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Siren Songs

"For your voice is sweet and your appearance pleasant" (Song of Songs 2:14).  On the basis of this verse, Jewish law prohibits a man's listening to kol ishah, a woman's voice in song.  Unlikely as it may seem, this prohibition has sparked a controversy that could shake the foundations of Israel's self-defense and self-definition.

Relevant Links
Kol Ishah Reviewed  Yehuda Henkin, Urim Publications. Thirty years ago, Saul Berman wrote an influential and relatively liberal interpretation of the kol ishah prohibition. But there has been an answer. (PDF)
Sad Sexual Obsessions  Eric H. Yoffie, Jerusalem Post. Does the Israeli rabbinate’s increasing focus on gender issues have an unattractive psychological component?
Religion and the IDF  Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas Daily. Almost a third of the officers in Israel’s army now wear kippot. Is the IDF about to become the long arm of rabbinic law?
Voice of a Woman  Shmuel Rosner, New York Times. If Orthodox Jews believe they are forbidden by law to hear a woman sing, how far should the Israeli military go to facilitate their observance?
Gender Trouble  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. For “Hardalim,” the objections to women’s singing go beyond modesty and gender separation; they are also a matter of national identity.

On September 5, nine religious soldiers walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces event, part of an officers' training course, that included women's singing.  They said they had done so in obedience to the kol ishah prohibition.  The IDF dismissed four of the soldiers from the course, and the Israeli Supreme Court declined to intervene.  Several rabbis said the IDF had handled the incident badly.  A committee was established to study the issue.  The matter seemed to blow over.

Two months later the committee released its report, which recommended against excusing soldiers from events that included women's singing.  Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, whose yeshiva, Elon Moreh Hesder, sends its students to the IDF, responded that if the IDF adopted the recommendation, he would advise soldiers to "choose death" rather than comply and that he would counsel young men "not to enlist in an army that gives coercive orders against Judaism."  Indeed, he warned, "the entire military rabbinate would have to resign."  The issue continues to simmer.  Just recently there was a reportinaccurate, it turned out—that Rabbi Levanon had resigned over the issue.

By telling soldiers to "choose death," Rabbi Levanon was saying that the controversy involved a type of law for which Jews must be willing to give up their lives.  These categories include laws concerning the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry, and illicit sexual relations; but they also include cases in which a tyrannical government threatens Jewish observance.  Rabbi Levanon's reference to the army's "coercive orders" makes it likely that he saw the kol ishah controversy as belonging to this last category, government coercion.

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, head of the more centrist Yeshivat Har Etzion, begged to differ.  In published remarks, he pointed to the importance of a cooperative relationship between Jewish law and the IDF and the need to avoid splintering the army into sects.  In his view, these exigencies had both procedural and substantive consequences.

The procedural implication was that authority to decide such questions in military settings should lie with IDF rabbis, not the rabbis of individual soldiers.  The substantive implication was that in such settings, it was proper, in interpreting the law, to rely on "any legitimate leniency." Thus, even where the law of kol ishah would generally apply, if a man has not chosen to listen to a woman's singing but has merely obeyed a military command, the law should be taken to prohibit listening only if the singing is of a sexual nature or gives the listener sexual pleasure.

Finally, in military settings, even if one granted that the kol ishah prohibition applied, it should not be seen as requiring death over disobedience: It was unfair to require soldiers to die rather than rely on legitimately issued opinions of IDF rabbis, and it was disproportionate to place this controversy in the same "tyrannical government coercion" category as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

In light of the existence of such objections, how did the kol ishah controversy turn into such a portentous one?  The reasons lie in two larger recent phenomena among Israel's Religious Zionists.

First, there has been an increasing emphasis on gender roles and gender segregation.  Many chapters of the Religious Zionist youth organization, B'nei Akiva, have segregated themselves by gender.  Religious Zionist thinkers like Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in educational works and discourses, place increasing emphasis on modesty, or tsniut.  Rabbi Levanon has argued that under Jewish law women may not hold any political office.  While Rabbi Levanon and his camp advocate increased stringency, Rabbi Lichtenstein and the movement with which he is associated oppose such a shift.

