I held my seven month old daughter Ravi on my lap as we watched the video of Ophir Ben-Shetreet sing. The 17 year old alto gave a soulful performance on Israel’s The Voice, garnering the judge’s acclaim, and inducing some leg bopping on Ravi’s part. Recently, Ben-Shetreet has been the center of much controversy as the religious all-girl school she attends in Ashdod has temporarily suspended her for singing in public.
As a husband, father, feminist and Modern Orthodox rabbinical student, I am appalled. How can a religious school punish its students for their God given talents? How can its strict adherence to kol isha, the challenging prohibition of listening to a woman’s singing voice, blind the school leadership to the obvious kiddush haShem, the sanctification of God’s name, that took place in having a religious student talk openly about her faith to a largely secular Israeli audience and world?
A year ago, the Jewish community was discussing the attacks young Modern Orthodox girls faced as they walked to school in Ramat Beit Shemesh getting spit on by Haredi miscreants. Rabbi Dov Linzer, the dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, wrote then in The New York Times that: “The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.” A year later, the quest for religious tolerance lives on, as modesty patrol committees run rampant in Borough Park and Women of the Wall continue their uphill battle.
The Orthodox world is in the midst of an identity crisis and the question is: who will come out as the true bearer of its tradition? As of now, the extremists are making the headlines. The Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School, a Modern Orthodox co-ed yeshiva, whose students perform a co-ed musical annually isn’t making national news. Where then are the tolerant voices of Modern Orthodoxy discussing kol isha today? Surely, we are not like the Saudi Arabian Muslim fundamentalists who forbid their daughters to drive. Let our Modern Orthodox community come out and talk honestly about the prohibition of kol isha, with its women scholars and leaders, guiding the discussion.
The prohibition in Jewish law of listening to a woman’s voice comes from the Gemara. Brachot 24a states: “Shmuel says: the voice of a woman is ervah as the verse in Song of Song writes, “Let me hear your voice because your voice is pleasant and your appearance attractive.” And so the laws and stringencies follow with applicabilities varying depending on the rabbi. Some rabbis forbid hearing a woman’s singing voice at all times while others forbid it only during prayer. Some say the law doesn’t apply to mixed singing of men and women or religious music, and others hold one must get up and leave the room when a woman sings. The seemingly brave rabbis in the Modern Orthodox community say the prohibition applies to sexualized singing only. There are those who even say the law causes such emotional pain it alienates women from religiosity altogether. All of these positions are made by male rabbis and intended for male listeners. Where are women voices in this conversation today?
The mission of staying spiritually engaged, intellectually challenged and religiously committed to a tradition that can inspire and at times compete with modern sensibilities is our struggle as Jews striving to live an honest Judaism in the 21st century. It’s our role to hold these dissonances and talk about them openly, rather than shy away from them. I just can’t believe that the community that produced the first ever Orthodox woman rabbi and Shabbat friendly electric wheelchairs and hearing aids can’t find a way while maintaining their halachic integrity to say unequivocally to Ben-Shetrets’s school: “shame on you.”
The Gemara in Bava Metzia 59a teaches that “it’s better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than publicly put one’s fellow human being to shame.” The value of human dignity, kavod habriyot, is paramount in halacha. Couldn’t this color a new conversation about kol isha? As Blu Greenberg, the noted Orthodox thinker and feminist once said, “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachik way.” Critics might say this undermines the halachik process if Jewish law is merely dictated by the will of the rabbis, but they must also remember the Talmud’s dictum in Bava Matsia 59b, “Lo ba-shamayim hi.” The ultimate fate of the law is not in Heaven’s hands. Must it really be lost then to extremists in the court of public opinion?
There will always be the hard-liners among us who will shout we are caving into “Western culture” and insist there is no wiggle room within the halacha. However, even they listen to Miriam and Deborah’s song as it’s read in synagogues during Parashat B’Shalach, just two weeks ago. Certainly, those stories were chanted by men in most Orthodox settings. But they are about women, and men.
When the Israelites were freed from slavery, their instinctive communal response was to sing. How can we remain silent to their song?
Ravi just turned seven months. With each passing day, she surprises us, her first time parents, with something new: how she taps her feet to a song’s rhythm and most recently, her babbling, baby noises which range from piercingly loud to gentle cooing. Ours is a home full of song, from early mornings when we sing Modeh Ani till evening when we rock her to sleep with Shma and other lullabies. Our home will always be full of song and one day, if she wants to, and if she isn’t surprisingly tone deaf, she will join us with a harmony of her own. We will be proud of her for that accomplishment. Doesn’t Ophir Ben-Shetreet deserve the same?