Kol Ishah

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It is generally understood that a man is not allowed to hear a woman’s singing voice. Exactly when this applies – only while she is in view or even otherwise, only live or even recorded, etc. – is a complicated matter of dispute that everyone should resolve with their own rabbis. I will not address these important practical topics. Instead, I will critique an essay that, I believe, is damaging and entirely mistaken.

R. Saul Berman wrote an important article regarding the propriety of men listening to a woman sing that was published under the title “Kol ‘Isha” in The Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume. I believe the article to be entirely mistaken and based on a number of scholarly faults. An excellent critique of this article was published by R. Yehuda Henkin in his Equality Lost under the title “Kol Ishah Reviewed.” I will be adding to R. Henkin’s critique and following a different organizational structure, but will cite R. Henkin when appropriate.

A source tells me that R. Berman is in the process of rewriting this essay. Be that as it may, I can only judge what I see with my eyes, and that is the old essay.

I. False Premises

The first fault I find with R. Berman’s article is that he creates three a priori possible approaches and forces various different rishonim into those views. Some would call this the Brisker methodology but I hesitate to give it such credibility. To me it seems like an arbitrary smoothing over of differences which leads to a distortion of true views. Thus, according to R. Berman the Franco-German approach is that men may not listen to kol ishah while reciting keri’as Shema but at other times may do so. None of them actually say this, but once he created such an a priori category it was easy to place sources into that category and ignore differences in position.

Additionally, aside from the over-simplification of history that this commits by assuming that all scholars in a particular region had the same approach, R. Berman fails in his attempt at an historical analysis by neglecting to describe the chronological development of sources or even to mention the historical interplay between scholars. For example, it would be more appropriate to refer to the Ra’avyah as a student of R. Eliezer of Metz than as a contemporary (cf. R. Berman, pp. 47-48; Ephraim Urbach, Ba’alei ha-Tosafos, pp. 154, 379). Is there an earlier position that is distinct from a later position, or a French position different from a German position? Did R. Eliezer of Metz, the connector of France and German traditions, innovate an interpretation that influenced subsequent German thought? R. Berman never pursued these lines of questioning.

II. Discarding Sources

After creating a priori categories and forcing scholars into those categories, R. Berman seems to merely discard those sources that cannot be forced into his categories. For example, the Franco-German approach that kol ishah only refers to keri’as Shema is explicitly contradicted by R. Yitzhak Or Zaru’a. R. Berman notes this fact (p. 48) and then ignores this position for the remainder of the article. Perhaps we can learn from the Or Zaru’a about his contemporaries. Or maybe we can conclude that R. Berman’s a priori category is inappropriate. But R. Berman does not follow that path of thinking. Instead, he glosses over the contradictory evidence.

III. Ignoring Other Elements of the Primary Sugya

The central talmudic discussion of kol ishah is in Berakhos 24a:

R. Yitzhak said, “An exposed handbreadth [of flesh] of a woman is ervah (a matter of sexuality).”

For what purpose? If I say that the rule treats the matter of gazing upon such a thing, Rav Sheshes said, “Why did Scripture list ornaments worn outside clothing along with those worn inside [at Num. 31:5]? It was to tell you that whoever looks even at the little finger of a woman is as if he stared at her sexual parts.” Rather, the rule relates to one’s own wife, and it pertains to the recitation of the Shema.

Rav Hisda said, “A woman’s leg is ervah, as it is said, ‘Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers’ (Is. 47:2), and thereafter, ‘Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yes, your shame shall be seen’ (Is. 47:43).”

Shmuel said, “A woman’s voice is ervah, as it is said, ‘For your voice is sweet and your face pretty’ (Song 2:14).”

R. Sheshes said, “A woman’s hair is ervah, as it is said, ‘Your hair is as a flock of goats’ (Song 2:14).”

Surprisingly, R. Berman does not quote this passage in its entirety even though it is the locus classicus for the discussion of kol ishah. When you look at the passage, you see that there are two issues discussed. One is that of absolute ervah that may never be looked at, e.g. “the little finger of a woman.” The other is that of ervah in regards to keri’as Shema. One may not look at “an exposed handbreadth of a woman,” even of one’s wife, while reciting keri’as Shema. The Gemara then lists three different things as ervah but does not tell us whether these are cases of general ervah or specific (only for keri’as Shema). One could legitimately read this passage as saying that they are one or the other, or both.

