Judaism and Modernity

Song of the Sea, Song of Miriam

We do not need to choose between God and human rights or between God and women's rights
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. At the David Hartman Center, he is responsible for the advanced training of aspiring public intellectuals through the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, the David Hartman postdoctoral fellowship, and the Maskilot fellowship for women pursuing their doctorate. His research in Jewish philosophy and identity addresses

A number of public debates have arisen in Israel in recent years concerning the issue of listening to women singing. One incident centered on cadets in an IDF officers’ course, students at a hesder yeshiva, who left a ceremony during which women were singing, and then refused to obey their commanding officer’s order to return.

The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yonah Metzger, quickly posted a halakhic ruling forbidding the listening to women’s singing, in order to preempt a more moderate ruling by the IDF Chief Rabbi. The IDF Chief Rabbi ruled that soldiers must not refuse an order given in this context but also endeavored to release religious soldiers from having to participate in such events and attempted to promote a procedure according to which only male choirs should be invited to perform at military ceremonies. This proposal was subsequently rejected by the IDF Chief of Staff.

The heads of yeshivot and Orthodox pre-army preparatory programs subsequently assembled in order to decide whether to comply with the Chief Rabbi’s stringent ultra-Orthodox ruling or with the more moderate ruling of the army rabbi. Backing the IDF rabbi, most added their voices in reinforcing the call to release religious soldiers from the obligation of listening to female singers.


Yet only a few Orthodox halakhic authorities, such as Rabbi David Bigman, head of the Ma’ale Gilboa yeshiva, have determined that soldiers actually have a halakhic obligation to remain at a ceremony in which women are singing. He balanced the rabbinic halakhic prohibition against listening to women sing with the Torah-mandated commandment to respect every human being. In the wake of additional incidents, he even ruled that listening to “innocent” singing is permitted. I have nonetheless yet to encounter a single Orthodox halakhic ruling that simply permitted the listening to, and enjoyment of, women singing.


As such, in civilian frameworks in which listening to women’s singing can be avoided, it is the prohibitive halakhic stance that has established itself within the Orthodox community in Israel. It was in this spirit that Rav Ya’akov Ariel (a Religious-Zionist candidate for the position of Chief Rabbi) forbade a high school choir from performing with an adult female singer at a choir convention. In many religious schools in Israel, fathers are not invited to performances of their own daughters. The national-religious youth movement B’nei Akiva canceled its participation in a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers because of the participation of female singers; another unhappy case led to the suspension from high school of a religious pupil because of her participation in the reality TV show, “The Voice.”

The tendency to adopt a stringent approach concerning women’s singing is merely part of the Israeli modern Orthodox community’s recent trend of radicalization. Until only a few years ago, this was almost a trivial issue. In practice, the majority of families and youth in Israel still attend performances featuring women singers, and there are a number of superb religious female singers who perform before mixed audiences to packed concert halls.

We are however in the midst of a normative transformation, one especially influencing the religious identity of observant youngsters. Even more serious is the fact that the call for the exclusion of women from entertainment events and public ceremonies is made in the name of halakhah.

Needless to say, the silencing of women in the public sphere signifies their exclusion and is a violation of freedom, equality and women’s rights. “Well,” those rabbis say, “if we need to choose between violation of liberal moral values and the keeping of God’s commandments – it is clear that we should prefer the latter.” In this light, it is worthwhile examining the relevant halakhic issue involved and its other related aspects.

Paradoxically, the expression “kol b’isha erva,” or “A woman’s voice is adultery,” is itself learned from the verse praising a woman’s voice and encouraging her to perform:

My dove – in the clefts of the rock, in the coverture of the steps, show me your appearance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely (Song of Songs, 2:14).

The Talmudic sage Shmuel used a homily to interchange the “pleasant voice” for adultery:

Shmuel said: A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely.”

Another discussion in the Babylonian Talmud describes a stringency that evolved in a new and reformative yeshiva in Babylon among Shmuel’s students, who attribute him with a series of rulings advocating the distancing of oneself from women. In a passage describing a debate between Rav Yehuda and Rav Nachman we are encountered with a radical approach:

Rav Nachman: “Let [my daughter] Donag come and serve drink,” he proposed. Thus said Shmuel, Rav Yehuda replied: “One must not make use of a woman.”
“[But] she is only a child!”
Shmuel distinctly said: “One must make no use at all of a woman, whether adult or child.”
“Will you send a greeting to [my wife] Yaltha,” he suggested.
“Thus said Shmuel,” he replied, “[To listen to] a woman’s voice is indecent.”
“It is possible through a messenger!”
“Thus said Shmuel,” he retorted. “One must not enquire after a woman’s welfare.”
“Then by her husband!”
“Thus said Shmuel,” said he, “One must not enquire after a woman’s welfare at all.”
Rav Nachman’s wife Yaltha (who is one of the rare female heroes of the Talmud and a great scholar in her own right) put an end to this embarrassing conversation. She sent [a word] to him: “Settle his case for him, lest he make you like any ignoramus!’’ (BT Kiddushin 70a)

According to these rulings of Shmuel, no connection between men and women should be allowed except within the framework of the family. These laws were used by the leading halakhic authorities of the Middle Ages, who were also influenced by the accepted norms prevalent in their own cultural environment. For example, Maimonides ruled that:

It is even forbidden to hear the voice of a woman, forbidden as an ervah, or to look at her hair.
It is forbidden for a man to have any woman – whether a minor or an adult, whether a servant or a freed woman – perform personal tasks for him, lest he come to lewd thoughts.

