Kol Ishah III

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V. Misexplaining Ervah

R. Berman, in elaborating on the Franco-German position that he claimed to have found, explained that one may not recite keri’as Shema while listening to a woman sing because a woman’s voice is distracting. “[T]he central concern with hearing a woman’s voice is not its intrinsic sensuousness, but the purely functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study” (p. 48). This is quite astounding.

A woman’s voice is distracting to a man, R. Berman claims, but that has nothing to do with its sensuousness. If so, then why is a woman’s voice more distracting than a man’s voice or even someone loudly clapping? Why would the Gemara call it ervah if it did not have some sort of sexually related meaning? This claim, which is actually quite important for R. Berman’s thesis, is entirely baseless and implausible. This, beside the point that he misunderstood the Franco-German position(s). (Cf. R. Henkin, p. 67)

VI. Misinterpreting the Ra’avad

R. Berman explains the Ra’avad’s position as having the following three components:

1. A man may not hear a woman’s speaking voice.

2. A man may not recite keri’as Shema while hearing his wife’s singing voice or another woman’s speaking voice.

3. A woman’s speaking voice as an impediment to reciting Shema is limited to cases of unfamiliarity. If, however, the man is used to hearing this woman’s speaking voice then he may recite Shema in earshot of her voice.

Inexplicably, R. Berman extends this limitation (#3) to a woman’s singing voice (pp. 51-52). Quite the opposite. Barring evidence to the contrary, it entirely stands to reason that the Ra’avad is of the same view as his fellow Provencal scholar, R. Menahem Meiri. Indeed, after discussing Ra’avad’s position at length, Meiri states explicitly that there is no limitation of familiarity to a woman’s singing voice. (Cf. R. Henkin, p. 71)

With this misinterpretation removed, R. Berman’s statement that “it is not at all clear that the Rabad would recognize the existence of a general bar to hearing the singing voice of a woman” (p. 52) can be entirely discarded.

VII. Misexplaining the Sefer Hassidim

R. Berman cited the extremely stringent view of R. Yehudah he-Hassid in his Sefer Hassidim that not only may a man not listen to a woman’s voice, but a woman may not listen to a man’s voice. The implication that a woman may also be sexually aroused by a man’s voice, much like a man might be aroused by a woman’s voice, seems clear even if quite unique in the halakhic literature. But R. Berman draws a different conclusion, “the fundamental concern is not the voice per se but the character of the social relationship which might result” (p. 53). This seems like quite a leap from the simple words of the Sefer Hassidim.

VIII. Denial of Sensuousness

Throughout the essay, R. Berman strives to remove the implied sensuousness of a woman’s voice from the issue. Upon doing this, he can then limit the applicability of the prohibition of listening to a woman’s voice. However, much of his analysis that leads to these similar interpretations are specious, such as in the case of R. Yehuda he-Hassid just mentioned. In other cases, such as with the Ra’avad and Ra’avyah, R. Berman’s attempt to remove the sexual context is based on misinterpretation.

IX. Misinterpretation of the Rambam

The above tendency is further witnessed in R. Berman’s explanation of the Rambam’s view. The Rambam writes as follows:

One who looks at a small finger of a woman and intends to enjoy it is like one who looks at private parts. Even to hear the voice of [a woman who has the status of] ervah or to look at her hair is forbidden. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Issurei Bi’ah, ch. 21 par. 2)

It seems quite clear that the Rambam is forbidding listening to a woman’s voice for pleasure. However, R. Berman curiously explains the Rambam thusly: “[H]e has indicated that hearing a woman’s voice, similar to viewing her hair or ogling her body in a sensuous manner, is an activity which might lead to intercourse and is therefore banned in the context of the relationship to an erwah” (p. 55). R. Berman further states that the Rambam has gone beyond earlier authorities “in his specification of a woman’s voice as the focus of the ban on the development of warm social relationship between persons married to others” (pp. 55-56). From where R. Berman manufactures these deductions, I do not know. It is certainly not to be found in the text of the Rambam. The enjoyment of staring at a woman or listening to her voice is what the Rambam prohibits, not the “development of warm social relationships.”

What we have seen so far is that R. Berman has been incorrect in his analysis of almost every single medieval view. I will not move beyond this time period except in regard to one point.

X. Improper Exclusion of Single Women

R. Berman accuses R. Yosef Te’omim, the author of the important Peri Megadim commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, of innovatively expanding the prohibition of listening to a woman’s voice to the voice of unmarried women (p. 61). The truth, though, is that R. Te’omim was merely formalizing the obvious. A man may not listen to the singing voice of a woman who is an ervah. A single woman who has even once menstruated is a niddah, i.e. an ervah. Basic logic tells us that since kol ishah applies to an ervah and a single woman is an ervah, therefore kol ishah applies to a single woman. This is really quite simple.

But wait, R. Berman tells us, the Rambam explicitly excludes a single woman from all of these matters. Therefore, a man is allowed to list to her singing voice and, presumably, ogle her (p. 61). This is incorrect! The passage which R. Berman referenced (Hilkhos Issurei Bi’ah, ch. 21 par. 3) is specifically in regard to deciding whether one wishes to marry this woman. For that purpose, and that purpose alone, the Rambam permits a man to carefully look at his potential mate. There is no mention of listening to her voice and, from the fact that a prospective husband requires special permission to look carefully at this single woman, we see clearly that in all other cases it is forbidden. She is an ervah, with all the consequences that this status entails.

XI. Conclusion

I close by pointing out that all of the great aharonim whom R. Berman quoted in his article, and many more can be added to that list, clearly disagree with his premise and are of the view that kol ishah is a general prohibition that still applies today. And, from our analysis, it is clear why they never even considered R. Berman’s flawed thesis.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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