My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for November 2014: Is Singing Sexual?

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi,

Many of my Orthodox male friends will not listen to a woman sing. What is that about?

Humming in Hackensack

Dear Humming,

Bans or prohibitions against certain actions deemed dangerous or socially unacceptable are common in all societies and religions. Every town has a speeding limit. And we know that Jews are not supposed to eat pork.

Your simple direct question penetrates into one troubling taboo directed at women but not at men. In parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, men may sing for women, but women may not sing for men.

Any observer can identify such an injunction as uneven and one-sided.

Not surprising. Within synagogues in nearly all Orthodox Jewish communities, women are segregated from men. They are instructed to sit behind a curtain or divider. In many arenas of Orthodox society women also are told to dress modestly and cover up their arms and legs.

To me it seems that a modesty dress code is another form of the segregation of women from the presence of men.

And you do not have to be a feminist to reckon that the ban on women singing is yet an added extension of segregation, an act of discrimination, one more denial of rights directed solely at women.

Now we know in general that the explanation or rationalization of taboos can be extensive and interesting to hear and even compelling in its substance. In this case, the rabbis propose that the ban on women singing to men is to regulate the degree of sexuality that may be expressed and exposed in public. All good and well. I have no argument about whatever basis people of faith choose to justify their actions or proscriptions.

The trouble with the taboo you ask about is that it applies in one direction and not the other, that women may not sing for men.

If this ban is based on sexuality, then the stricture says to us that figuratively a woman’s singing voice is an extension of her vagina, which of course she cannot display in public. Is it not fair then to ask, Is a man’s singing voice a manifestation of his penis? Is it okay for a man to parade around his sexuality but the same is not allowed for a woman? Or is singing not at all a sexual display? Which one is it?

If you think that such questions about Jewish men and women are ludicrous, try these. Are we ever going to say that the men are allowed to eat pork, but the women are not? That the men are permitted to steal, but the women are forbidden?

You asked what the singing taboo is all about? It’s reasonable to say that it is about segregation based on gender, the denial of equal rights to women, and discrimination against women. You may ask then, Aren’t all of those practices unacceptable in our modern Western societies?

Yes sir. Yes ma’am. They are unacceptable.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University. He has published several new Kindle Editions at Amazon.com, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

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