Another issue is even more fundamental: the question of how Judaism should view the IDF and its impact on Jewish law.  Religious Zionism has traditionally placed great value on synchronizing Jewish law with the needs of national unity and running a state.  Indeed, the Religious Zionist movement is fundamentally based on the assumption that such synchronization is possible.  This approach requires that Jewish law be flexible enough to deal with national necessities. 

Rabbi Levanon's positions, on the other hand, are based on a view of the state not as a partner with Jewish law but as an enemy attacking Jewish law and tradition.  This dissociation from the state, a radical departure from Religious Zionism's traditional understanding, is in part a reaction to government policies, in Gaza and elsewhere, that many Religious Zionists see as betrayal: They have begun to see a frontal clash between their support of the State of Israel and their vision of settling the Land of Israel. 

Both the increased focus on gender roles and the dissociation from the state reflect a shift among a significant portion of the Religious Zionist community toward Haredi Judaism.  The shift has created a new category called "Hardal," or Haredi Religious Zionist.  But it may have more far-reaching consequences.  As Rabbi Lichtenstein notes, seeing the state not as a sponsor of Jewish life and practice but as a foreign body attacking the faith has the potential to tear the State of Israel apart.  Recent events like settler attacks on an army base in the West Bank demonstrate the danger that arises when certain sects see the army as an enemy rather than an ally. 

The Religious Zionist community has long been a major supporter of the IDF, in terms of both manpower and ideology.  If the movement withdraws significantly from this relationship, the results could be disastrous.  Whether or not the IDF does or should accommodate Religious Zionist "conscientious objectors" in individual cases like the kol ishah matter, there should be no mistake about the potential of such incidents to cause deep rifts between these two fundamental institutions.

Shlomo Zuckier is a Tikvah Fellow who has studied at Yeshivat Har EtzionHe is a rabbinical student and Wexner Fellow at Yeshiva University.

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Jay A Friedman on January 24, 2012 at 7:27 am (Reply)
Israelis are not in crisis mode on the issue of female soloists. Actually, this is a matter of getting one's name in the newspapers by voicing more extreme pronouncements than the other fellow. A minority of minorities is excited about this matter. Few Bnei Akiva snifim operate separate gender groups.

