Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Kol Isha

i feel like i'm being muzzled. (C, a 23 year old Frum female singer)

When I started writing this blog I had a grand idea. I'd be a musical schadchen, though I didn't even know the term yet (it means matchmaker). I'd break down barriers between Jewish music genres and movements. And I'd learn a lot in the process. One thing I learned is that some barriers are harder to tear down than others. One of the big ones is Kol Isha.

Kol Isha is a Orthodox rabbinic decree that men should not hear a woman sing, unless that woman is his wife or a child. As Rabbi Howard Jachter explains, quoting Rashi "a woman’s voice is attractive to a man, and is thus prohibited to him." That means that every time I post a recording of a woman singing, I'm violating Kol Isha and am encouraging frum (Orthodox) Jewish men to do the same.

The controversy around Kol Isha runs deep. First, it is a point of contention between liberal and traditional Jewish movements. To the liberal movements, who cherish their female rabbi's, cantor's, songleaders, and fellow congregants, the implication of Kol Isha is that women have no place in religious life and no role in society other than as a sexual temptation to men. To the traditional movements, as noted in the Rashi quote, Kol Isha is an important element of female modesty and propriety, one of the many shields that a frum woman builds around herself, her family and her Torah.

Even within the traditional movements, Kol Isha is controversial. As Rabbi Jachter notes, "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." So which is it, is any female singing a problem, or just singing at specific times? Is it only a problem if the singing is live (since you can't see a woman who's singing on the radio)? What if the woman's voice is part of a mixed group, where you can't single out any specific woman? Each of these issues gets debated by the Rabbis and the Orthodox community.

But it's more than abstract issues. Kol Isha has a lot of impact on women's lives and on the development of Jewish music. The quote above, about feeling muzzled, comes directly out of the frum community. The young woman, writing to a frum Jewish Music mailing list, was not for a moment questioning Kol Isha. She was complaining that, because she couldn't sing for men and because the Jewish "Woman Only" music market was so much smaller than the male market, she wasn't able to get a publisher to give her a contract. That's one small example of many I've run across.

Kol Isha has had some interesting side effects*, the existence of a "women only" music scene is one of them. The "women only" genre of frum music is significantly smaller than the male scene, but has it's own stars, concerts, a blog, and a radio show. I've seen a number of emails by non-frum female Jewish musicians who play both "women only" and mixed concerts commenting on how much they prefer the warmth and energy of the "women only" shows. (A sentiment that reminds me a lot of the masculine energy of punk shows). Of course, I've seen an equivalent number of complaints by female Jewish musicians who can't begin to make a living with their music because of the strict limits on their performances. Frum men can play mixed events like weddings. Frum women can't.

In case Teruah readers haven't noticed, I'm the kind of Conservative Jew that sometimes gets called "Conserva-dox," meaning that I spend a lot of my time fretting about my mediocre observance and thinking that I should become more Orthodox in practice. But this is one place I hit a brick wall. I respect the choices made by the Orthodox community and the reasons for those choices (love of Hashem and Torah, and a good faith effort to live by them), but disagree with the interpretation, the need for such strict adherence, and the burden placed on females who deserve a larger role than they are given.

But mostly, as a writer, I'm fascinated to find this unexpected wall between liberal and traditional Jews. It makes me wonder if I should specifically label recordings with women vocalists as I've seen in a couple of other places. (I won't.) It makes me wonder if I (a man) should avoid featuring (and listening to) frum women vocalists. (I won't). It makes me wonder if even bringing up this topic is likely to get me in trouble with both the liberal and Orthodox communities. (Probably). Oh well, I haven't been ignorant in public in a couple weeks. I'd hate to get too out of practice.

UPDATE: The author "Kol Isha" on the Jewish Music Report has written a nice article on Kol Isha from an Orthodox woman's perspective.

* I'm going out on a limb here, but I think that two other effects of Kol Isha are the recent rage in the Orthodox circles for boy sopranos singing with adult men (which echo's the Elizabethan English use of boys to play woman's roles) and the Sephardic love song (which emerged in an environment where the Rabbi's didn't hear the songs and therefore didn't ban them).


