Friday, August 31, 2007

Kol Isha Today

The Israeli media recently reported the story of an observant singer, Eliyahu Faizkov, whose high-pitched singing vocals have been banned from some religious radio stations. Apparently, some listeners had objected, assuming that they were listening to the voice of woman.

The mere suggestion that kol ishah (the prohibition of a man listening to a woman singing) should apply in the modern era is bound to raise hackles. In a society where overt sexual behaviour is common-place, this rule seems anachronistic: laughable perhaps, certainly deeply counter-cultural and to many, disempowering and offensive to women. Yet kol ishah is widely observed in the religious world and actually reflects deep truths about male-female interactions.

The key source is the Talmudic statement by Shemuel noting that a woman’s voice is sexually exciting; this indicates that in principle a man should not listen to a woman singing. Almost all sources understand this dictum to refer only to a woman’s singing voice.

The circumstances in which this rule applies has been debated for centuries. Some suggest that Shemuel’s statement was made only with reference to a man reciting the Shema – i.e. he may not say the Shema within earshot of a woman singing. Other important sources understand that the statement is a general one: a man may not listen for pleasure to a woman singing even when he is not praying or saying the Shema, as this would be considered a forbidden form of stimulation. The Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law) clearly rules in favour of the second, more stringent opinion.

There is fierce discussion among later sources about men and women singing together in groups, especially around the Shabbat table. Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg notes that the common practice was (and remains) that women refrained from singing Shabbat songs in the presence of guests who were not family members. Yet in nineteenth-century Germany women commonly participated in zemirot (table-songs), relying on the Talmudic principle that ‘two voices singing together cannot be distinguished’. This assumes that kol ishah applies only to a solo voice, although the sources do not extend the leniency beyond the Shabbat table. Rabbi Weinberg, while not entirely happy with this reasoning, allows women to sing holy songs in mixed groups, based on the additional assumption that the religious nature of the music precludes arousal. This view has been contested by a number of subsequent authorities and remains a matter of dispute. The ‘traditional’ practice is the norm in most Charedi societies, whereas the ‘German’ custom is common in Modern Orthodox circles.

Contemporary halachists debate whether the restriction of kol ishah should apply to broadcast and recorded music. Rabbi Yaakov Breisch assumes that the prohibition applies with full force in such circumstances, but Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg contends that in the case of a radio broadcast or recording, one is not actually hearing the voice, but an electronic reproduction of it. While this may seem a technicality, the qualitative distinction between live and recorded music is undeniable and since one cannot fulfil the Mitzvah of hearing the Megillah over the radio, presumably a broadcast of a woman’s voice cannot constitute kol ishah. He also connects visual and aural stimulation and rules that when the man cannot see the woman, he may listen to a radio broadcast of her voice. Rabbi Yosef agrees with this position, but asserts that the same leniency won’t apply to a television show! For obvious reasons, he also restricts it to a case where the man has no idea what the woman singing looks like.

For the modern reader, the halachic issues are insignificant in comparison with the conceptual difficulties raised by kol ishah. Are men really aroused by women’s voices? Why is there no equivalent prohibition for women, called, say kol ish? Shouldn’t these rules be dependent on societal norms? If so, hardly anyone today considers a woman’s singing voice to be erotic. (Rabbi Yosef and others assert that the fact that we are comfortable with women’s voices does not remove the prohibition of kol ishah).

The Talmud places the onus on men to avoid listening to women’s voices. It may be polite (and it certainly makes life easier) for a woman to avoid singing in the presence of a man, but the burden of obligation falls on the man to avoid situations that compromise his religious life. There is no obligation for a woman to refrain from singing and no expectation that a woman should stifle her need to sing: sometimes, a man will have to make himself scarce. As with other areas of Jewish life, great sensitivity is required to weigh competing interests – in this case, the very real need of women to express themselves through the powerful medium of song, balanced against the law of kol ishah.

Judaism offers a wise approach to understanding male-female interactions. We delude ourselves if we think that men and women are sexually stimulated in the same way: a cursory glance at contemporary advertising and media is sufficient to dispel that myth. Judaism recognises that men are more frequently aroused by visual and other sensory stimuli than women. To redress this quite natural imbalance, Jewish law imposes a number of restrictions on men beyond those also incumbent on women: one of these is kol ishah. Put simply, creating a healthy and respectful Jewish society demands recognition and regulation of various stimuli, tailored to the needs of each gender.

