The Commentator
Volume 63 Issue 7




Do You Hear the Women Sing? The Kol Isha Myth

By Mordechai Levovitz

All it takes is one trip to Times Square to corroborate the stereotype that Jews love musicals. Inevitably, you will see boys with Yarmulkes (traditional Jewish skullcaps) in the audiences of "Phantom of the Opera." A short woman wearing a long dress, readjusting her wig while yelling at her six matching children, somehow always seems to be on line at the box-office for "Beauty and the Beast." You may even see a group of bearded Hassidim on line at T.K.T.S hoping to get last minute discount tickets for "The Sound of Music."

Last month, when the Student Activity Club reserved one hundred seats for a January production of "Les Miserables," an unprecedented amount of students expressed interest in purchasing tickets. Consequently, the club reserved forty more seats, but even that did not satisfy the great demand. All one hundred and forty tickets sold in less than a week, leaving, at times, almost a fifty-person waiting list! Upon speaking to the president of the club, he informed me that most of the students who did not want tickets had told him they weren't interested because they had already seen 'Le Miz'. It follows that a large percent of YC has seen or is about to see the musical, "Les Miserables."

This being the case, it is safe to say that large amounts of orthodox Jews do not seem to have any qualms about going to musical productions. This holds true even in cases where the musicals involve female vocalists. In all four musicals mentioned above female characters have large singing parts. Yet, the fact that audiences eventually will be subjected to female characters belting out passionate solos is not enough to deter these Orthodox men (including the majority of YC boys) from attending the theater.

This is why, while vacationing in Miami Beach, it came as quite a shock to me when many of the Stern women at a Saturday night Karaoke party at the Days Inn refused to sing. They insisted that it would be a violation of the prohibition of Kol Isha for them to sing in front of men. It seemed that almost all of the ladies refusing to sing agreed that it would be halakhically wrong for a Jewish man to be there listening to women singing. At first I was a little insulted, being that they were insinuating that I was a transgressor, being there that Saturday night. However, after looking around noticing all the other frum guys there (from black-hatted Brooklyn bochurim to kipah srugah Bnei Akiva Zionists - even a few Hassidic couples!) sitting there listening to some of the bolder women belting out familiar melodies, I realized that either I or these very confident Stern women were missing something. The only thing certain was that there must be major confusion or controversy regarding this halakhic issue.

Given the premise that Orthodox Judaism requires the recognition of the prominence and centrality of halakha, traditional Jewish law, it would be puzzling if in fact 'listening to a woman's singing voice' is a transgression of Jewish law, and nonetheless, a significant percentage of the Orthodox world blithely ignores this injunction. If there is an accepted prohibition, what explains the sociological phenomenon allowing so many Orthodox males to seemingly ignore this mandate? Is it probable that while it is in fact unequivocally forbidden, many halakha-abiding Jews are just simply unaware or ignorant of this specific law? If so, why then in a pedagogical situation such as here in Yeshiva, would students not have been taught that such behavior violates the Jewish code of law? Is it possible that so many halakhic Jews acknowledge that going to a musical is assur (proscribed) yet sinfully choose to go anyhow? I would like to be able to give the Orthodox community the benefit of the doubt. Even if it turns out that most of the rabbinic figures in YU would not officially give a heter to attend a musical, the mere fact that a majority of YC students and Modern Orthodox Jewish men would and do attend musical theater tells us something - that the accepted halakhic ruling of this campus and the Modern Orthodox world, is that even if it is a sin for a man to listen to a female vocalist, for some reason the transgression would not be applicable in a theatrical setting such as a Broadway-type musical. In order to make such a lofty judgment, it would first be incumbent upon me to fully research the status of Kol Isha, "the voice of a woman," vis-à-vis halakha, and its logical application to modern-day situations.

