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Rabbinic Interpretations of Kol Ishah

Rebecca relies on Rav Bigman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Maale Gilboa—who defines halakha for Bnei Akiva in Israel—and Rabbi Yechiel Yakov Weinberg who the Rav agrees with regarding a woman being allowed to sing holy songs in front of unrelated men.

Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg (Seridei Esh 2:8) defended the German-Jewish custom of mixed-gender  zemirot, as well mixed gender Jewish youth groups (similar to Bnei Akiva and NCSY). He interpreted the Rambam that the prohibited form of “gazing” and listening is only that which entails sexual pleasure. Rabbi Weinberg also relied on the Sedei Hemed (section Kuf, kelal 42), who ruled that a man’s listening to a woman sing funeral dirges does not violate kol ishah as no sexual pleasure is entailed in such songs. The Sedei Hemed was relying on the Divrei Heifetz (113b), who “stated that as long as a woman is not singing sensual love songs, and as long as a man does not intend to derive pleasure from her voice, there is no prohibition, such as if she is singing praises to God for a miracle, or is singing a lullaby to a baby, or is wailing at a funeral.”

Rabbi Weinberg also cited the Sefer ha-Eshkol (Hilkhot Tefillah sec. 4 or 7), that listening to a woman sing is prohibited only where there is sexual pleasure. Rabbi Weinberg reasoned that if the Sedei Hemed could permit funeral dirges due to their lacking sexual pleasure, then he could permit Shabbat zemirot on the same grounds. It is obvious that we today can likewise permit by the same logic any song which does not lead to sexual thoughts. Thus, this interpretation that kol ishah is like etzba ketana, i.e. permitted where sexual pleasure is absent, is not only apparent from the simple meaning of Rambam’s words, but is also endorsed by Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg.

Rabbi Weinberg also relied on the opinion of the Ritva and Rema, “that all is for the sake of heaven.” In general, if one knows that he himself is capable of a certain act without incurring sexual thoughts, then this act becomes permitted for him.”

Some may react to this interpretation as brilliant casuistry, but nevertheless reject it as being against traditional Jewish practice and belief. It behooves us, then, to see whether this lenient understanding of kol ishah could stand up to non-textual (mimetic) traditional Jewish behavior and practice.

In Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel’s Foundations of Sephardic Spirituality: The Inner Life of Jews of the Ottoman Empire, we find an amazing piece of testimony. There, on page 125, discussing the singing of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) romances (ballads), with their often emotional if not downright sensual lyrics, Rabbi Angel says, inter alia:

“Although there were religious pietists who objected to singing love songs, the romances were very popular throughout all strata of Sephardic society. Men and women often sang these songs together. It was not unusual for women to sing solo parts in the presence of men. People participated in the singing and enjoyed the songs in a natural, easygoing way.”

Rabbi Angel offers personal testimony in note 6:

“I was raised in the Sephardic community of Seattle, Washington, and well remember our many family gatherings where romances were sung. Jews of great piety sang right along with those of lesser piety. I do not remember anyone ever objecting to the singing of love songs by men and women. In the early 1980s, Haham Dr. Solomon Gaon, himself a Judeo-Spanish-speaking rabbi, taught classes in Sephardic folklore at my Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. I well remember him singing love songs, enthusiastically and nostalgically. Both of us participated in a program of Sephardic culture sponsored by the Hebrew College of Boston. A female soloist sang a selection of romances, after which Haham Gaon not only applauded loudly but rose to speak in praise of the singer for her beautiful rendition of the songs. Haham Gaon, who served as chief rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregations of England and as head of the Sephardic Studies Program of Yeshiva University in New York, was a very prominent Orthodox Sephardic rabbi and a man of impeccable piety.”

Rabbi Shammah similarly testifies:

“I did not grow up haredi, and I was not educated according to haredi principles. From my childhood [under his parents, traditional immigrants from Syria to Israel] until my adulthood I do not remember closing my ears, nor was I instructed to do so, and I heard the best music, both from the Orient and the West, even when performed by female singers, and even at live performances. Apparently, the principle is based on the fact that there is no intent here for some forbidden pleasure. [People] have testified to me that there were Torah-observant Jews at the performances of the famous Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum [considered by some to be Egypt’s most famous and distinguished 20th-century singer], and even more than that, they listened to her songs and learned them well, even though some of the songs had inappropriate words. Prayer leaders (among them scholars) used her tunes [in the prayer services], until this day, with the approval of halakhic authorities, who knew quite well the source [of these tunes].”

Rabbi Jachter writes about Kol isha here stressing the liberal views of Sedei Chemed, Rabbi Hirsch, Rav Weinberg, and Rav Soloveitchik who agreed with Rav Weinberg on women singing Zemirot in the company of unrelated men.

http://www.tabc.org/kol-torah/article/index.aspx?pageaction=View SinglePublic& LinkID=712&ModuleID=43&StartDate=4/5/2013&NEWSPID=1

Rabbi Jachter writes:

…Rav Weinberg instead defends the German Jewish practice of women singing zemirot in the company of unrelated men by citing the Sedei Chemed (Kelalim, Ma’arechet HaKuf, 42) who quotes the Divrei Cheifetz, who asserts that the Kol Ishah prohibition does not apply to women singing zemirot, singing songs to children, and lamenting for the dead. This authority explains that in these contexts men do not derive pleasure from the woman’s voice. In fact, the Pasuk (Shofetim 5:1) records that Devorah the prophetess sang a song of praise to Hashem together with Barak the son of Avino’am. According to the plain (Peshat) reading of the text, Devorah was married to Lapidot and not Barak.

Interestingly, I asked Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in July 1985 whether he agrees with this ruling of Rav Weinberg. The Rav replied, “I agree with everything that he wrote, except for his permission to stun animals before Shechitah.”

Rabbi Bigman, the rosh yeshiva of Ma’aleh Gilboah, states here:  http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/new-analysis-kol-bisha-erva

Everything here refers only to a lone voice and not to song in a group, as “two voices are not heard.”

This distinction is widely accepted among different groups within the community, and it is therefore the custom to permit women’s singing in a choir. This dispensation is extremely strained, alien to the character of the subject, and transferred from an altogether different context—hearing the sound of a shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg has already raised a serious difficulty on this avenue: “With regard to what is written that two voices are not heard, is it not explicit in the Talmud that because it is pleasant to listen to, one would pay more attention? And nothing is more pleasant to listen to than what our sages attested to, that the voice of a woman is erva, from the verse “For your voice is sweet and your face is comely,” see Berakhot 24.”

b) The prohibition applies only to listening in a manner similar to looking at a woman for sexual pleasure.

This distinction can be taken from a simple reading of all the material related to the subject, from the language of the Rishonim and the ruling of the Beit Yosef about them, although it is not stated specifically. According to this approach, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik ruled that there was no problem in public song when we, his young male students, were participating in the singing. Rabbi Aaron did not permit listening to women by themselves, even in a group, but at the heart of his position was the equation to the prohibition of looking and the distinction between staring for sexual pleasure and general, innocent sight—and the difference is clear.

c) There is no prohibition whatsoever of innocent singing; rather, only forbidden is singing intended for sexual stimulation, or flirtatious singing.

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 Shulhan Arukh: It is forbidden to hear a voice of erva as opposed to language forbidding song generally. (Even according to the most correct reading of the text of the Rambam—“to hear the voice of a forbidden woman or to see her hair,” the word erva referring to the woman herself—the distinction is still supported by the context and the Rambam’s general sense.)

Compiled by Josh Teplow

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