In a desensitised world, kol ishah seems quaint, almost absurd. Yet it enables us to understand just how delicate our level of awareness should be. It is a tragedy that most men today claim to find nothing erotic in a woman’s singing voice, something that is natural and healthy. Observing kol ishah is one way to rekindle lost sensitivities, enabling us in turn to invest more of ourselves in our special relationships.


Shemuel said: the voice of a woman is ervah (sexually exciting), as the verse says: (Song 2:14) for your voice is sweet and your appearance attractive. (Talmud Berakhot 24a)

It is prohibited (for a man) to hear the voice of one forbidden to him. (Shulhan Arukh Ever HaEzer 21:1)

Whenever the song isn’t crude and [the man] doesn’t intend to enjoy [the woman’s] voice… while it is certainly appropriate to be stringent (and avoid listening)… it isn’t a surprising view (to be lenient). (Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, Sedey Hemed, quoting Divrey Hefetz)

When I came to the city of Berlin, I saw men and women singing holy Shabbat songs together in the homes of the very orthodox and I was astonished, for it contradicts an explicit law…. But after some investigation, I discovered that Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch from Frankfurt allowed the singing of holy songs together…. (Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Seridey Aish 2:8)

….Shemuel’s law is not a general proposition as to the sexually arousing character of a woman’s voice, but rather is a restriction on the recitation of Shema under circumstances where it is not possible to maintain proper concentration. (Rabbi Saul Berman, Kol Isha)

The conclusion (of Rabbi Berman)…. is fundamentally mistaken, resulting from the author’s having ignored the key discussion…. (Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Kol Isha Reviewed)

Do not think that now that everyone is accustomed to women’s voices we are no longer concerned about erotic thoughts…. (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer 1:6)

Joke: May a religious man attend the opera? He’s not over* until the fat lady sings.

* doesn’t transgress

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hard Questions About Kiruv

I have been involved with formal and informal outreach for more than 15 years but have only recently started to ask myself a few pointed questions, which I share, anticipating that they will be of value to others.

How do we ensure that those we help to become involved in Jewish observance stay tolerant of others who have not taken the same bold steps as they? Surely we don’t want Ba’aley Teshuvah (the newly observant) to regard their family members as sinful failures. It is likely that their childhood homes were the incubators within which they learned a sense of social justice, the pursuit of truth and the dedication to family values and were therefore indispensable to their ultimate discovery of a Torah lifestyle. Do we, as the facilitators of religious seekers’ spiritual growth constantly emphasise this, or do we see their families as opponents to be defeated?

Perhaps worse, it seems that the newly-religious sometimes maintain their relationships with non-observant friends simply to try to make them religious. It seems improbable, but is it just possible that we encourage it? Picture, if you will, Bob and Jenny, old friends of John (now Yochanan) and Sheila (now Sheindy). Bob and Jenny are unlikely to feel kindly disposed to their newly-religious friends (or indeed Judaism at all) if they discover that Yochanan and Sheindy have only remained in contact with them in the hope of making them frum.

While it is beneficial to develop a confident and firm attitude to one’s own Jewish life, will the products of outreach also remain open-minded towards those who have adopted a different style of Orthodoxy from their own? This can be very painful: I recently heard of a case where two scarcely-observant friends from a traditional community became religious and went off to Yeshivos in Israel: one to a modern-style establishment, the other to a Charedi institution. The acrimony between them over religious issues is now so ingrained that when they come home for vacation, the local rabbi struggles to contain their feuding.