It is important to note that the Gemara seems to group together the thigh of a woman, the hair of a woman and the voice of a woman. It seems like a difficult argument to make that the Gemara intended voice to be specific (apply only to keri’as Shema) but hair and thigh to be general. An even more difficult suggestion to support is that hair and thigh apply only to keri’as Shema.

None of this is discussed by R. Berman, which led him to misinterpret the view of the Franco-German school (Cf. R. Henkin, pp. 67-68). Had he more carefully analyzed the primary talmudic passage he may have drawn very different conclusions.

IV. Misinterpreting the Franco-German Position(s)

Based on three sources from France/Germany, R. Berman created a model for a Franco-German approach in which he tried to place the Ra’avyah, Yere’im and Mordekhai, with the Or Zaru’a inexplicably dissenting. The three scholars who define the Franco-German school are of the view, according to R. Berman, that it is “not inherently wrong to hear a woman’s voice, but one might not, while hearing it, be engaged in a religious activity which required his whole-hearted attention” (p. 48).

However, this reading of the Franco-German texts is difficult after taking into account the entire passage in Berakhos quoted above and some of the most important French scholars whom R. Berman neglected to quote. R. Berman cited the three Franco-German scholars mentioned above who state that one may not recite keri’as Shema while hearing a woman’s singing voice. He automatically assumed that they read the Gemara in Berakhos as identifying a woman’s thigh, hair and voice as only prohibited while reciting the keri’as Shema. As noted above, this is certainly a difficult interpretation, and definitely not the only or most likely one. It seems much more likely that these sources consider a woman’s thigh, hair and voice to be prohibited ervah that, additionally, interfere with keri’as Shema even if they are of one’s wife. Thus, just like the Gemara states that (1. general) a man may not stare at even the little finger of another woman and (2. specific) may not recite keri’as Shema while looking at an exposed handbreadth of his wife’s flesh, it also states that while a man is normally prohibited from (1. general) looking at the thigh and hair and listening to the singing voice of a woman other than his wife but is also prohibited from (2. specific) reciting keri’as Shema while looking at even his wife’s thigh and hair and listening to her voice. The textual parallel is quite compelling and is probably what the Ra’avyah, Yere’im and Mordekhai intended.

However, another way to read this passage is that the Gemara begins with a statement that a man may not look at a woman’s unexposed handbreadth of flesh. Due to difficulties, it then modifies that statement to refer to one’s wife and keri’as Shema. The passage then returns to the original discussion and states that a man may not look at a woman’s thigh and hair or listen to her singing voice. Thus, neither hair nor voice have anything to do with reciting keri’as Shema. There are a number of important French rishonim who list the impediments to reciting keri’as Shema and do not list hair or voice. The implication is that they read the passage as just explained – thigh, hair and voice are prohibited in a general situation and not just for keri’as Shema. This is a critical point. How would R. Berman explain these rishonim omitting hair and voice from the impediments to keri’as Shema? Since he rejects the contention that voice is generally prohibited, he would have to say that these rishonim reject the entire passage in Berakhos. Certainly we prefer to reconcile rishonim with the talmudic text over rejecting the passage, particularly when the reconciliatory reading of is more compelling.

What is really difficult to R. Berman’s thesis is that the French rishonim who seem to read the passage in Berakhos as referring to a general prohibition and not merely to keri’as Shema are among the most important in the Franco-German tradition. Rabbenu Ya’akov Tam, the dean of the Tosafist school, is among them, as is R. Yitzhak (Ri) Ha-Zaken, the force behind the Tosafos writings. Also among them is R. Moshe of Coucy – the Semag – who was among the last of the Tosafists. So, too, the Tosafos of R. Yehudah he-Hassid.

What we end up seeing in the Franco-German school, at least before a more thorough historical analysis is performed, is two schools of thought:

1. A man is forbidden to listen to kol ishah but it has no special status in regard to keri’as Shema

2. Not only is a man forbidden to listen to kol ishah, but he cannot recite keri’as Shema while listening to even his wife sing.

(Cf. R. Henkin, pp. 67-68)

(b”n, more to come)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief 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 of New Jersey, 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 serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and 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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