The Source

In halakhic literature the subject of a woman's voice and its ramifications is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 24a). The discussion is about the circumstances in which it is prohibited for a man to recite the "Shema" prayer. The Talmud rules that it is prohibited for a man to recite the prayer of "Shema" while listening to the voice of a woman. Reshonim (early commentaries on the Talmud) explain this ruling to apply only to the singing voice. The Talmud explains the reason for this ruling to be that the voice of a woman (singing) is considered to be an "ervah," meaning "nakedness." A woman's singing voice is comparable to her naked body parts; both, if exposed, can cause improper thoughts for a man. This is based on the verse in one of the later and non-halakhic books of the Bible, Song of Songs (2:14), which reads "For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely."

Most Reshonim see the recognition of the sexually provocative quality of the female voice as leading to dual halakhic ramifications, consequently, the issue of hearing a woman's voice is brought down in two separate laws in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. The first law (Even Ha-Ezer 21:1) states, that since the female voice may cause sexual arousal, halakhic considerations of feminine modesty dictate that a woman should not sing in the company of men. By the same token a man may not listen to the voice of a female vocalist. The second law (Orah Hayyim 75:3) states, that since a female voice is described as ervah (nakedness), a male may not read the "Shema," study Torah, or recite any other blessing when the song of a woman, even that of his wife, is audible to him. He may not engage in these activities in the presence of other exposed body parts considered in this category of ervah.

Note that there are several subtle differences between the formulations of the two laws. In the first law the Shulchan Aruch states that it is forbidden to hear the voice of an ervah not necessarily because the voices of all women are considered ervah. In fact, the commentary Beit Shmuel interprets "voice of an ervah, as voice of a woman 'with whom it would be forbidden to sleep with'." This is a conception of the word ervah which is independent and separate from our original notions.

In the second law, the reason a man can not recite the "Shema" while exposed to a woman's singing voice is because a woman's singing voice is inherently an ervah. This definition of ervah coincides with the original understanding of ervah as expressed in the Talmud. The differentiation between the two laws may be vital in understanding the nuances and practical ramifications of these halakhic prohibitions when they manifest themselves into our modern situation. There are three distinctly different ways of approaching the issue, and I will come back to this point later upon explaining the third and final approach.

The First Approach

When the Talmud says "KOL B'ISHAH ERVAH" (The voice of a woman is an ervah), it is prohibiting a man from listening to a female vocalist solely because of the inherent title of ervah assigned to a woman's voice forever. Similarly, in the Shulchan Aruch, the reason why a man may not hear a woman sing is because her voice is an ervah. This is a blanket prohibition; for those that take this approach hold that something is an ervah only if it holds an ontological quality of sexual impropriety. Idealistically it is and always will be something that should be covered or hidden.

Therefore, in a moral sense, a woman's song would always be considered an act of seduction and thus dirty and unethical. The ethical ideals learned through the prohibition of the female song would be unaffected by the norms of society. For even if sociologically it would not be particularly provocative for a woman to sing in front of men, this only means that society has denigrated to the level where libidinous and lascivious acts once shunned upon are now taken as the casual norm. Certainly halakha does not change its attitude toward immoral behavior just because one lives in an immoral society.

The only thing that may possibly change in an immoral society where it is normal to hear women sing, is the second law concerning the recitation of "Shema." According to this approach, the man reciting the prayer is guilty if he is distracted, regardless of the inherent evils attributed to the woman's voice. In the same vein, if the man is not distracted by the voice, even though it may indeed be ontologically lascivious and improper, the man may recite "Shema." According to this approach, there is a discussion as to the limited contingencies in which it may be permissible to listen to the singing of women:

1. The Hatam Sofer, a nineteenth-century rabbi, permits men to listen to the singing of mixed choral groups (Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, Avodat Ha-Yom, Sha'aar Taharat Yadayim, no. 14). This leniency is based upon the Talmudic principle "Two voices cannot be heard," i.e., when two vocal sounds are heard simultaneously neither sound is clearly audible. Hence, when women and men sing together the sound that is perceived is not the voice of a woman but an entirely different auditory perception.

2. The Maharam Schick (Even Ha-Ezer no. 53), a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch states that sexual desires are aroused by the vocal stimuli only when accompanied by visual stimuli, based on the Talmud in Sanhedrin 45a and Sotah 8a. Many other commentators add that a female vocalist is only forbidden when the listener sees or knows who the singer is. These leniency's would allow a man to listen to a woman's voice on the radio, but only if he is sure that he is not acquainted with her and he doesn't know how she looks.