To what extent do we encourage our charges to recognise that integrating key aspects of their previous existence into a newly-observant life is indispensable to mature religious development and a healthy emotional future? People who come late to Judaism are often strongly attached to certain expressions of culture such as art, music and literature, and also to sport. Might it be a little off-beam (and not such great psychology) to encourage them to relinquish these when they become observant? For a time, the excitement of their newly-found Torah life will carry them through, but afterwards, sometimes years on, an inexplicable sense of emptiness may develop. If not addressed, many of us have seen this develop into unhappiness and even doubt about the fulfilment offered by a religious life-style; in extreme (but not uncommon) cases it may lead people to re-evaluate their original decision to become observant. And, crazy at it might seem, addressing this pain may well involve advising people not to adopt new religious stringencies or say more Tehillim (psalms). It could even mean helping them to reintroduce long-abandoned cultural experiences into their lives, albeit with careful guidance. Could The Beatles, Monet or the Boston Red Sox be part of the solution, rather than the problem? Despite conventional wisdom, might it be better to help the newly-observant recognise that they can be fully-fledged members of the religious world without discarding major aspects of their previous lives.

But most importantly, do we constantly re-examine our motivations in helping others to become more observant? Do we focus on them as individuals or see each of them as an opportunity to make another ‘notch in the shtender’? Is it faintly possible that some outreach is conducted with the objective of turning people into a pre-determined product which merely mirrors the kiruv-professional’s own life-style and affiliation? Many people are critical of a certain Chassidic group, whose objective appears to produce new members of the sect, but might some parts of the kiruv world be doing the same thing? Are religious neophytes just potential new members of our group, to be steered into a particular life-style and social-setting? Might, we perhaps without even realising it, envisage the newly-interested couple a few years into their religious journey living in a certain neighbourhood in a certain type of home, their children attending a certain type of school, with certain rabbis advising them, with certain aspirations: he learning in a certain type of institution, wearing a certain type of hat, she pushing a certain type of baby-stroller while wearing a certain type of hair-covering?

To be fair to the incredible outreach professionals who dedicate their lives to sharing the beauty of Judaism with others, many potential Ba’aley Teshuvah are drawn to monolithic parts of the religious world without much encouragement. They may consider what is on offer there ‘more authentic’ with the perceived benefits including rigidity of lifestyle and the comfort of not having to make one’s own decisions. Yet, if we actually encourage that outlook by role-modelling the religious world in that way, we may risk a potential tidal-wave of disaffection and disillusionment ahead of us.

There are, of course, many possible causes of religious disenchantment, including those completely beyond the control of the outreach professionals who engaged the Ba’aley Teshuvah in the first place. These may include pre-existing emotional instability, the unexpected pressures of living in religious society, the disappointing discovery that the Orthodox world isn’t actually perfect, and even a sense of personal failure in comparison with one’s perceived religious responsibilities. Each of these deserves a separate treatment, but we will focus here on religious disillusionment stemming from the outreach process itself.

I hope that it’s not too controversial to suggest that the objectives of outreach are to help each Jew reach his or her full potential as a human being, ultimately through Mitzvah observance and Torah study. Presumably we should get to know those who seek our guidance: learn to love them as individuals; discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Developing a sense that the religious needs of each person we meet differ considerably from those of every other can be difficult, but might we be doing those with whom we work a disservice by adopting any other approach? The Sages teach:

When a man mints many coins with one stamp, they all look the same, but while the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, minted each person with the ‘stamp’ of Adam the First, no one looks like any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

If God created us as individuals, it should be the role of those privileged to help His children along their journey towards Him to foster that individuality. Shouldn’t we try to craft a tailor-made religious path for each of our students? Despite the complexities of doing this, it might just enable them to benefit from the wonders of Torah life without stifling their personality or crushing their need for self-expression.

Is it just possible that the multi-chromatic vision of the Jewish world isn’t the common one in the kiruv scene because some of those in charge don’t subscribe to it? Some of us may have come to believe that there is a single optimum way to be a Torah Jew: one ‘correct’ approach to all Jewish issues, one best way of observing halakhah (Jewish law), one ideal mode of living and one supreme authority for Jewish life. May I suggest, perhaps contrary to prevailing norms, that a kiruv operative would see it as a sacred duty to learn about (and hence validate) the range of Jewish possibilities and to incorporate that into his or her kiruv practice. After all, the magnificent system of thought and practice called Judaism really does have a multiplicity of expressions. Finally, might an outreach professional who thinks that it is his or her mission to turn an eclectic group of non-observant Jews into a bunch of religious clones be in the wrong job?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents