Sunday, February 26, 2006

Damned if we do and damned if we don’t (part two)—the textual evidence

(Thanks to Gili Houpt, who recently added us to his NYC Jewish Music mailing list, for providing the hyperlink to most of the material in this post. [To be added to his group, send an e-mail here.] Thanks, also, to one of the Jewish blogosphere’s dedicated explicators of Jewish law, Rabbi Gil Student, of Hirhurim [from whom you will read more in the next post], and to Rabbi Rabbi Howard Jachter, whose elucidation of the halachah (Jewish law) in question is quoted at length below. My thanks, in addition to GoldaLeah, of Go West, Young Jew, for posting the words of Jewish scholar Judith Plaskow on the Jewish blogosphere.)

In accordance with the order established in the study texts included in the Birchot HaShachar (Blessings of the Morning), I’ll start by citing a story from the Torah shehBiCh’tav/Written Torah (Bible/Law), then proceed to the Torah shehB’Al Peh/Oral Law).

Yehudah (Judah) paid for the services of a prostitute, and no one in the Biblical text said a thing. But it turned out that the alleged prostitute was his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, who had entrapped Yehudah into having sex with her in order to fulfill the law of levirate marriage to raise up a child in the name of her deceased husband (Yehudah’s son). When it became clear that Tamar was pregnant, Yehudah ordered her burned for playing the harlot. He rescinded the order only because Tamar presented indisputable evidence that Yehudah himself was the baby’s father. (See Parshat Vayeshev, Genesis 38:1-30.)

And now, a word (or two) from the Torah shehB’Al Peh/Oral Law: (Mishna, Gemara, and/or rabbinic interpretations thereof):

From Rabbi Gil Student’s blog—just check the sidebar to the right for the “Select Topics” list and click on "Kol Isha I."

“It is generally understood that a man is not allowed to hear a woman's singing voice [kol isha]. . . .”

Courtesy of this source:

Rabbi Jachter's Halacha Files (and other Halachic compositions)
A Student Publication of the Isaac and Mara Benmergui Torah Academy of Bergen County

“The Parameters of Kol Isha
by Rabbi Howard Jachter

The Source of the Prohibition
The Gemara (Berachot 24a) states, “The voice of a woman is Ervah [nakedness], as the Pasuk [in Shir Hashirim 2:14] states ‘let me hear your voice because your voice is pleasant and appearance attractive.’” Rashi explains that the Pasuk [blogger’s note: verse] in Shir Hashirim [blogger’s note: Song of Songs] indicates that a woman’s voice is attractive to a man, and is thus prohibited to him. Rav Hai Gaon (cited in the Mordechai, Berachot 80) writes that this restriction applies to a man who is reading Kriat Shema, because a woman’s singing will distract him. The Rosh (Berachot 3:37) disagrees and writes that the Gemara refers to all situations and is not limited to Kriat Shema. The Shulchan Aruch rules that the Kol Isha restriction applies to both Kriat Shema (Orach Chaim 75:3) and other contexts (Even Haezer 21:2). The Rama (O.C. 75:3) and Bait Shmuel (21:4) clarify that this prohibition applies only to a woman’s singing voice and not to her speaking voice. . . . .

“Both Rav Ovadia Yosef (ibid) and Rav Yehuda Henkin (Teshuvot Bnei Banim 3:127) reject the claim that this prohibition does not apply today since men nowadays are accustomed to hear a woman’s voice. These authorities explain that since the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch codify this prohibition, we do not enjoy the right to abolish it. The Gemara and its commentaries do not even hint at a possibility that this prohibition might not apply if men become habituated to hearing a woman’s voice. Thus, all recognized Poskim agree that the prohibition of Kol Isha applies today. . . .

Zemirot [Sabbath songs]
There is, however, considerable disagreement regarding the scope of the Kol Isha prohibition. For example, the question of its applicability to Zemirot has been discussed at some length in the twentieth century responsa literature. Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (Teshuvot Seridei Eish 2:8) notes that traditionally women refrained from singing Zemirot when there were males who were not family members sitting at the Shabbat table. However, he records that the practice in Germany was for woman to sing Zemirot in the company of unrelated men. Rav Weinberg records that Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (two great German Rabbis of the nineteenth century) sanctioned this practice. Rav Weinberg reports that they based their ruling on the Talmudic rule (Megila 21b) that “Trei Kali Lo Mishtamai,” two voices cannot be heard simultaneously. . . .

“Rav Weinberg writes that he does not find this explanation satisfying (perhaps because the Gemara (Sotah 48a) writes that men and women singing together is a major impropriety). Rav Weinberg instead defends the German Jewish practice by citing the Sdei Chemed (Klalim, Maarechet Hakuf, 42) who quotes the Divrei Cheifetz who asserts that the Kol Isha prohibition does not apply to women singing Zemirot, singing songs to children, and lamentations for the dead. This authority explains that in these contexts men do not derive pleasure from the woman’s voice.

“Rav Weinberg writes that we should not pressure women who wish to follow the traditional practice to join Zemirot in a mixed group. Indeed, many Poskim oppose this practice of German Jewry (see Otzar Haposkim E.H. 21:1:20:3). However, some cite the Gemara (Megila 23a) that states that women are forbidden to receive an Aliyah to the Torah because of Kavod Hatzibbur [for an explanation, go here and scroll up to read the post itself] as proof to the German practice. [They argue that the fact that the Gemara does not mention Kol Isha as the reason to forbid women’s Aliyot proves that the Kol Isha restriction does not apply when a woman sings sacred texts. Others reply that the Gemara might be speaking of a woman reading the Torah to her immediate family members or may be speaking of a female child reading the Torah (see comments of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, and Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv cited in Nishmat Avraham 5:76-77). . . .

