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Kol Isha?

The subject of "Kol Isha" (literally, "a woman's voice", referring to a prohibition in Jewish Law against a male person hearing a woman singing) has come up again on the Jewish-music mailing list. It is one of the places where the push by some practitioners of holier-than-thou, put a fence around the fence around the fence around the Torah directly affect the income and livelihood of Jewish performers, and I am less sympathetic than I might be.

I also welcome that the subject comes up periodically, and I welcome those few minutes before everyone settles into their usual polarized place in the sport of bashing religious feeling of one extreme or another, those few minutes when some folks can take the time to think about the subject and consider whether the words they are about to state reflect actual examined feelings, or are just an instinctive response to the usual button-pushing.

The other reason I welcome that the subject comes up periodically is that I think it important that those members of the Orthodox community who follow this particularly silly (in my never humble opinion) bit of misogyny think its implications through, again. I accept that within the confines of some Jewish communities, kol isha may or may not work as an expression of someone's Jewish spirituality. But, as I said, kol isha directly affects women who work as singers, and often, the Jewish community at large. I have major problems when religion feels like a cloak for general (in this case, sexist) stupidity.

In the instance that sparked this particular outbreak of the discussion, a woman was hired to sing at a Workmen's Circle event. (Here's an irony--kol issha--fear by some religious men of the eroticism inherent in a woman's voice--being a criterion for who might appear at a Jewish socialist event. Perhaps a reminder than not all socialists, or former socialists, made particularly notable changes in how they looked at all relationships, as opposed to simply demonizing a different brand of oppression.) At some point, the Workmen's Circle folks wanted to reach out to the Orthodox community, and kol isha was invoked.

Here's the thing. From my perspective, it is absolutely reasonable for those Orthodox Jews for whom this matters to refrain from attending such an event. Or, in a pinch, they can donate to the cause (in this case, a pro-Israel rally) and leave the hall when a woman sings, if that is offensive. But it is absolutely wrong-headed for anyone to claim that this supports "klal yisrael" (the unity of Israel). Catering to extremists while depriving others of income, and depriving the rest of the community of reasonable community celebration is not "klal yisrael", it is a caricature. For those people that far out of the Jewish mainstream as to feel constrained from listening to a woman's voice in song, their duty is to accomodate the community in whatever way works for each individual so affected, not to demand that the community accomodate them. And for the Workmen's Circle to cater to this silliness is beyond caricature.

There is a myth in Jewish community that by accomodating all Orthodox needs, we maintain the ability to think of ourselves as an inclusive community. In many cases--insisting on kosher or vegetarian food at Jewish events (and yes, I know that there is more to kashrut than kosher-prepared food)--such accomodation hurts no one and keeps the tent spread over all. But when the community is, in effect, choosing to exclude some people to include others, that is not inclusion. It is kowtowing to (in this case) something that feels to those of us outside the Orthodox community as simple sexism. If the Jewish community has to choose, how much more honorable, and how much more representative of the general Jewish community at large (I like to think), to choose not to succor sexism.


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» Jewish women in song from Boston Common
Ari discusses "kol isha," an Orthodox Jewish prohibition against men hearing women singing: If the Jewish community has to choose, [Read More]