Tradition Today: A woman's voice

The original Song of Songs verse is clearly a positive statement praising the beauty of a woman’s voice.

Woman with Torah 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Woman with Torah 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
‘Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet,’ pleads the young lover to his beloved in the Song of Songs (2:14). Contrast that biblical verse to the saying of the third-century Babylonian sage Shmuel: “A woman’s voice is indecent.” Yet this is the very verse that Shmuel cites to justify his saying (Brachot 24a)! He derives his idea from that verse because of the similarity of the sound of the Hebrew word “indecent” – erva – and the Hebrew word for “sweet” – arev.
Although spelled differently, they sound alike. Thus Shmuel, using the methodology of midrash, reads the verse as though it means“…your voice is indecent” – i.e. sexually stimulating, seductive. This is not the only time that a midrash interprets a verse to mean the opposite of its plain meaning.
If we consider the simple, original meaning of the verse from the Song of Songs, it is clear that it is a positive statement praising the beauty of a woman’s voice, with absolutely no negative connotation. The young man is asking to see the visage of his beloved and to hear her voice because both are beautiful. Indeed, the original meaning of the entire book of Song of Songs is simply to praise the love between man and woman, to extol the beauty of physical attraction and of love. It is unfortunate that we have allowed one statement by one sage to cause us to stray so far from the biblical praise of the beauty of women and their voices and to have instituted instead a policy not merely of modesty but of almost abhorrence of any contact between men and women, of hiding and isolating women not only at times of prayer but at all times so that they are not to be seen, heard or touched. The author of the Song of Songs would have been shocked and astounded at such an attitude.
IN THE Talmud, Shmuel’s statement is not presented as law, nor does not appear in the earlier laws of the Mishna. It is simply an exhortative statement by one sage of his opinion that women’s voices are seductive. In later tradition this was interpreted in many different ways. Some said that it meant a man should not listen to a woman sing, others that a man merely should not listen to a woman singing while he is reciting the Shema, as the Shulhan Aruch has it (OH 75:3).
In the past, not listening to women sing may have been the practice of certain elements, but until recently it was not the practice of mainstream religious men. Even today one has only to attend the Israel Opera and other musical events to see the large number of kippa-wearing men in the audience.
Had this really been the law in ancient times, the Israelites at the splitting of the sea would have been deprived of listening to Miriam lead the women in song – “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance and timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously…” (Exodus 15:20-21). Centuries later they would not have been able to listen to the song of the great judge Deborah – “On that day, Deborah and Barak, son of Abinoam, sang…” (Judges 5:1). And let us not forget that the voice of mother Rachel was also heard to good effect – “A voice is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15).
What a shame that this practice of not listening to women sing is now being taught to so many boys and young men in religious educational settings and is becoming more accepted in all religious circles. Men are being needlessly deprived of the joys of listening to the wondrous sound of women singing, be it opera singers or singers of Israeli songs such as the late Shoshana Damari and Yaffa Yarkoni.
If forced to chose between seeing a woman’s voice as sweet – arev – or indecent – erva – I know which I would choose. I think that the Song of Songs had it right.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).