Friday, June 21, 2019

The ancient rabbinic imagination is still harmful to some Jewish women

For this year's B'haalot'cha/Behaalotecha/Behaalotcha (whatever) post, see here.

See part one, The ancient rabbinic imagination could be harmful to women.

I'm going to jump right in and post my source:

Sources Regarding Kol Isha [the rule, sometimes observed with exceptions, sometimes not observed at all, forbidding a man to listen to a woman sing] by Gil Student [of Hirhurim].

There are two main talmudic passages that deal with kol isha.

1. Berachos 24a

Rav Yitzchak said: A tefach [Shira: I think that's roughly 2 inches, or see here] of a woman is nakedness ('ervah).

For what? If you say for looking at it, Rav Sheshes said: Why did the Torah count outer ornaments with inner ornaments? To tell you that anyone who looks at the small finger of a woman is as if he looked at the obscene place. Rather, [Rav Yitzchak is talking about] one's wife an[d] kerias shema [the reading/recitation of the Sh'ma, a biblical quotation affirming the oneness of God--I think the reference is to a man getting sexually distracted while reciting the Sh'ma].

Rav Chisda said: The thigh of a woman is nakedness as it says (Isaiah 47:2) "expose a thigh to cross a river" and it says (ibid. 3) "your nakedness will be exposed and your embarrassment will be seen."

Shmuel said: The voice of a woman is nakedness as it says (Song of Songs 2:14) "for your voice is sweet and your countenance comely."

Rav Sheshes said: The hair of a woman is nakedness as it says (ibid. 4:1) "you hair is like a flock of goats."

2. Kiddushin 70a

[Rav Nachman said to Rav Yehudah]: Would you like to send regards to Yalta [Rav Nachman's wife]?

He [Rav Yehudah] said: Shmuel said: The voice of a woman is nakedness."

All of this may sound entirely irrelevant to 21st-century Jews, but for many Orthodox women, it is not.

The problem is not only that these rabbis' game of one-upmanship was blatantly sexist, since these men were, apparently, trying to figure how many parts of a woman's body could be "proven" to be obscene.

The problem is that this game is taken to be the "word of God," as part of the Torah sheh-b'al-peh (the so-called Oral Law, which has long since been written down.)  This can happen when one takes Jewish tradition not only seriously, but also literally.

Back in olden times, before practically the entire "Jewish blogosphere" moved to Facebook, I read quite a number of laments on Orthodox married women's blogs that keeping their hair covered whenever they were in public meant that they had low-grade headaches quite literally every day.  Some also complained that, no matter what kind of kisui rosh/head-covering they chose, they invariably suffered from hair loss.  Whoever said that covering all or most of one's head for most of one's waking hours was healthy?  Yet, in some circles, it's considered to be the only acceptable behavior for a married Orthodox woman.  I can think of eight Orthodox Jewish married women in my office who cover all or most of their hair, and only two who do not.

Then there's that "kol isha" business.  Though I've blogged ad nauseum about kol isha, one thing I've never written about is how it affects some folks in my office.  One of my co-workers has been renting an apartment in someone's house for well over a decade, and has never once felt free to sing in her own apartment, lest her landlord hear her singing.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to feel constrained never to sing z'mirot (Sabbath songs) in my own home.  

The ancient rabbinic imagination has been counterbalanced, to some extent, by both non-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis who choose to rule in a meikil (lenient) manner on some matters of halachah (Jewish religious law) that harm women.  I haven't forgotten the story of an Orthodox married female blogger who was in so much pain from her head-covering that her husband, an Orthodox rabbi, told her to take it off.  I'm in favor of any interpretation that results in better health for women and less stifling of women's self-expression.

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