Judaism Should Inspire Women's Voices, Not Silence Them

Ophir Ben-Shetreet’s suspension from school is a case where Jewish tradition and law are unnecessarily being treated as diametrically opposed to gender equality.

I am not a fan of reality television, and rarely pay attention to either the shows themselves or the people who take part in them. However, an item regarding the Israeli version of “The Voice” has caused me to ask questions that go far beyond the world of entertainment.

I was shocked and disappointed to learn that Ophir Ben-Shetreet, a talented young woman contesting on The Voice, was suspended from her religious high school for the crime of singing in front of men. What saddened me even more is that, once again, two values so important to me - gender equality and the richness of Jewish tradition and law - are being treated as diametrically opposed.

Of course, "there is nothing new under the sun," as the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, and this case is no exception. In 2011, some religious cadets left an Israel Defense Forces ceremony over a female singer. In light of this incident, my teacher Rabbi David Golinkin surveyed the history of Jewish approaches to a woman's voice.

Rabbi Golinkin's research exposed a number of relevant points about the history of how Judaism has treated women’s singing. For one, he noticed that when the Talmud refers to a woman's voice (and the fact that hearing it prevents a man from performing certain commandments), it is not clear whether or not it refers to a woman singing or simply speaking. Furthermore, despite all of the less-than-flattering comments that the Talmud makes about a woman's voice, the early Middle Age commentators (most notably Rabbi Isaac Alfasi) treated these statements as homiletics, not as codified Jewish law.

In fact, despite all of the restrictions that later lawmakers would come to place on a man hearing a woman's voice, it was not until the 19th century that the Hatam Sofer forbade a man from listening to a singing woman. Indeed, for 1600 years of codified Jewish law, no previous authority had forbidden men from hearing a woman sing altogether.

Yet despite the convincing argument that a man is allowed to hear a woman sing in many, if not all, instances, I am troubled by more than just the fact that many rabbis choose to apply the modern stringency, forbidding women from singing in front of male audiences so as to prevent the men from sinning. The much more troubling phenomenon is that once again, male rabbis are exerting their control over women.

At the heart of Ben-Shetreet's suspension seems to be the idea of the personal example that she set for other religious young women; If her school or community celebrated her performance, as opposed to condemning it, her singing might encourage other religious young women to sing in front of men, too.

Instead of coining such a message abhorrent, religious educators should be promoting it. We should be encouraging our talented youth to pursue their talents and to do so in a way that respects and even embraces their religion. One of the best moments of Ben-Shetreet's audition was when she sang a “piyut”, a traditional Jewish poem. I hope that her performances, inspired by the religious musical tradition from her home, encourage more and more secular Israelis to connect to the beauty in our collective Jewish tradition.

Sadly, while Israeli society is connecting more and more to Jewish tradition, particularly through music, even mainstream religious groups are choosing to silence their women. Despite the large number of musical troupes affiliated with youth groups in Israel, Shirat Machar, NOAM's musical troupe, is the only religious group to include young men and women.

Shirat Machar, more than just a talented group of high school students, demonstrates the power that music has in inspiring Jewish identity and tradition. The group has taught talented musicians that they can pursue music while holding on to Jewish practice and simultaneously exposing its less traditional members to so much beauty in Judaism. Most important, though, is the example that the members of Shirat Machar set for their peers. Those who see Shirat Machar see a Judaism filled with joy, a Judaism that embraces the talent of individuals, a Judaism that enriches people's lives. Ophir Ben-Shetreet has that same potential. Now it's up to the religious leaders to allow her to fulfill it.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
 

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