Kol Ishah - Don’t Drown Out a Woman’s Voice

Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:53pm -- JOFA

By Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Vayishlach, 5773 

As Yaakov is preparing to meet his brother Esav and he is afraid of what his wicked brother might do, the Torah tells us that Yaakov brings his eleven children across the river to meet Esav (Genesis 32:23).

Rashi citing the Midrash immediately notices that Yaakov has not eleven children, but twelve. Rashi asks: “Vedinah heichan haytah? Where was Dinah?” Rashi answers:

He put her into a box and locked her in, so that Esav would not set eyes on her. Therefore, Jacob was punished for withholding her from his brother- because perhaps she would cause him to improve his ways-and she fell into the hands of Shechem. [Rashi 32:23, from Gen. Rabbah 75:9]

According to Rashi, Yaakov was punished for locking Dinah in a box. On the one hand our sympathies are with Yaakov. After all, he was worried that she would fall into the hands and influence of the wicked Esav. But on the other hand, we learn from this incident that by locking Dinah in a box, Yaakov protected her from Esav, but exposed her to the wicked Shechem.

The lesson of Rashi is clear: one cannot protect someone by locking that person in a box.

Having been locked in a box, Dinah was totally unprepared to deal with the wicked people of the world.

After the box incident, we next hear about Dinah when the Torah tells us:

Vatetzei Dinah bat Leah…lirot beivnot ha-aretz. Vayar otah shechem…vayikach otah, vayishkav otah, vayeanehah. Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to look about among the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, lay with her, and violated her. (34:1-2)

Although Shechem is the villain of the story, Rashi tells us that Dinah too acted inappropriately.

The daughter of Leah: And not the daughter of Jacob? However, because of her going out she was called the daughter of Leah, since she (Leah) too was in the habit of going out. (34:1)

Having been locked in a box, Dinah became a yatzanit, a girl who goes out inappropriately. She went out to see the daughters of the land and in the end Shechem assaults her sexually.

Thus, Rashi draws for us a direct line between the act of Dinah being placed in a box and her going out. In the end, her time being locked up in the box did not protect her but actually increased her vulnerability.

This midrashic interpretation of the Dinah story has been on my mind this week in the context of a recent incident regarding Kol Ishah that happened in a Jewish school.

The school’s position on this issue reminded me that it is important for our shul to have a discussion about the topic of Kol Ishah. I want to explain why our pesak differs from the current pesak of the school.

What is the prohibition of Kol Ishah? How has it been interpreted by our rabbis?

The Talmud (Berachot, 24a) records the following statement:
Amar Shemuel: Kol beishah ervah she-neemar ki kolech arev umaerikh naveh. Shemuel taught: The voice of a woman is a sexual stimulant since it states, ‘for your voice is sweet and your face is comely’ (Shir Hashirim, 2:14).

This statement is left without further explanation in that Talmudic passage. But another Talmudic text (Kiddushin 70a) implies that the concern is not for the singing voice of a woman but for a speaking voice in an inappropriate context of conversing with a married woman.

In an important article on this topic Rabbi Saul Berman argues that most medieval authorities (rishonim) did not interpret the statement of Shemuel as a blanket prohibition on women singing in the presence of men, but as a prohibition on either a bar to the recitation of Shema while hearing a woman sing, or to exchanging warm greetings with married women, or both of those concerns. (See Saul Berman, “Kol ‘Isha,” 54.)

Nevertheless, many later authorities did view it as a blanket prohibition against a man hearing a woman sing. These later authorities form the basis for a pesak that limits people today from hearing a woman sing, no matter the context.

Yet, recently two rabbis in Israel who I admire a great deal: Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Maaleh Gilboa (where I studied), and Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, have both independently written that the prohibition of Kol Ishah should be understood in a much more limited fashion.

Their opinions are based upon the writings of great medieval authorities like Raviah, Mordechai, Tosafot Ri, and even in the writings of some modern day chareidi rabbis like the Sereidi Eish and Chazon Ish. (Rav Bigman’s responsum can be seen here:http://www.jewishideas.org/rabbi-david-bigman/new-analysis-kol-bisha-erva; Rav Lichtenstein’s was published in Techumin 32, 5772, and was shown to me by R. Dov Zakheim. The relevance of the Chazon Ish for a permissive pesak can be seen in R. Berman’s article, p. 65.)

Here is what Rav Bigman writes:

There is no prohibition whatsoever of innocent singing; rather, only singing intended for sexual stimulation, or flirtatious singing, is forbidden. Although this distinction is not explicit in the early rabbinic sources, it closely fits the character of the prohibition as described in different contexts in the Talmud and the Rishonim, and it is supported by the language of the Rambam, the Tur, and the Shulchan Arukh.
Q: We have a practice in our school, in ceremonies organized for various events, that a female student sings as part of the ceremony. Is this practice halakhically acceptable?
A: The issue of "Kol B'Isha Erva" (the voice of a woman is nakedness) is discussed extensively in many contexts, mainly in the responsa of the great rabbinic figures of the past generation. Even, so this issue has not been discussed in relation to communities that already have an established practice of leniency and allowance of women to sing publicly.