3. Rabbi Y.M. Toledano (Teshuva Yam Ha-Gadol no. 29) differentiates between listening to a live vocalist on the radio and listening to a recording of a female voice. He claims only a recorded voice is a truly disembodied voice, and as such, he forbids listening to a live female vocalist on the radio while permitting listening to the same song if it was recorded.

4. Concerning a microphone, I found no authority that explicitly permits its usage. The closest I found to someone permitting listening to a woman through a microphone is Rabbi Aryeh Yehuda Ha-Kohen. In his work Shaarei Torah vol. 8 no. 73, he argues that just as there are no restrictions regarding hair that has been severed from the body, there are no restrictions involving a disembodied voice. This leaves the status of microphone in question, however, the overwhelming majority would seem to hold that since you see the performer live, you would not be able to listen to her sing.

The idea that seeing the woman makes a difference leads us into the realm of what is sexually provocative. The subjective nature of attraction is the basis for the second approach. Thus the second approach is very much connected to the first; in a sense they overlap. Some poskim seem to hold a delicate balance between the first and second approaches, for now, however, I will present the two approaches separately.

The Second Approach

The second approach is similar to the first one insofar as basing the prohibition on female vocalists on the fact that a female's singing voice is an ervah, but it differs from the stringent definition of ervah first presented. This approach examines the subjective nature of sexuality, and thus demands that the label ervah be subject to distinctions in the type of singing. It asks, what is it if not some subjective psychological distinction that separates a vehement phrase from a passionate song? If the Talmud already makes the distinction between speech and song, why can't the same distinction be made between sexual singing and singing that is not conducive to sexual arousal? This approach points out the distinct language of the Shulchan Aruch, which explains the prohibition to be against listening to the voice of an ervah. The Shulchan Aruch is reminding us that only a voice that constitutes the sexual requirements of ervah is prohibited. This interpretation is found in the Perisha, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. Consequently, according to this approach, if the female singing is not in any way sexual in nature, it may not constitute an ervah, and hence, would not be subject to laws concerning female vocalists.

I have found many authoritative rabbinical scholars who seem to be making distinctions between sexual and non-sexual singing. The question is how far can we go along this line of thought. One can expand the definition of sexual singing to that of any emotional love song or restrict it to only an extremely seductive one-on-one serenade. This is not to say that merely because we do not know where to draw the line there is a flaw in the logic to this approach. To reject a conceptual approach simply because we do not know where to draw the line would surely be nonsensical (unfortunately, we see this all too often among rabbinic figures). I am merely warning to proceed with caution while practically applying the halakha using this approach. It is wisest not to stray far from the limited contingencies in which rabbis influenced by this train of thought allowed women to sing in front of men. However, we should still try to logically adapt these contingencies to modern-day sociological situations.

1. Rabbi Weinberg, in his book, Sereidei Eish II, no. 8, argues that listening to women singing sacred songs is permissible because the singing of a woman is only forbidden when the listener derives 'pleasure' from the song; when no pleasure is derived from the sound of the voice there is no cause to anticipate erotic stimulation.

2. Rabbi Yafe Schlesinger finds grounds to permit men to listen to a woman sing provided it is for a very short amount of time. This is based on a Talmudic ruling that brief physical contact with women is not prohibited because there is no reason to fear the arousal of sexual desire.

3. The S'dei Chemed (Klalim, Ma'arekhet Ha-Kuf, no. 42) permits men to listen to women singing hymns of praise to God, crooning over a baby to sleep, and lamentations for the dead. This is because it may be assumed that they do not seek to derive 'pleasure' from the female voice in such circumstances.

Unfortunately, since the Reform and Conservative movements have adopted extreme leftist takes on this kind of approach, regarding this and many other halakhic issues, even where this approach is not applicable, Orthodox rabbinic figures have been very wary before openly adopting an approach like this. This does not mean that in fact this isn't the correct approach; it just means that you would be hard pressed to find a contemporary Orthodox rabbi using this line of thinking to allow yeshiva boys to go see "Le Miz."

