Is it true that Orthodox [and other] Jews are not allowed to hear a woman's singing voice? Does this rule out broadway shows, opera, and concerts? A woman's voice seems rather innocuous...what's the deal? How can this be so if Judaism values women so highly?
Indeed, as your question indicates, many Orthodox Jews do refrain from listening to a woman's singing voice. The prohibition is part of a cultural-religious value system intended to foster modesty (tzniut). In Hebrew, the specific term is "Kol Isha Erva", attributing sexual quality to the female voice, and is derivative from a Talmudic statement by the 1st generation Amora, Shmuel (tractate Berakhot 24a and Kiddushin 70a). Some medieval authorities limited the prohibition to promiscuous love songs, however the classical texts of Jewish law (halakha) codified women's singing as part of a general modesty directive (Rambam, Issurei Biah, 21, 2 and R. Yosef Karo, Shulkhan Arukh, Even HaEzer, 201,1).
This division of opinion continues today. Many aim at minimizing sexual temptations. For example, Rabbi Ben Cherney views this prohibition "as protection against a breakdown of sancity" ("Kol Isha", Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, vol. 10, pp. 57-75; http://www.jofa.org/pdf/Batch%201/0099.pdf). For Rabbi Howard Jachter the Kol Isha prohibition is an antidote to "deterioration of the moral standards of western society" (Kol Torah - Torah Academy of Bergen County Feb. 2, 2002 http://koltorah.org/ravj/The%20Parameters%20of%20Kol%20Isha.htm).
A lenient position however, is advocated by Rabbi Avraham Shammah, from the Herzog Institute in Alon Shevut. He suggests defining parameters of tzniut by context, culture and norms (Jan. 16, 2008,"Kol BIisha erva in a Contemporary Perspective", translated into English - http://www.kolech.org.il/show.asp?id=25318). Similarly, Rabbi David Bigman, of the religious Kibbutz Ma'ale Gilboa, rules that it is permissible to listen to women singing when there is no sexual provocation and criteria of modesty are observed - "Only singing intended for sexual stimulation, or flirtatious singing, is forbidden" (July 2008, http://www.ynet.co.il/english/articles/0,7340,L-3567666,00.html
The upshot is that while it is rare to find ultra-Orthodox men at Broadway shows and concerts, the Modern Orthodox community is divided, and many do participate in such cultural-musical events. One measure of this division can be seen in the responses on a site set up by a Lubavitch woman named Yael Cozocaru. Yael asked: Do you allow mixed singing at your Shabbat table? Of the 100 mothers who responded, 49% said: "My daughters would never dream of singing at a mixed table; they've been taught it's against halacha", and another 9% discouraged their daughters, while 27% encouraged their daughters to sing and 13% didn't mind. (http://www.imamother.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=1519996).
The ramifications of this dilemma are reflected in a 2008 newspaper article by Einat Barzilai about the new phenomenon of Orthodox women singers who perform on stage (Maariv, Aug. 15, 2008 http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART1/773/274.html). Barzilai takes note of several Orthodox female singers who do sing before mixed audiences such as Neshama Carlebach, Karni Eldad, Liat Yitzhaki and Basya Schechter (the latter grew up in a religious environment in Borough Park, Brooklyn but today is the lead singer of the neo-Hasidic band "Pharaoh's Daughter" - http://pharaohsdaughter.com). However, Barzilai also interviewed women singers who have found value in singing for women only. Ora Barness from Jerusalem explains: "I wish to keep my performances in an intimacy of women only. There is so much lewd behavior that we have lost our sensitivity to beauty and forfeited the purity of sexuality". Similarly, Odelia Berlin (daughter of the famous clarinet musician Musa Berlin) is soloist of "Tefillah LaDerekh", a troupe of six women musicians aged 26-33. She explains the advantages of performing only before women: "There is a softer type of energy and an inner strength lacking in male audiences". Berlin's mother adds: "We want to sing only for women. This is not a feminist statement, but rather a spiritual one. We women desire to come closer to God on our own without male interference and intervention"!!
There is a debate throughout rabbinic literature about the meaning of the phrase “kol b’isha erva”-that a women’s voice is enticing. Specifically referencing sugyot in Brachot and Sanhedrin, one might claim that a women’s voice could create a sexual desire, but even without the sugyot themselves, and certainly the commentary that follow, there is a debate as to the context of this voice (just with the shma, in the context of either leading or answering in song, or even just speaking). There is also debate, throughout the ages as to the number of women singing, the reason that they are singing, the clothes that they are wearing, and the conversations go on and on.
This continuum is what you speak of, as you reference operas and other concerts but it is important to note that even in the most “sacred” of spaces, a prayer community, the notion of kol isha (a women’s voice) as a prohibition in public doesn’t exist in the Conservative movement. Women are full members of both the Rabbinical and Cantorial Assemblies, as well as prayer leaders in many synagogues.
I would suggest that that since there is no prohibition within the Conservative movement to hear a woman’s voice in prayer, certainly there is no prohibition to hear a woman’s voice in a secular venue.
I will not answer for the Orthodox community. The singular teaching of Samuel (in B. Berachot 24a and B. Kiddushin 70a) which serves as the source for this prohibition does not hold outside of the Orthodox world, to the best of my understanding. While they see it as a matter of modesty, others see it as an unnecessary limitation on the spiritual expression of women.
Within the Reform community there are no objections to hearing a woman singing in prayer or in other settings. Quite the opposite, within the Reform world music is seen as an integral part of prayer, a means of hiddur mitzvah. making the mitzvah of prayer beautiful. Women are well integrated into the leadership of the Reform movement as rabbis, cantors and song leaders. Indeed the School of Sacred Music of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of religion is now named after Debbie Friedman, z”l, whose music enlivens services in synagogues affiliated with the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox movements.
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