As for me, I'm too old to enjoy the younger singers but I remember Yaffa Yarkoni and Shoshana Damari. I have the highest regard for Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston. I would never walk out on their concerts!!!
Ovadya di israel on January 24, 2012 at 7:33 am (Reply)
This is not a cut-and-dried halakic law. Many Sephardim do not hold that it is completely forbidden to listen to a woman's voice, as Rabbi Shemul Maaravi, among others, has pointed this out. It is not a life-and-death issue according to halakha but another misunderstanding that causes baseless hatred among Jews. (Read Dr. Rene Levi's book on baseless hatred.)
sterling on January 24, 2012 at 10:40 am (Reply)
Deborah sang with Barak (Judg. 5:1), and the verb there is in the feminine singular. That is, the Bible permits it. Orach Hayim 75:3 says that the only problem with hearing a womans voice may--may--occur when davening the sh'ma. By inventing a categorical prohibition that contradicts the Bible, those who enunciate it forfeit any legitimate authority to be considered authentic decisors of Jewish law.
muti on January 24, 2012 at 10:55 am (Reply)
This just demonstrates how un-accommodating Israeli society is to practicing Jews. In the United States, they would never be coerced into attending a ceremony that violates their religious convictions. Israel, especially, should be sensitive to practicing religious Jews. What a shame and disgrace. I was a passionate supporter of Israel; I will never support Israel again.
SYDNEY on January 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm (Reply)
This is an old Kulterkampf--which, unfortunately, is rearing its head again after being dormant for nearly 50 years. In the early years, olim from edot hamizrach were put into non-religious kibbutzim or other non-religious environments with the goal or making them non-observant. As was noted, this practice would not be acceptable in North America. There is halacha dealing with kol isha and tzniut. If the non-observant do not like it, they should, at a minimum, respect those who want to adhere to it. The deal that was made to get Haredi soldiers was to allow them to keep their derech hachaim--their way in religious matters--while they serve in the army. Whom does it bother if they do not want to attend concerts with women singers? What does attending a concert with women singers have to do with being soldiers?
Ruth de Sola Mendes on January 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm (Reply)
And before Deborah sang with Barak, Miriam led the women of Israel in song on the shores of the Reed Sea. Both were occasions of great and celebrated victory for our people. As the Islamic world marginalizes women, these "religious" voices for gender separation, instead of being a light to the nations, have become part of the "dark" force.
Geoff on January 24, 2012 at 5:48 pm (Reply)
U.S. military personnel are coerced into doing all sorts of things that may contradict their religious scruples. As for kol isha, using a verse from Ketuvum (there is no mitzvah here) and arriving at a defiance-or-death prohibition shows just how ridiculous the humra ha-yom, I'm-frumer-than-thou game of dueling restrictions is strangling the life out of Judaism. Pure insanity.
Dan S on January 25, 2012 at 4:31 am (Reply)
The military has a valid reason for not exempting religious soldiers from events that include female singers. Part of any military training--and this event was part of a training course--is to form a unified, cohesive group. If the military were to allow that exemption, it would start receiving more frivolous exemption requests. One of the reasons the military allows Haredi units is to promote greater unity in Israeli society. With Haredi units as well, the goal is to form a cohesive unit that will work together to achieve the goals set by military and civilian leadership. Even in these units, there are limits to the flexibility allowed and employed by on-site commanders. (It must be said that these units, similar to pre-Korea African-American U.S. Army units, may end by provoking a backlash.)
bill on January 25, 2012 at 10:43 am (Reply)
Samson Raphael Hirsch allowed kol isha.
sydney on January 25, 2012 at 11:20 am (Reply)
to "bill"

