By Israel Drazin

Virtually all societies and religions, if not all, are paternalistic, belittle women, discriminate against them, and require them to dress and act in ways that preclude them from possibly enticing men. Judaism is no exception. While Judaism is not monolithic and Jews differ widely, many Jews do not treat women as they should. One of the exclusionary practices is Kol Isha, “a woman’s voice,” a prohibition: Jewish males may not listen to female singing.

Kol Isha is not biblical. It appears for the first time in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 24a and Kiddushin 70a.[1] The third century CE sage Samuel said: “A woman’s voice is indecent (erva).”

Now the highly respected Orthodox Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, the Rosh ha-Yeshiva (dean) of Yeshiva Har Etzion in Israel, the grandson of the famed Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, has examined all relevant sources, ancient and modern, in the Spring 2013 edition of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox Jewish thought. He shows that Kl Isha is not what many people think it is and his analysis shows that Kol Isha is essentially dead.

Rabbi Lichtenstein relied “on the explicit stance of the greatest of the Rishonim (pre-fifteenth century rabbinic authorities) – Rambam (Maimonides), Rashba, and Ra’aviah” as well as later authorities, such as Shulchan Arukh, Meiri, and Mishnah Berurah.

He quotes Rashba,[2] for example, who “distinguishes between different situations of hearing a voice and rules that the (Samuel) passage indeed forbids speech (along with singing), but only speech (and singing) that can lead to feelings of intimacy.” A “song which does not lead to feelings of intimacy or sexual thoughts is not forbidden.” He mentions Maimonides and explains that he is saying that all prohibitions concerning women, about nakedness, hair, voice, and the like, “are all expressions of the prohibition ‘do not come close to uncover nakedness.’” He adds: “we have no source forbidding a voice that does not lead to feelings of intimacy – neither one of speech nor one of song.”

He concludes: “Under circumstances in which the song does not arouse sexual desire, does not emphasize femininity in a sensual manner, and the listener estimates that he will not come to have sexual thoughts – we should not forbid listening to a woman’s voice, whether in speech or in song…. This opinion takes into account the present societal reality together with its needs and constraints.”

In short, there is no difference between Kol Isha and any other behavior by a man toward a woman or a woman toward a man; all are forbidden if and only if they are seductive. Thus, Kol Isha as a separate behavioral category can be said to have ceased to exist.

[1] There is also a prohibition against men and women singing happy songs in Sotah 48a and Gittin 7a as being inappropriate because of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Virtually all Jews ignore this prohibition today.

[2] On Berakhot 24a.