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Wednesday, December 11, 2013 

Forward interviewed Ophir Ben-Shetreet

The girl who was suspended from a religious school for following in the footsteps of biblical Miriam turned up in the news again as she did a performance for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. There's some good things in this interview, but she also says something unconfirmed that disappoints me. First:
Do you have any lingering bad feelings about being suspended from school for performing on “The Voice”?

The story with school was blown up out of proportion by the media… There were some parents who were extremists and they didn’t want me to be a bad example for their daughters. It’s not that they thought that I was a bad person. Rather, they thought I had done a bad thing and they didn’t want their daughters to do the same thing. They asked the school to do something. Although I was suspended, it was with my agreement. I understand the situation. It’s a school that follows Halacha. I knew that going in to it. It says in the Torah, “kol b’isha erva.” There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a halachic problem according to the Torah… The school can’t suddenly decide that what’s written in the Torah isn’t important.
Give her points for calling those parents just what they were, and I'm willing to call them too. I don't know if they were Haredi, but that was shameful of them, and believe it or not, if I had a daughter who went through that experience, I would've filed a complaint with the police against the parents to serve as a warning that people who go by superstition and throughly ignore that her performance wasn't in a synagogue during prayer service are asking to be made examples themselves. No really, I'd do it.

But I'm disappointed that she's talking about Halacha and kol isha erva - or their interpretation of it - without specifying just what it means and what verse brings it up. I did a search and found the following on Jewish Ideas:
"Shemuel said: The voice of a woman is nakedness ( kol b'isha `erva) as it says (Song of Songs 2:14) 'for your voice is sweet and your countenance comely.'"

This passage occurs during a discussion of reciting Shema in the presence of `erva. One might interpret Shemuel as continuing that discussion, or as beginning a new one about just what is `erva irrespective of Shema. As is apparent from the discussion, a woman's exposed handbreadth (tefah) is forbidden to be seen during Shema, while her little finger (etzba ketana) is forbidden to be gazed upon with sexual intent at all times. Thus, kol ishah must be like either of these two paradigms. There is a range of authorities on either side of this dispute, but the Rambam and Tur-Shulhan Arukh rule that kol ishah is a general prohibition, not linked to Shema. This is thus the practical halakha to be taken for granted in this essay. It is an undeniably clear principle that gazing upon a woman's little finger is prohibited only where there is sexual pleasure, as is shown in Avodah Zara 20a-b. If kol ishah is like a little finger, then the implications are obvious. (Also note that Shemuel says only kol, "voice", with no mention of singing per se.)

It was my friend Dowid Mosha who first pointed out to me that kol ishah's being a general prohibition is actually potentially a leniency, not a stricture. He quoted the Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Biah 21:2, which says [2], "And he who looks at even the little finger of a woman to take pleasure in it is like one who looks at her private parts, and even to hear a voice of an erva or to see her hair is forbidden."

As Dowid then explained, "it is apparent that the focus is on the intent and the result. If an individual wishes to be aroused, is likely to be aroused, or is aroused inadvertently, then he or she must take the necessary measures to protect themselves." Rambam equates looking at a woman's etzba ketana, her little finger, with hearing the voice of a woman. And there is no prohibition of gazing at a woman's finger per se; the prohibition is only when one so gazes specifically for the sake of sexual pleasure.
Now is it she or the school who's got a very superficial perception of the meaning in the Torah/Bible/Rambam? Because she's dampening the impact of her argument by not rebutting their biased beliefs using the kind of evidence I cited above, showing that it's only during prayer service like the Shema and tefillin that it's felt a man should refrain from listening to woman's song. And even then, is that the worst thing that could happen? Apparently, the extremist parents think so. On top of that, it's too bad they don't have the courage to appreciate someone who's singing as a service to Israel, much the same way as Miriam did for freedom from the grip of Egypt's slavemongers, and in ancient times, song and dance was a big part of Jewish life.
So are you saying that “kol isha” is not important to you?

I’m not saying that “kol isha” is not important to me. Maybe one day I will have the strength to keep that mitzvah, but chances are that it won’t happen because as a person, I am very connected to music. I’ve read some articles on the internet, and some rabbis say the issue isn’t a woman singing, but rather that a woman is standing on a stage and a lot of men are watching her and it’s a lack of modesty. So, I understand that as long as a woman is singing modestly and performing in a non-provocative way, it’s okay. I didn’t do anything wrong on the show. I dressed modestly and I performed modestly. I didn’t dance or anything like that.
Some rabbis can sure be fools, IMHO. If "modesty" is all they can worry about when there's Islamic jihad lurking around the corner, then we're all in trouble. Dancing does not have to be solely sexual (ballet is hardly that), and even if it were, that's not the worst thing that could happen. I wouldn't be surprised if the rabbis who think that it's wrong for a woman to stand on a stage and sing for men also think it's wrong for a woman to give a lecture for men at a university or convention center, and indeed, there are Haredis who go by that twisted logic. It's offensive to claim that going on stage and singing/dancing for men and even women is the equivalent of being a stripper.

I wish Ben-Shetreet well with the career she looks to be taking. But it's a pity she does not appear to have studied the biblical editions well enough, or her own school must've rendered it that way.

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