Observance of the Kol Isha prohibition is quite challenging for us as this prohibition runs counter to the prevailing Western culture. In today’s promiscuous society where outrageous behavior is deemed acceptable, a woman’s singing voice appears innocuous. Moreover, the general culture views this prohibition offensive and demeaning to women. We are challenged to hold firm to our beliefs against the flow of the general cultural tide. . . . “ [End of Rabbi Howard Jachter’s presentation]

My own two cents:

So, in other words, we’re supposed to hold fast to the prohibition against a man hearing a woman sing precisely, davka, because “the general culture views this prohibition offensive and demeaning to women?”

Two cents more from an anonymous comment on Not the Gadol Hador’s Wednesday, September 14, 2005 post, The Thing I Hate Most About Orthodoxy”: (yes, there are comments, though the screen denies it—just click and read):

“And really, men should get out of the tznius business altogether; they are currently doing a lot of damage by imposing their own angst with contemporary society on religious women. . . . “Anonymous 09.14.05 - 4:11 pm

Speaking of “their own angst with contemporary society,” one meaning of the word “contemporary,” according to Webster’s New World Dictionary is “living or happening in the same period.” Apparently, not much has changed in halachah’s (Jewish law’s) attitudes toward women since Torah times. What was “contemporary” to our Biblical ancestors is instructive: According to Parshat Naso, Numbers, chapter 5, verses 11-31, any man who was afflicted by so little as “ruach kin’ah, a spirit of jealousy,” could bring his wife before a Cohen (a priest), and have her condemned to public disgrace as an alleged adulteress simply by subjecting her to a trial by “ordeal.” Not being blessed with a good Jewish education, I ask this question of those more learnèd than I: Is there another single instance, in the entire corpus of Jewish law, in which a person could be tried and condemned with no witnesses whatsoever and only, for lack of a better description, circumstantial evidence?

Here’s the view of a modern Jewish scholar, Judith Plaskow, courtesy of this post by GoldaLeah (who, I hope will come out of blogger "retirement" eventually) on her blog, Go West, Young Jew:

“[Judith]Plaskow's ideas [expressed in her book Standing Again at Sinai] are resonating with some of the deeper truths I've always felt but had never put a name to, mainly that women in Judaism are unequivocally the "Other." Here Plaskow is using Simone de Beauvoir's definition: Men have established an absolute human type -- the male -- against which women are measured as Other. Otherness, she says, is a pervasive and generally fluid category of human thought; I perceive and am perceived as Other depending on a particular situation. In the case of males and females, however, Otherness is not reciprocal: men are always the definers, women the defined. [emphasis mine (GoldaLeah’s).] Women's experience is not enshrined in language, nor has it shaped cultural forms. As women appear in male texts, they are not the subjects and molders of their own experiences but the objects of male purposes, designs, and desires.

Plaskow argues that the above system of Other and Otherness is, in some ways, at the core of Judaism. "Jewish women," she writes, "have been projected as Other. Named by a male community that perceived itself as normative, women are part of the Jewish tradition without its sources and structures reflecting our experiences. Women are Jews, but we do not define Jewishness. We live, work, and struggle, but our experiences are not recorded, and what is recorded formulates our experiences in male terms. The central Jewish categories of Torah, Israel and God are all constructed from male perspectives. Torah is revelation as men perceived it, the story of Israel told from their standpoint, the law unfolded according to their needs. Israel is the male collectively -- the children of Jacob, who had a daughter, but whose sons became the twelve tribes.”

My two cents, again:

This is the essential question: Why does halachah insist on treating women as “other,” rather than as human?



Blogger Noam S said...

You have skipped over all the Halacha that treats women as people to focus on that which you find offensive. As I have pointed out a number of times in the comments, there are numerous instances where women are valued and their opinions listened to. "v-el Sarah shema be'kola" God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. Does this mean that God is biased against husbands?

A husband is obligated to satisfy his wife(relations). There is no obligation for a wife to satisfy her husband. Prejudice?

You also choose the most Chareidi(right wing) examples. No Centrist or MO decisor requests that women leave shul early. You are jousting against a chosen straw person, not against a relevent example of the Modern Orthodox. I have been to many(almost all) Shabbat tables where everyone sings, men and women.

Tue Feb 28, 02:56:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Noam S said...

indeed, gili haupt has a link to an article by Saul Berman, which, if I am not mistaken, confines kol isha to erotic singing, and is very lenient. Also, the JOFA links have articles that are more on the lenient side,(but you have to order them or pay for the book). All in all, you have been VERY selective in your sources, to the exclusion of the left wing of modern orthodoxy.

Tue Feb 28, 05:58:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"You have skipped over all the Halacha that treats women as people to focus on that which you find offensive."

"You also choose the most Chareidi(right wing) examples. No Centrist or MO decisor requests that women leave shul early. You are jousting against a chosen straw person, not against a relevent example of the Modern Orthodox."

Oy va voy, I plead guilty as charged. I have tarred the entire Orthdox community with a Chareidi brush, which is hardly fair to the Modern and Centrist branches of the Orthodox community. Yet another sin for my ever-growing "Al cheit" list. :(

Thanks for reminding me about Rabbi Berman's article, which I accessed via Gili Haupt's link, read and saved already. (Unfortunately, I'd have to type any quotes myself if I wanted to cite them, as one can't copy and paste from a PDF file.) It was a fascinating article, describing, among other things, how the kol isha laws became more, er, mekhil? (lenient?) in some ways, no longer applying to a woman's *spoken* voice, but more machmir (strict) in others, applying to the singing of *all* women, rather than those with whom a man was forbidden to have sex due to family relationship (i.e., daughter-in-law).

Thu Mar 02, 12:13:00 AM 2006  

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