Kol Isha: Don’t Drown Out a Woman’s Voice, A D’var Torah on Vayishlach

by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

As Yaakov is preparing to meet his brother Esav and  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 at that time Yaakov had 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 under the influence of the wicked Esav. On the other hand, though, we learn from this in-cident 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 some-one 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 asher yaldah l’Yaakov lir’ot biv’not ha-aretz. Vayar ota Shechem … vayikah otah, vayishkav otah, vaye’anehah.” “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. 

He comments: “The daughter of Leah: And not the daughter of Jacob? However, because of her going out she was called the daughter of Leah, as she [Leah] also 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 assaulted 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 came to mind in the context of a recent incident in our community regarding kol isha (the voice of a woman) and the differences of opinion on the issue.

What Is the Prohibition of Kol Isha?

What is the prohibition of kol isha? How has it been interpreted by our rabbis? The Talmud (Berakhot 24a) records the following statement:

Amar Shemuel: Kol be-isha ervah, she-ne’emar ki kolech arev umar’ekh naveh. Samuel taught: The voice of a woman is a sexual stimulant, as it states, “For your voice is sweet and your face is comely” (Song of Songs 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 Rishonim (medieval authorities) did not interpret the statement of Samuel as a blanket prohibition on women singing in the presence of men, but as a prohibition on 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,” in Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume, Leo Landman, ed., KTAV, 1980, p. 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 p’sak that today limits men  from hearing a woman sing, no matter the context.
However, recently two rabbis in Israel whom I greatly admire—Rav David Bigman, rosh yeshiva of Ma’aleh Gilboa (where I studied), and Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion—have both independently written that the prohibition of kol isha should be understood in a much more limited fashion. Their opinions are based on the writings of great medieval authorities such as Raviah, the Mordechai, and Tosafot Ri, and of some modern-day Chareidi rabbis such as the Seridei Eish and the Chazon Ish. (Rav Bigman’s responsum can be seen at http://www.jewishideas.org/rabbi-david-big-man/new-analysis-kol-bisha-erva; Rav Lichtenstein’s was published in Techumin 32, 5772.)

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.

Three Risks from a Prohibitive Approach 

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 ac-tions after being locked in a box were seen as rebellious. Vatetzei Dinah means that Dinah went out inappropri-ately. Ironically, in a commentary to this passage, the  Torah Temimah draws our attention to another in-stance in the Torah where the verb vatetzei is used: “Vatikach Miriam haneviah…vatetzenah kol hanashim aharehah”—“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]” (Ex. 15:20).

These women whom 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 are 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 Rav Yehiel Weinberg (1884–1966, Seridei Aish, vol. 2, no. 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 with not being able to sing. So, too, multiple people have shared with me that a prohibitive approach to kol isha is a major factor in whether 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 me’asef menagnim bachutz kedei she-al yedei zeh tetzei Dinah”—“Shechem gathered musicians out-side 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 isha, then we are accepting upon ourselves a “stringency that will lead to a leniency.” He argues (based on the Talmud) that a human being is in part a physical animal and in part a spiritual entity. By teaching boys and men that women 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 isha in Kiddushin, which 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 hypererotic educational message we are sending is a depressing one,  and 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 isha is thus an important educational tool for all of our children. It is lenient in the area of kol isha but actually stringent in the area of our spiritual expectations from the people of our community. We are saying that we are ultimately spiritual beings and not purely physical animals.

A third concern is that by focusing on the formal prohibition of kol isha, we are 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 practice, Sefer Hasidim (early thirteenth-century Germany) writes that just as a man cannot hear a woman’s voice, so too a woman should not hear the voice of a man (ve-hu hadin l’ishah 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 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 alike. 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 are inappropriate contexts and behaviors. This type of cultural inappropriateness is far too present in all of our lives, and we should focus on eliminating it. But by focusing on merely whether a woman is singing, all we are doing is distracting ourselves from the real issue.

An in-depth study of the parameters of kol isha can teach us many things that 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 halakhic parameters. Such an  approach is not merely a bediavad (ex post facto) allowance, but a lehatkhilah (ab initio) approach that is entirely consistent with halakha and our worldview.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C.


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