culture does. And that should be acknowledged.
Hi Singing Girl. Thanks for your comments, I’m gonna jump in here. This is my take as a woman who was raised without these ideas (I grew up Conservative) and chose to adopt them. I first and foremost live a halachic lifestyle because I believe in the system. I believe in the Jewish people. I believe in a God that gave us a Torah and a method to apply Jewish law throughout all time. This system is meaningful to me and there is much truth that I have perceived in it – in the living of these mitzvos and the in depth learning of our holy books.
However – coming from a 21st Century Western mentality, not all parts of our tradition seem to jive with what I grew up with. We live in a world where a woman’s voice or hair or elbows or knees for that matter appear to be asexual. They’re everywhere. We have become desensitized to them.
One commenter noted on some post at some point that it would be great if women could just run around topless like men can so those parts lose their “wow” effect too. It’s my personal belief (and I think traditional Judaism agrees) that there is something special about having these parts be able to “wow” men still. I think most women would be pretty disappointed if their breasts did nothing for the man in their life.
Judaism takes this idea one step further and by making certain parts off limits: i.e. voice, elbow, knees, etc. it means that these parts which seem to have no sexuality to them are able to have sexuality. When a couple doesn’t touch for half the month when practicing the laws of family purity, something as innocent as hand holding and hugging gets a whole new potency to it when the couple reunites.
So that’s how I see this ideas as an Orthodox feminist. There is a sacrifice I’m making by not showing all these parts or singing in front of men. But my husband also sacrifices. He exposes himself less to other women in these ways and then those parts of me become more special to him and that makes me feel pretty great.
Like Rabbi Abramowitz said, I’m not here to tell anyone what he or she should be doing. I’m explaining why I’ve chosen this lifestyle and why it’s meaningful to me.
I am a Christian woman and I just happened onto this site and started reading. I don’t know anything about Jewish laws, but, thanks to your descriptions and interpretations, I think I understand enough to follow this line of questions and answers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t understand, as well, and I’m sure there’s way more to the laws and beliefs than one could write about adequately in this medium. One should study completely before making any judgments. I was just intrigued by the subject matter and it sparked a few questions and observations. First, let me say that I do understand that you have chosen to believe in these laws and lifestyle of your own free will, just like I choose to believe in the Bible and it’s laws to live by. Ok so here goes…
What are the consequences of a man becoming so aroused by a woman singing/her immodesty/her hair or whatever that he “spills his seed”? What are the consequences of a woman who breaks the laws of immodesty or sings in public? From a Christian standpoint these would be called “sins” and we would have to pray for forgiveness and try not to repeat the sins again.
As far as the laws of immodesty, I have the following thoughts: We are males and females, but even before that – we are ALL human beings, right? And all human beings are, by nature, “sexual” beings, right? But, I would hope that you would agree that we are, by no means, “just” sexual beings. You wouldn’t say that all a woman is good for – is for sex, or vice-versa – all a man is good for is sex, right? We are so much more. A woman is/can be a mother, provider, caretaker, friend, partner, housekeeper, cook, etc. A man is a provider, protector, cook, housekeeper, friend, partner, etc. So, if our sexuality is only say 10-15% of who we are, then why do we need immodesty laws? Doesn’t the law inherently objectify her by giving so much weight to just 10-15% of her being? Doesn’t it imply that she is looked at, first and foremost, as a sexual being instead of all of the other wonderful things she is? I, personally believe, this law has more to do with men feeling threatened that their woman (and remember 1,000 yrs. ago and even less, women were “property”) might be taken from them. It implies that the woman is some kind of seductress and will tempt men, other than her husband. (I also believe this theory dates back to Adam and Eve.) In other words, the fault lies with the woman, instead of the man who becomes aroused or steals/seduces/or is tempted by the woman. I’m not sure how tight the clothing is that you are required to wear, but, believe me, men have great imaginations and it doesn’t take much for a man to be attracted by what he “believes” is under the clothing. And it doesn’t even have to be the stereotypical “sexual” parts either. What about men with a foot fetish? Do your feet have to be covered around men you are not related to? Also, a man can get to know a woman and fall in “lust” with her, too. I do agree that a man is typically more “visual” than a woman and can become aroused by what he sees, but it’s his choice what to do with that “arousal”. Which leads me to this question: Is it a “sin” to be aroused or just to take it further by “spilling his seed”?
