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Kol Isha- Should mixed voice Jewish choirs be able to give concerts to United Synagogue audiences?

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Reader Comments (2)

If the sight of a woman or even worse, LISTENING to a woman who isn't your wife sing, is able to cause letcherous thoughts in the mind of a congregant, he shouldn't be allowed out of his house.
Why doesn't the United Synagogue GROW UP?
Go back to the dark ages already and leave us alone!


Kol Isha

I agree with the sentiment here if I might perhaps have looked to express it differently.

I think what is called for here is a bit of historical analysis, going back to Talmudic times, to see where the issue in question has arisen and, more particularly, how. I am not disposed to be as sweeping as you have been with your comment (though I do, as I say, have sympathy). I think it is unquestionably the case that some women through the ages have been involved in singing and musical activities of, shall we say, a provocative nature, and the same is undoubtedly true today with a good many of the more exhibitionist pop singers. (The same can of course be said of selected male performers too.) Equally, it is hard to see (or hear) why there should be a problem with respect to cultured performances by singers of either gender, and insofar as the Zemel Choir is anything, I'd like to suggest that its musical performance is liable to be described as "cultured" rather than "provocative".

There is a great deal of misinformation about the extent of the so-called prohibition in any case. To put things in perspective, I have heard, or run into, people who have determined to extend their concerns to:

(a) Singing by little children who happen to be girls. If an adult female is capable of suggestive behaviour, I do not think any of us surely can think that a 6-year-old girl should fall into the same category. For whatever it is worth (and when you read this, you may consider that this is not a whole lot), scholars of Midrash consider that a girl as young as 3 may be considered to be possessed of the suggestive qualities that attend the conduct of cetain mature women, and base this on the supposition that Rebecca, who watered Abraham's servant and all of his camels (see Genesis 24) was a mere three years old at the time. Most commentaies do not take this suggestion for her age seriously (though undoubtedly she was no great age and perhaps merely a young teen), but it is from episodes such as this that we find a lot of interwoven nonsense accumulates.

(b) Recordings of women. Now, as far as I am aware, even if you consider that live performance by women is a problem, audio recordings are not, since the visual ingredient of this exercise is missing. But that does not stop some folk from taking this supposed prohibition a stage further and keeping even CDs etc, of lady singers out of reach.

(c) Women performing for women only. Leaving aside whether this is musically effective, it seems to me that there is capacity for just as much stimulating emotion in this sort of performance as in a performance in mixed company.

(d) Women playing musical instruments. I have heard and even seen all sorts of nonsense here. If the prohibition is against the woman's voice, which is defined by refence to musical output that comes from within her body, how is it relevant to include instrumental performance? Yet many do. I have heard of occasions where the female members of a mixed house band at a very religious wedding or similar party have been placed behind a screen so that the guests not be shocked and horrified. (The problem with this, of course, is that everybody then makes a point of peering behind the screen anyway, so the whole thing is grossly self-defeating.)

Where does all this come from? There is so much accretion upon accretion by now that it is not simple to deal with this any more. Let's do a few "nots" first. The supposed prohibition is not mentioned in the Torah. The only instance of direct and exclusive involvement of women in song in the Torah is at the Red Sea after the vanquishing of the Egyptians, and it is very clear that the women among the Israelites participated in singing, dancing and the playing of perhaps rather basic musical instruments. (By the way, dancing is another big subject, but let's leave that for a Jewish dance web site to address.)

References in the Prophetic books are few and far between, but equally clear. Deborah sang her song of victory over Sisera (see Judges 5). However, the rabbinical scholars will doubtless insist that all she did was fashion the poem rather than perform it out loud. I don't buy that. There is an intriguing refeence in Ecclesiastes to the character called Kohelet (traditionally associated with King Solomon) havig assembled, among his many achievements, ... sharim v'sharot ..., and the only obvious translation of this is that of (groups, choirs, of) male and female singers. Note (for what it is worth) that the ArtScroll translation of this verse is "... musical instruments of all types ...", which all goes to show that if the ultra-religious world cannot explain something in the text in a way that it likes, it simply affords us a convenient mistranslation.

As far as I am aware, any sense of concrete prohibition, or opporbrium, attaching to the matter of women and song in Judaism is very late indeed, and derives from the 3rd century CE sage Shmuel, who holds "kol isha ervah", which, translated, means "the voice of a woman is akin to the biblically prohibited public exposure of a women's nakedness". I do not know what prompted Shmuel to say this, nor whether there was consensual support for it, opposition to it or complete ignorance of it in context. Nor have I had the chance to probe any deeper and see how the matter evolved from here. But all sorts of things ae possible, including: Shmuel did not like the sound of women in song, or of one particular women perhaps; his was a reaction to social conditions of the time; and he was not intending to give a formal ruling but was merely making an anecdotal observation (these abound in the Talmud, and we do not treat them all as hard and fast rules).

Comments from others on this admittedly incomplete note would be welcome.

All I'll say in conclusion is this. A filtering out of licentious or suggestive conduct - in men and women - is a hallmark of traditional Jewish observance going back centuries. It is fair and accurate to say that aspects of vocal performance do now fall and always have fallen into this broad categoy. The result of the general approach of being consistently too careful in this regard has taken us to the position where rather too many Jewish religious authorities are worried they cannot trust themselves to tell the difference between a pop diva performing raunchy songs in her underwear and a mixed-voice Jewish choir performing some of the most hallowed religious music that the Jews are proud to call their own. I suspect that, as with so many things, what we really have here is the usual tussle between those for whom conservative ritual at the expense of a broad and cultured approach to Judaism is just that bit easier to manage.

Daniel Tunkel
9 March 2010

March 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Tunkel

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