Wednesday, January 4, 2012

To sing or not to sing... is not the question.

Yom revi'i, 9 Tevet 5772.

Photo credit: Dan Keinan in Haaretz
Before I became religious, I used to sing everywhere I went.  Often, my feelings would be somewhat bruised when my singing seemed to trigger an impulse in people to turn on the nearest radio.  I have been told that I have a nice voice; so this reaction wasn't a need to drown me out.  Rather, I came to realize that without musical accompaniment -- say, from a piano or guitar -- the human voice is not taken seriously as a performance.  Instead, it reminds the hearer that he or she would like some music.  ("Oh, yeah.  That sounds nice.  How about a little Carly Simon!"  Click.)

Of course I was insulted, especially if I had intended to perform for my companion.  But I also understand the concept of "giving the benefit of the doubt."  The insult wasn't intended, and nothing negative had been directed at me.  I talked over my feelings with anyone dear enough to me, always to find out that my assumption was correct: the radio had been flipped on as a result of my voice reminding the listener that a little music would be nice.  Once they were made aware, people were always effusive in their apologies, and practiced finer midot in the face of future outbursts of song.

I don't like the Jewish prohibition called "kol isha."  Briefly, kol isha -- a reference to the singing voice of a woman -- means that observant Jewish men have certain restrictions placed on them about hearing women sing.  (There are variations in how this law is interpreted: some men will avoid only live performances; some will avoid all female singing, even recorded.  There are leniencies and strictures, all of which must be discussed with one's own personal rabbinic authority.)

I express myself in song.  So feeling that I have to watch where I sing and when cramps my style.  But I have to say to myself, "Tough. Being an observant Jew means I don't get to do everything I want to do, whenever and wherever I want to do it."  I don't have to stop singing.  But if I want to work in partnership with men in our work to live a Torah lifestyle, I have the obligation to avoid sabotaging their efforts.  It doesn't matter if I love the law or not (any more than it matters if I love not eating lobster, or if I love covering my hair on beautiful, windy days, or if I love turning off my computer before Shabbat begins).  It doesn't matter if my 21st Century American sensibilites argue against the reasonableness of the law.  ("Oh, puh-leeze.  Did the rabbis think that men have no self control, and are going to lose all sense of decorum, just because a woman sings in their vicinity?  Get a grip!  And why am I responsible for their thoughts?")  Argue away, holy Jews!  That is part of what we are about.  But like it or not, approve of it or not, keeping the Law is our job.

What matters is that I keep the Law, to the best of my ability, and that I don't hamper someone else's ability to keep the Law.  If I don't feel like keeping kosher at the highest possible level, and I can find a rabbi to support my position, fine.  But if I throw a simcha at which even one invited attendee feels he must keep the highest level, I should be sure that the food provided will feed him as well as the rest of my guests.  He is not trying to insult me by not eating food prepared at my level of observance.  He simply cannot eat it, due to his level of observance.  Keeping the highest standard for my most observant guest is not a halacha, a law, to the best of my knowledge.  It is simply nice manners.

The idea that observant soldiers must be punished by being forced to pretend they are not listening to a woman singing, rather than being allowed to discreetly absent themselves for the duration of the performance, is beyond unfortunate.  Such a rule says that the singer has more rights than the listener.  It places potentially hurt feelings over religious obligation.

My sons are soldiers.  I have been told that they are good at their jobs.  Will they be punished if they choose not to remain in a room where women are singing?  Will they be fined, or go to jail?  How will removing my sons from their job of protecting the country affect a woman's right to sing one way or another?

It would be easy, if Israeli life weren't so politically-charged, to find a solution.  Women could sing their hearts out for their adoring fans -- female and male -- and men who feel they must remove themselves from the performance could be given that privilege.  Everyone could retain his or her dignity.

No female singer should be told to shut up.  No man should be forced to listen.
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