However, this approach does assist us as an addendum to the heterim of the first approach. If we solve the problem of ervah by the fact that the voice is projected through a microphone (much like the ervah aspect of a married woman's hair is lost when the hair is not attached to the woman's scalp) the problem of seeing or knowing the woman that one is hearing (mentioned in the first approach) seems to be addressing a more subjective notion than that of the strict halakhic category of ervah. This problem may be the offshoot of ervah known as Tzniut or Pritzut laws; these prohibitions are in nature sociological and subjective. For example, the Mishna Berura prohibits women from donning red clothing, for in that time it would be considered sexually provocative and thus improper. The same type of prohibition would apply to exposing a woman's fingers if in fact society deemed it proper for a woman to cover her fingers in public. Consequently, due to the non-controversial subjectivity to these types of mandates, if a microphone would obviate the problem of ervah, the second approach would get rid of the tzniut problems of seeing the woman's face, at least in most cases in our early 21st-century western society. Thus, a combination of the first two approaches creates a strong case for a heter or leniency regarding the issur of Kol Isha, at least where a microphone is used, which includes most musicals and karaoke.

The Third Approach

This approach differs in the analysis of the original halakha. It changes the focus to the law concerning when a Jewish man is allowed to recite the "Shema" prayer. If we recall the original Talmud citation, we realize that the discussion of the Talmud is really focused on "Shema." The only reason the Talmud stated that the voice of a woman is an ervah, is to tell us why a man may not recite the prayer while hearing her voice. The idea that the voice of a woman is ervah is inextricably connected to the law prohibiting the prayer. We are reintroduced to this notion once more when we read the Shulchan Aruch. We are constantly reminded that the reason he may not recite "Shema" is because he is being exposed to an ervah. Ervah is the threshold, the specific amount of deterrence needed to prohibit man from saying the "Shema." If the distraction is in of itself not proper or modest, however, for some reason it does not reach the status of ervah, a man can still recite "Shema" while exposed to the distraction.

The Ramoh, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, adds that if it is "ragil" or "regular" for the man to hear the sound of a woman's voice; then it would not be considered ervah. Notice the Ramoh's formulation. He does not say that if it is regular for a man to hear a woman's song he then can recite the "Shema;" instead, the Remah introduces us to much bolder terminology. He points out that the voice of this female vocalist would not even be considered an ervah if 'regular' enough. The question now arises, what does it take to consider a woman's voice regular enough to be considered not an ervah? What is the practical definition of "ragil?"

Some allude to ragil as teaching us that as long as the voice is not singing, it is not an ervah. However, this interpretation is implausible, for the only issur in the Gemara is concerning the song of a woman. Also, the heter of ragil as explained by the Orech HaShulchan, and originally the Mordechai (both cited in the next paragraph), applies not only to kol, voice, but onto all ervah's (such as hair, body parts, and the like), so ragil could not possibly mean just 'not sung,' it must mean something else. This is not to say that the heter of talking can't also be deduced from ragil, but it would be wrong to think that it is the definition of ragil in that context. We must find the halakhic definition of "ragil."

To find these answers one has only to examine another law pertaining to the recitations of "Shema." On the same page in the Talmud, and in the Shulchan Aruch, we learn that exposed hair can also be considered an ervah and can consequently cause a situation in that it prohibits you from saying "Shema." However, in the halakhic compilations of Rabbi Yechiel M. Epstien (Orech HaShulchan, Orech Hayyim 75), he argues that even though he thinks society has become more corrupt, the fact that it has become normal for married women to go into public without their heads covered means that uncovered hair is no longer considered ervah. One could then recite "Shema" in front of a woman who doesn't cover her hair. He then quotes the Mordechai, an early commentary on the Talmud, saying that an ervah that has become ragil is no longer considered an ervah. We see from the Rabbi Epstein that "ragil" just means what ever is normal for women to do in that generation.

In our day and age, when you cannot watch the news without hearing women singing on the commercials or go to a movie with out hearing women singing on the soundtracks, I think it is non-controversial to say that today hearing the voice of a singing woman is totally ragil, i.e. an accepted casual norm of society. Continuing this train of halakhic thinking, it follows that the voice of a woman singing is not an ervah. Consequently, today one would be able to recite the "Shema" while listening to a woman's singing voice. Now that we have ruled out one law as being non-applicable, it is puzzling what to do with the first law prohibiting men to listen to female vocalists.

If a woman's singing voice is not an ervah because it is considered ragil, it would seem intuitive that there be no separate prohibition against listening to a woman sing. (For after all, we've proven that a woman's voice is not an ervah.) However, if this were the case, why then would the Remah not add in the leniency of ragil when commenting on the first law that prohibits female vocalists? Why does Rabbi Epstein only talk about how ragil is not an ervah in his discussion about "Shema" while he totally ignores it when discussing whether a woman is allowed to sing or uncover hair in front of men?

The answer to these questions is in the unique nature of the first law regarding female vocalists. As I explained when I first introduced the two laws, they are formulated differently. While the second law concerning "Shema" explicitly relies upon the fact that a woman's voice constitutes an ervah, the first law only states that a man should not listen to the voice of an ervah. Ervah here, according to some commentaries, refers to those people that you are not allowed to sleep with. This law does not have to depend upon if the voice of a woman constitutes an ervah or not. In fact, if we examine this first law in full context it seems we are just dealing with issues of Tzniut (feminine modesty). Something can be immodest with out being considered ervah. This is why the leniency of ragil was not included in the literature concerning the first law. Ragil is a special leniency to make certain things that are categorized as ervah not ervah anymore. The specific prohibition against men listening to female vocalists is not solely because a woman's voice is an ervah; it is also a matter of basic modesty. Basic modesty laws are not abrogated by the special leniency law of ragil.

As explained earlier, modesty laws, when not backed by some Biblical or Rabbinical notion of ervah, are inherently subjective to time, place and culture. One would be hard pressed to argue that in the nineties, a female vocalist is somehow immodest or disrespectful as compared to a male vocalist. This is the dawn of the twenty-first century and we are basking in the wake of the feminist movement. In today's day and age, the idea that women should be muzzled in any manner in front of men is insulting and dishonorable. Anyone today who thinks that the sound of a woman's singing voice is in any way especially sexually provocative must be severely out of touch with Western reality (or experiencing clinical sexual repression). It would be more un-tzniut to stand in the way of equality and social justice. Consequently, according to the third approach, almost every type of women's singing today would not be considered an ervah even without a microphone, because a woman singing in public is considered ragil. Furthermore, because it is no longer sexually provocative (from a sociological viewpoint), there is no Tzniut problem with hearing a woman sing. Certainly, according to this approach there is no problem with going to a musical (even to a London production without microphones), and no problem with frum women singing karaoke in front of men. (Note that this last line of thinking would not apply to the prohibition of uncovering the hair of a married woman, since that prohibition is derived separately from a specific biblical mandate concerning Sotah which has no bearing to time or social predicament).

In my humble and non-authoritative opinion, it seems as though the third approach both makes the most sense and fits best with the wording of the Gemara, Shulchan Aruch and the Ramoh. Those who disagree with the third approach would have to formulate a strong argument as to why Kol Isha would still be considered an ervah. This will inevitably lead to hairsplitting ( being dochek) within the words of the Orech-HaShulchan and Ramoh - two of the most authoritative poskim the world has known. Thus, it seems most probable that the notion that there is some Kol Isha problem with a woman singing in front of men is nothing more than a halakhic myth! Jewish males should have no problem going to musicals and Jewish females should have no problem singing in front of men. Even if you take the first, and more stringent approach, in cases where a woman sings non-provocatively through a microphone there would be a strong case for a heter, as explained, for a Jewish man to listen to her. It would surely be a shame to miss out on the rich theatrical culture and the vast opportunities of equality simply because you are confused or unresearched regarding the nature of this prohibition. So what's your opinion?

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