After carefully reading the opinions of Rav Bigman and Rav Lichtenstein, I feel strongly that their opinion on this matter is one that our shul should embrace as an ideal approach for our spiritual community. (I also want to invite people to study this issue with me in depth on Thursday evenings beginning in January.)

There are three concerns that I fear for our spiritual community if we don’t follow the path advocated by Rabbis Bigman and Lichtenstein:

First we run the very real risk of drowning out a girl’s spiritual voice and thereby turning her away from traditional Judaism.

We alluded to the fact that Dinah’s actions after being locked in a box were seen as rebellious. Vatetzei Dinah, means that Dinah went out inappropriately. Ironically, in a commentary to this passage, the Torah Temimah draws our attention to another instance in the Torah where it says vatetzei: “Vatikach Miriam haneviah…vatetzenah kol hanashim acharenah…Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances” (Exodus 16:20). These women who Miriam led were on such a great spiritual level that they took their own musical instruments from Egypt in anticipation of being able to praise Hashem properly.

Miriam and her followers were on the highest possible spiritual level and they reached that level through music. We need to allow our daughters the space and place to attain that level if they so desire.

For many girls music and singing is a spiritual outlet. By denying girls the opportunity to perform in school plays and sing in spiritual settings within their spiritual community we are limiting their ability to succeed spiritually and potentially turning them away from our Torah.

This was indeed part of the reasoning of R. Yehiel Weinberg (1884-1966, Sereidi Aish, vol. 2 #8) who issued a radical ruling allowing boys and girls to sing Shabbat zemirot together: “In countries like Germany and France, women would feel disgraced and see it as a deprivation of their rights if we prohibited them from joining in the rejoicing over the Sabbath by singing zemirot. This is obvious to anyone familiar with the character of the women in these countries. The prohibition could drive women away from religion, God forbid.” (Cited by Berman, 64.)

Several people have told me that they have great spiritual difficulties in not being able to sing. So too, multiple people shared with me that a prohibitive approach to Kol Ishah is a major factor in whether or not they would send their own children to an Orthodox day school.

If we deny the girls of our community the ability to express themselves through song, we run the very real risk of allowing them to be serenaded by an alternative influence that is truly dangerous.

Another midrash cited by Torah Temimah says: Shechem measef menagnim bachutz kedei she-al yedei zeh tetzei Dinah, Shechem gathered musicians outside Dinah’s home and as a consequence Dinah went out of her home.

Amazingly, the midrash is teaching us that Dinah left her home because she was enticed by the music of Shechem. We should encourage our girls to sing in the context of Torah lest they run to hear the music of Shechem!

A second concern that we should have is not only what drowning out the voices of girls will do to the spiritual advancement of the girls, but also what message it teaches the boys.

This point was forcefully made by Rav Lichtenstein. He argues that if we are stringent in the area of Kol Ishah then we are accepting upon ourselves a “stringency that will lead to a leniency.”

He argues (based upon the Talmud) that a human being is in part a physical animal and in part a spiritual entity. By teaching the boys and men that girls are such erotic creatures that it is impossible to have an encounter with them that is not erotic (which is actually the simple reading of the one Talmudic text that refers to kol ishah in Kiddushin that is conveniently ignored by most who are stringent about a woman’s singing voice), we are in fact reinforcing the notion that our spiritual personality cannot rise above our physical nature.

The hyper erotic educational message that we are sending is a depressing one as it seems to go against what our tradition teaches us in other places; namely, that the spiritual can overcome the physical.

A lenient ruling in the area of Kol Ishah is thus an important educational tool for all of our children. It is lenient in the area of Kol Ishah, but actually stringent in the area of what we expect spiritually from the people of our community. We are saying that we are ultimately spiritual being and not purely physical animals.

And a third concern is that by focusing on the formal prohibition of Kol Ishah we are acting hypocritically and ignoring the more salient factor of not who is singing, but the context in which the singing is taking place.

Although this opinion is generally ignored in actual practice, Sefer Hasidim (early 13th c., Germany) writes that just like a man cannot hear a woman’s voice, so too, a woman should not hear the voice of a man (ve-hu hadin lishah she-lo tishmah kol ish, Bologna, 614).

The community message should be consistent and emphasize what the gemara is really concerned about.

Our ever-constant focus on the fact that it is a woman singing causes us to ignore the real issue. The underlying issue is not a woman singing or a man singing, but licentiousness and flirtatiousness. These are the activities that our tradition is strongly discouraging.

Licentiousness can be found in women singing and men singing. Instead of teaching the boys and girls that the voice of a girl or woman singing innocuous words is sexually seductive, we should teach them to make the right choices in life about what is inappropriate and appropriate context and behavior. This type of cultural inappropriateness is far too present in all of our lives and we should focus on it. But by focusing on merely whether or not a woman is singing all we are doing is distracting ourselves from the real issue.

An in depth study of the parameters of Kol Ishah can teach us many things which will help all of us to grow spiritually. A careful study of the issue will show us that the ideal approach for our community is not to drown out the voices of women, but to allow them to be heard within the context of Halachic parameters. Such an approach is not merely an ex post facto (bediavad) allowance, but a lechatchilah approach that is entirely consistent with halakhah and our worldview.


Since 2004 Shmuel Herzfeld has been the Rabbi of Ohev Sholom--The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. This D'var Torah has been reprinted with permission from his website.

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