Krems said...

as a woman I wish you would label the songs because for those of us who value the Torah and wish to follow its teachings we need this information. You say it is an orthodox decree that is not true it is Torah pure and simple. Torah is meant to change you and mold you to subvert the ego, it is not for us to change and alter the word of G-d.

Jack said...

It's messier than that. Even in the Orthodox community (including in the Talmud) there is disagreement about the exact rulings regarding Kol Isha. I'm not sure why "as a woman" this is "personally" valuable to you. My understanding is that Kol Isha prevents men from hear you, not the other way around. You can hear a man's singing voice without being in violation. Do you say "personally" because you personally find Torah observance important and wish to help men not be in violation? If that is the case, then I may not be able to help much. Not being a Rabbi and qualified to render rabinic decisions, I'm not sure that my judgement on what does or does not violate Kol Isha rulings would be all that reassuring to Orthodox men. Clearly, I and my blog do not comply with Kol Isha, though I cherish the Torah. I'm not sure how to best handle the situation. It is something I've thought about, and talked with other folks in the community about, but haven't come to any satisfactory decision about. The interesting thing is that I have many Orthodox and Chassidic men as readers and none have ever complained about my handling or asked for a change. They seem to trust their judgment about when to listen to music.

Anonymous said...

I am a conserva-dox woman, and will be leading a discussion at my home in late January on Kol Isha, called Kol Isha: Can You Hear Me Now? I am reading every source and blog on the topic and I appreciate your thoughtful comments Jack. It is indeed a very controversial topic even amongst those Jews who are orhtodox. Some accept this interpretation (this is not Torah as one writer assumed) and some do not. Many of us have not been able to fully embrace Orthodoxy because of Kol Isha, and like the prohibition on homosexuality, feel it's likely a misinterpretation, and that both of these issues need to change. But like some Rabbi's say, Judaism does change..but slowly...like a tanker trying to turn!

Jack said...

Good luck with your discussion. This is a hard topic because, I think, because our basic notion is that the more we learn and observe Torah the better we are as people and the better to people we are. Kol Isha, to a liberal Jew seems to run counter to that. I happily deny myself bacon wrapped scallops, but have a much harder time denying myself listening to a female singer. It's not just because I'm a sucker for music (which I am) but because my basic intuitions about equality and compassion say that musician is a singer first and a women second. The frum community would say that Torah should define our sense of equality and compassion. So what to do when it doesn't?

Speaking of Torah, when ExperienceTorah wrote that Kol Isha is Torah she wasn't wrong about the Torah part, just the pure and simple part. I heard a joke from an Orthodox friend once that went..."The difference between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews is that Orthodox Jews have two Torah's (written & oral), Conservative Jews have one (just written), and Reform have no Torahs." She meant that Kol Isha was written in the Talmud and therefore isn't open to question.

I'd love to hear how you're planning on structuring the discussion and how it turns out. Please write back.

angie said...

I wrote a blog post on how I accidently violated Kol Isha.

Jack said...

Angie...whoops. You sure did. Grin. That's a great story. You'd be surprised how much that happens. I know a guy who turned down a similar music teaching gig because he was (rightly) concerned about how older girls singing (an expectation of the school) was going to be received by the supporters of the school. He was right. It didn't go well for the guy who eventually took the job.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I found someone to share how I feel! I'm only 12, but since I was 10 and learned the rule of kol isha I sit down and cry.I used to be in plays,and my drama teacher encouraged me to keep singing, when I explained why she told me I would have to pick between religion and singing. she was shocked when I said religion. I still cry about this.

Jack said...

I'm so glad you wrote. Being a Torah observant woman and being musically inclined is a tough balancing act. But don't feel it's an either or situation. While the opportunities for women-only performances are significantly fewer than men-only and mixed, they do exist and can be increased. Try to find other women who are equally interested...they're out there. Make sure you understand what's prohibited and why and don't make assumptions.

Stereo Sinai said...

@anonymous It hurts my heart to hear how torn you've been, feeling like you're forced to choose between "religion" and singing. I don't think that's how it has to be... I'm an Orthodocx woman, and a singer in a Jewish band, and I've had to face some of these issues, too. Please know that there are frum communities that support women's voices! You're not alone in confronting kol isha, as I think you realized from Jack's incredible blog, but if you ever want to talk more about this, please feel free to write - I would love to be in touch: info@stereosinai.com. :)Miriam