where do you get that from?
Bklynguy on January 25, 2012 at 6:08 pm (Reply)
The difference between some of the Haredim and Islamic extremists like the Taliban is increasingly narrowing, at least regarding gender roles. How long will it be before some Haredi throws acid in a girl's face for daring to sit in the "men only" section of a bus, or some other infraction ?
Jerry Blaz on January 25, 2012 at 7:21 pm (Reply)
Rabbi David Hartman's source--to the effect that if someone is saying the "sh'ma," a woman's singing can be distracting and shouldn't be heard at that time--is understandable. But the sources impose more and more rabbinical restrictions upon MEN in their contact with women, lest the men have sexual urges. It is up to men to discipline themselves. Instead, women are put behind the meXitzah. When women sing as part of an official event, if a soldier is supposed to be there, IDF regulations must take precedence over any rabbinical instruction. In any other army, if a cleric were to contradict army orders, the cleric would be punished. Army discipline must come first, or it is no longer discipline. Unfortunately, rabbis in Israel advocate many things which are not to be tolerated in a democratic society. In Israel they are more than tolerated, and the rabbis get salaries from the government.
sydney on January 26, 2012 at 11:13 am (Reply)
This has nothing to do with army discipline, although the army would like you to believe that it has. These particular soldiers have volunteered into the army because of an agreement that the army would respect their religious practices. This accommodation is not unreasonable. Why are they forced to attend? There is a Shulchan Aruch, and these soldiers want to adhere without heterim. Is it the agenda of some officers in the army to scuttle the agreement? The kulturkampf in Israel is repeating itself.
soloveitchik on January 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm (Reply)
Regarding the assertion that "there is a Shulchan Aruch, and these soldiers want to adhere without heterim:" According to the Rima's commentary on the S.A., Jews can walk around bare-headed and play ball on Shabbos. The S.A., at most, deals only with the Sh'ma. Expanding that POSSIBLE prohibition to other areas is a violation of Deut. 4:2, which teaches that you cannot "add" to the Torah--which, for the rabbis, includes the Oral Torah.
jerry marcus on January 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm (Reply)
Regarding the article's statement that on the basis of the Song of Songs, Jewish law prohibits a man’s listening to kol ishah, a woman’s voice in song: Since when do we derive halacha from Ktuvim (Writings?) Jewish Law can be derived only from the Humash.
n. pollak on January 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm (Reply)
The Forward reports on a petition by a group of "religious-Zionist youngsters" that says, “Of late, processes have begun to coercively instruct soldiers to transgress the commandments of the Torah, such as hearing women sing.” But it is not--not--a Torah commandment. To claim it is, is not simply a lie but, given the context, a God-damned lie.
Jerry Blaz on January 27, 2012 at 5:54 am (Reply)
Army discipline has everything to do with it. You cannot have rabbis countermanding army regulations. If the army has to go and dismantle Migron and a rabbi objects, citing some p'sak of halachah, is the soldier to disobey orders? Unit integrity is involved if someone or some other set of rules comes between a soldier and the order he is supposed to carry out or implement, even an order to attend an official army function that has -- Has v'halilah -- women singing.
bill on January 27, 2012 at 10:08 am (Reply)
a.) Rabbi Hirsch's view is cited in Sireday Aysh, vol.3, responsum #8. Indeed, kol isha was the standard German/Ashkenaz/Yekka practice until it was later corrupted by Eastern European Jews. b.) It is not acceptable to conduct this discussion by challenging another discussant's integrity and knowledge of Judaism.
yitz on January 27, 2012 at 10:19 am (Reply)
The charedi definition of "freedom of religion" is their freedom to impose their religion on everybody else, preferably at the Israeli taxpayer's expense.
Shimon from Miami on January 28, 2012 at 7:06 pm (Reply)
It's irrelevant whether you think the kol ishah prohibition is important; what is important is that some religious Jews do. Why did the IDF have to have this kind of mandatory officers' training event in the first place (I went through many officers training events in the U.S. Army and none ever had a woman sing) if it was divisive, even for a few?
Jerry Blaz on January 29, 2012 at 4:03 am (Reply)
Every army has its "culture;" it is tied to its esprit, its ability to create cohesive units that operate successfully in situations in which instantaneous reactions are necessary. The IDF has more experience in what builds that kind of response than someone who gives orders from a Yeshiva. There is only one "boss" in a military situation, and that is the commanding officer--even if in some situations it is a corporal commanding privates.
soloveitchik on January 29, 2012 at 1:57 pm (Reply)
The Torah (Deut. 4:2) refutes the claim that "it's irrelevant whether you think the kol ishah prohibition is important; what is important is that some religious Jews do." If people make up laws and call them Halacha, how can you call them religious? At best, they may be "ritually observant" but, given their conduct toward (non-charedi) fellow human beings, they are hardly "religious." And if they make up laws--i.e., lie about God--they forfeit any claim to Orthodox legitimacy, let alone the right to dictate to the IDF.
Shimon from Miami on January 29, 2012 at 9:17 pm (Reply)
The point is not whether they are religious or not; the point is merely one of tolerance. I would not make a Mormon sit through a desecration of the Angel Moroni if I thought it would be offensive, no matter what I think. If we had more tolerance about the other and less self-centered thinking about what WE believe, we would all be just a little bit better off.
Patrick W. Stodola, M.D.,J.D. on February 11, 2012 at 1:38 am (Reply)
It was surprising to see such a low-level interpretation of the Song of Songs. The commentary of Levi ben Gershom, 1288-1344, takes a much higher view of what was being taught by the Song of Songs. The realm of the intellect and the relationship of God and man seem to be the appropriate level.
jeff on February 26, 2012 at 4:20 pm (Reply)
Exodus 15:21 contradicts the Song of Songs. Jewish law is from Torah, not writings. Ha-shem created all things sweet and pleasant, and there is no sin in that.

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