Influenced by Muslim culture, which espoused the exclusion of women, Maimonides also ruled that:

It is uncouth for a woman always to leave home – this time to go out and another time to go on the street. Indeed, a husband should prevent a wife from doing this and not allow her to go out more than once or twice a month, as is necessary. For there is nothing more attractive for a woman than to sit in the corner of her home, as [implied by Psalms 45:14]: “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within.” (Maimonides, Hilchot Ishut 13, 11)

Needless to say, these halakhot are not those accepted today, except maybe by a very limited number of ultra-Orthodox sects. Their rejection is evidence of the fact that halakhot relating to the status of women are more an expression of sociological norms rather than formal halakha. These sources reflect, in an extreme manner, a patriarchal family structure that perceives sexuality in general, and women’s sexuality in particular, as a threat to the proper order of society, the family unit and the laws of the Torah.

The mood permeating the religious community in Israel today is, to a large degree, a reflection of a similar fear of expressions of wanton sexuality, this time set against the backdrop of western culture. Rabbis and educators are seeking to restrain and regiment the situations in which sexual tension may arise. In contrast to the Talmud and halakhic literature, in which the majority of the laws dealt with the prevention of incest between adults, the regimenting of sexuality in contemporary modern orthodoxy is mainly instigated specifically vis-à-vis youngsters.

Refraining from sexual expressions by means of halakhic prohibitions is but one way, however central it may be, of contending with the challenges presented by modern society. I wish to claim, that in contrast to the accepted view in contemporary Orthodox circles in Israel, it is actually rather easy to detect a viewpoint that does not regard listening to a woman’s voice as adultery but rather, as a pleasure. This pleasure is not reserved solely for the intimate family circle but constitutes part of the public domain. This is an authentic Jewish view, unafraid even of subtle expressions of sexuality, which may accompany women’s singing, but rather, transforming them into an integral component of Jewish culture and halakha.

The second Yom Tov of Passover is identified with the Song of the Sea. As you know this song begins with the word “then”. What had happened before? According to some interpreters we have to change the sequence of the verses this way:

Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances.
And Miriam called out to them, Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.
Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea (Exodus 15)

Thus, apparently, Miriam was the first to burst out in dance and song, and only then did Moses and the Children of Israel follow suit.

To the Song of the Sea we must also add the song of Deborah, those psalms which reveal women singing in public, and the text in Chronicles, which mentions that women sang also in the Temple.

Halakha is however, not generally based on biblical texts and it must therefore be emphasized that the presence of women in the public domain was also highlighted in some of the Second Temple period sources. The most prominent example is the testimony of the Mishna in tractate Ta’anit:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Israel had no greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.
On these days, the sons of Israel would go out dressed in white garments …
The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say?
Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Don’t set your eyes upon beauty; rather, set your eyes upon family. For grace is false and beauty is vain; a woman who fears the Lord she will be praised. And the verse further states: “Give her from the fruit of her hands and let her deeds praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:30)…

This Mishnah depicts a courtship celebration which includes the dancing and singing of the daughters and sons of Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that although our sources contain almost no qualms about this custom, described in such joyful terms by the Mishnah, the halakhic authorities over the generations, and even the commentators on the Mishnah, tended to ignore it. This is an unusual Mishnah, glamorizing as it does the power of women.

It is also difficult to ignore the subtle erotic dimension it embodies. The Mishnah emanates an approach not concerned with repressing sexuality and regimenting modesty so typical of other halakhot and the educational systems of today’s religious youth, but rather, celebrates them and redirects them to serve as a profound cultural Jewish experience. It can be learned from the Mishnah that an extroverted appearance and inter-gender pleasure do not necessarily contradict the boundaries of modesty.

I would also like to note the interpretation of the “Chida,” one of the leading halakhic authorities of 18th century Jerusalem, who dealt with the issue of women’s singing mentioned in the Bible, within the framework of his beautiful commentary on the Torah.

I heard from my honored Rabbi who interpreted the verse in Isaiah 12 “Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion” and asked: why is a feminine form of the word used? To hint that a woman can also sing, and that we should not be afraid of a woman’s voice, “for great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst” – because when God dwells among the Israelites, and they are aware of their master above them, they won’t come to lewd thoughts… Rosh David L’Maran Ha-Chida, Jerusalem-Livorno 1724-1806, Parshat B’Shalach 54b

I wish to regard this commentary and the halakhic ramifications, which the Chida derived from it, as an example of that which my rabbi and teacher Professor David Hartman called “God intoxicated halakha.” Rav Chaim David Ha-Levi teaches us that when we conduct a meaningful religious life that includes a divine presence, there is no need to fear immorality. Women’s song does not contradict religiosity – to the contrary: it is specifically religious meaning, which is also capable of imbuing women with both place and status in the public domain.

We do not need to choose between God and human rights or between God and women’s rights; to the contrary, when God dwells in our public domain, we can attain equality without the fear of lewd thoughts. The role of halakha is to derive norms from values. Religious values do not lead to the silencing of women but rather, to the fearless strengthening of their presence and sounding of their voice.

This article is adapted from a Jan. 10, 2014, presentation by Shraga Bar-On at the Society of Jewish Ethics annual meeting in Seattle, Washington.

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