In the case of a woman singing, did I understand correctly that a man could listen to a woman singing so long as he doesn’t know what she looks like? If a woman’s voice can be so alluring and seductive to a man, again, shouldn’t the onous be on him to control himself instead of on the woman? Shouldn’t the law about a man becoming so aroused that he spills his seed be the only applicable law? I mean, you can’t makes laws about every possible thing that a man could become aroused by, right? Or else that would be like removing all responsibility for his actions or reactions that may lead him to break the laws. At some point, there has to be an accounting for one’s own behavior. As far as the laws that you say are about mutual “respect” (immodesty on hers and “don’t look” law for him) – again, I don’t think anyone can “not look” if you are living in the secular world, even when the clothing is immodest. I believe everyone takes that first 3 seconds of observation naturally, whether making a judgment or not, we have to look at who we are speaking to/doing business with, etc. The mind will do the rest, especially in men.
Anyway, I appreciate your answers and explanations.
Hey, Daralynn. There’s a lot here, so I’m going to take it piecemeal.
Judaism doesn’t have the emphasis on sin that Christianity does. Our viewpoint is that the commandments reflect the will of G-d, Who only wants what’s best for us, and that should be all the reason we need to do that. In a Jewish household, you might hear, “Don’t do that – it’s not allowed on the Sabbath!” or “Don’t eat that – it’s not kosher!” but you’ll never hear those phrases followed by “It’s a sin!” We don’t follow the laws to get into Heaven or to avoid Hell, we do them because they represent the will of G-d as best we understand it.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a concept of sin. There is, and when one has done something wrong, he must repent. Repentance can (and should) be done year-round but the ten days from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur are specially designated for reviewing our deeds, making amends, and resolving to improve.
So, what happens if someone acts inappropriately? He should resolve to do better. Any spiritual consequences are in G-d’s hands and are strictly His business.
Not at all. It ENSURES that she’s looked at as all of those other things. People respect women like Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, etc. – if you mentally conjure an image of any of them, it is inherently modest. People may LIKE Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton, and Kesha (excuse me – “Ke$ha”), but they don’t * respect * them. And the objectification of these women is part of the reason why. The modesty laws de-emphasize the sexual aspect specifically so we can focus on the rest of the person. (See my book “The Tzniyus Book” for more on this: http://www.amazon.com/The-Tzniyus-Book-Jack-Abramowitz/dp/1441577963)
You’re projecting Christian theology onto Judaism. We don’t have a concept of “original sin” or that woman is responsible for “the fall.” Adam and Eve were equally responsible for their actions and each punished accordingly. (Actually, Adam tried to blame Eve – see Genesis 3:12 – but G-d wasn’t having it!)
Similarly, the idea that women were ever considered “property” in Jewish law is groundless. Women always had a surprising number of rights compared to other contemporary cultures. For example, a woman could not be married against her will, she could own her own property, her husband has numerous marital obligations to her, etc. They were never considered chattel.
The rules are the rules, they don’t change based on individual preferences. A woman may not undress in front of a gay man, who wouldn’t be aroused. If a man has an earlobe fetish, she need not cover her earlobes around him.
Now, let’s say that someone does have a fetish for something that is normally permitted to look at. It would be advisable for him to protect himself from undue arousal as much as possible. (Anyone can walk into a liquor store and buy a fifth; some people shouldn’t because they can’t handle alcohol. The same is true here.)
Again, the emphasis isn’t on “sin,” it’s on right and wrong behavior. The arousal itself should be avoided even if it doesn’t lead to seminal emission. (You can get a ticket for going 80 mph, even if you don’t hit anyone. If you hit someone, it’s just worse! Same here.)
<< In the case of a woman singing, did I understand correctly that a man could listen to a woman singing so long as he doesn't know what she looks like? If a woman's voice can be so alluring and seductive to a man, again, shouldn't the onous be on him to control himself instead of on the woman? Shouldn't the law about a man becoming so aroused that he spills his seed be the only applicable law? I mean, you can't makes laws about every possible thing that a man could become aroused by, right? Or else that would be like removing all responsibility for his actions or reactions that may lead him to break the laws. At some point, there has to be an accounting for one's own behavior. As far as the laws that you say are about mutual "respect" (immodesty on hers and "don't look" law for him) – again, I don't think anyone can "not look" if you are living in the secular world, even when the clothing is immodest. I believe everyone takes that first 3 seconds of observation naturally, whether making a judgment or not, we have to look at who we are speaking to/doing business with, etc. The mind will do the rest, especially in men.
A man may not listen to a live woman singing; the rationale of “doesn’t know what she looks like” only applies in the case of recorded music, though it’s not a universal standard. (And the onus IS on him; Lady Gaga and Madonna don’t come to my house and play their CDs.) And, as mentioned, seminal emission doesn’t enter into it.
The Sages set certain safeguards in all areas of law. On the Sabbath, we don’t move things that may not be used. We don’t eat chicken with milk. Women should cover their upper arms. While they are meant to keep us from inadvertently violating biblical-level prohibitions, these safeguards are rules in their own rights. (Again, like not speeding is meant to keep us from killing pedestrians.) But only the safeguards they enacted are laws. I can eat fish with milk. A woman need not wear gloves around men in order to cover her hands.
But men ARE responsible for their own actions! I just said that a woman need not wear gloves around men for modesty reasons, but the Talmud says that if a man counts change into a woman’s hand with the intention that he should derive pleasure from staring at it, it’s the same as if he stared at her genitals. She need not cover her hands; the onus is on him to act appropriately. (Similarly, men may sit next to women on crowded subway cars because there’s nothing sexual about it. If one is aroused by it, however, he may not do so.)
I hope this helps!
Thank you, Rabbi, for your reply. I think I have a better understanding now. I appreciate your in-depth answer to my questions. It opened my eyes to a few things that I wasn’t aware of (ie. Adam and Eve and “original sin” and how it is viewed in Judaism). It was all very interesting and I’m glad that I submitted my questions!! Good luck to you and yours and G-d bless!
Thank you for such a wonderful blog! I am on the journey of the baal teshuva, but am really struggling with this trouble of being unable to sing in public. I am a singer and have been for most of my life (I am 19 now). I am currently majoring in music and want to use my gift of singing to help the world. But I am nervous now that I cannot. What is your advice?
Also, I am still confused as to why men can sing and women cannot. I know so many women who only become attracted to men because of their voices. They then do everything in their power to get the men to like them, including acting in immodest ways. So how is that different, other than spilling of the seed in men’s causes.
Thanks, Chaya! This can be a tough mitzvah for any woman (and remember it limits men as well in terms of entertainment they can partake in), but especially for singers. There are some pretty incredible women who are making a career out of singing to women only audiences, like Bullet Proof Stockings, Shaindel Antelis, and Moran Sabbah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tK6qvn_S1hk
You can still use singing to help the world, but it may not be exactly as you envisioned it. When it comes to halacha – there will be things that are easier for people and harder and it’s not an all or nothing thing. Life is meant to be a growth process, so take your time as you grow. It is a marathon, not a sprint! And reach out to these women to hear how they are doing it. Good luck!
I am reform jewish i go to a modern orthodox school i am in the drama club we r doing matilda though i get no solo i still am so mad about this
I’m not sure if you’re saying that you’re mad about not getting a solo because of kol isha or if you’re mad about this blog post. I’ll answer both.
1. Assuming that you’re angry about not getting a solo:
That’s understandable and, believe it or not, I can totally relate. I also went to a modern Orthodox school – I started in eighth grade before I was Sabbath-observant. I was there by choice because I wanted to learn but I didn’t agree with a number of the rules. One I recall was that they opposed certain outside activities, like rock concerts. (Even today, I love rock concerts!) From my point of view, it was none of their business what I did outside of school hours, but I wanted to attend this school and that meant accepting the rules.
The same is true of dress codes, which many students object to. They may not agree with them religiously, but it’s a school rule like any other, so it’s not optional. One can petition for change but until that happens, students are obligated because it’s a school rule, theological issues aside.
Here, too, you may not agree with the policy. You may feel that the religious underpinning is misguided. Such is your prerogative. But whatever the religious basis of the policy is, the bottom line is that it’s the school policy. There’s simply not much you can do about that.
All that having been said, a musical featuring a female protagonist is an odd choice for a school that won’t give girls solos!
2. Assuming that you’re mad about the blog post:
What about it angers you?
There was the case recently of a girl not being able to wear patent leather shoes at her religious school so that the opposite sex couldn’t see up her skirt. I’m sorry ,the female singing voice restriction comes out of the same stable. Men sitting around in yeshivas with too much time on their hands inevitably developing impure thoughts which in the normal world would be considered an insult to the intelligence and moral compass of most of us.
Thanks for your comment, Simon. A ban on patent leather shoes has no basis in Jewish law or even reality. The restriction on a singing voice is based on the Talmud. It would be fair to argue that times have changed and that what was once considered immodest no longer is, but despite that, we don’t have a system in place to undo such a prohibition. I won’t say there aren’t challenges in halacha like this, but any group that has tried to pick and choose this law and leave that law behind has ultimately failed. So while I can agree that certain laws are harder to understand in our day and age, I am willing to live with them and even happy to in order to keep the system intact.
“any group that has tried to pick and choose this law and leave that law behind has ultimately failed”
Christianity is still around
Christianity has never been about adhering to laws. Christians believe that salvation comes through faith. I’m referring to Jewish groups.