I Write The Songs That Make the Whole World Sing…Except the Ladies

After looking back on some recent posts where due to time constraints, post-length constraints, tiredness, or otherwise, I did not have a chance to express all of my thoughts on a particular subject. So tonight, I’d like to come back to tzniut, a topic I discussed in “A Modest Proposal”, only move away from skirts to sopranos in an exploration of another element of tzniut: kol isha, or “the voice of a woman” as it is said that the voice of a woman can inspire men to do bad and think impure thoughts.

First, let me preface by saying that even among the Orthodox, there remains no hard-and-fast rule. Some institutions, like my high school, allowed it, but gave the men the option of leaving the room (quietly) or not attending at all. Others, such as at another Jewish school, allowed girls to sing in a choir, with the function being that no individual voice could be discerned from the others, or allowing “mixed singing” of a choir of boys and girls singing together, with the intention that the boys’ singing could “cancel out” the harmful effects brought about by a woman’s singing. (Some religious schools who wanted to take it even further would schedule performance events featuring girls/women singing for only other girls/women, which didn’t really help their case other than the necessity of establishing a woman’s space). Other groups only permit the singing of women in prayer, or singing z’mirot around the Shabbos table. And in the most ultra-Orthodox homes, sometimes women are scarcely heard at all. And then there’s the issue of recorded voices; since voice-recording devices are rather recent in the scope of human history, there’s the issue of separating the image of the woman from the voice. If I can’t see who’s singing, how do I know who it is? How can I even picture her? How do I know that the girl moving to the beat is actually singing, or if it is indeed an African-American gospel singer providing the vocals, C + C Music Factory?

Let’s look back at the Talmudic roots here. The main two Talmudic passages dealing with this issue are in Berachos 24a and Kiddushin 70a. The former talks about the sin of uncovering a woman’s nakedness, and as the rabbis conjecture their thoughts on what this might mean, Rav Shmuel references Song of Songs 2:14, “…for your voice is sweet and countenance comely,” to back up his opinion. Um…okay, so women’s voices are sweet. In case you haven’t read it, Song of Songs says a lot of things about women, and a lot of it is allegory, referring to the relationship between God and the Jewish people. So there’s that. In the latter, the former is explained in more detail and is boiled down to the recitation of the sh’ma prayer, which is arguably the holiest in Jewish worship. Here, it is discussed that the holiness of the sh’ma prayer cannot be recited while a woman sings, for that could interrupt the man’s focus while in prayer, because he might imagine her naked. Okay, I’ll give you that one. But if all a man can think about is a woman naked while he prays, I think he might have voices in his head that are more dominant than the voice of a woman. But then, Rav Hai Gaon remarks that if a man can focus on his prayer to the point of blocking out the woman’s voice from distracting him, then the fact that the woman is singing makes no difference.

So there’s not too much to go on here, except that a woman’s voice may expose her and may distract a man. I don’t see enough for a case to be made here, especially not in modern times. Yes, there are female singers that are intentionally sexy, but it’s seldom that the sound of their voice turns a man on, especially if he’s never seen a picture of her; if you’ve never seen a picture of Marilyn Monroe, “Happy Birthday Mr. President” might not have any sexual meaning to you, after all it’s just another version of a song popularly sung at birthday parties. The birth of the music video and MTV has increased the level of sexuality for some female singers (Britney’s “…Baby One More Time”, Christina’s “Genie in a Bottle”, Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, J.Lo.’s “If You Had My Love”, to name a few), but not everyone has seen those videos, and not everyone immediately thinks of a music video whenever they hear a song (well, except Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” You’d have to be living under a rock to let that one miss you) They think of the first place they were when they heard the song, a commercial for footwear or candy or soda that it was the tune to, or how Jamie killed it last week at the karaoke bar. Finally, not all female singers transmit the message of sex through their music. Finally, for every singer whose image and vocals, when combined, are primarily about sex, there are five female singers whose music doesn’t particularly emit the same emotion, whether it’s by the purpose of the singer or their presentation style. In fact, in the preceding paragraph, I named six singers whose vocals/imagery have been known to inspire sexual thoughts in men (and women), so now I’m going to name 30 current female singers (young and old) whose lyrics and image are not always sexual in nature, yet are successful and feminine, nonetheless.

Adele. Alicia Keys. Anne Murray. Aretha Franklin. Avril Lavigne. Barbra Streisand. Bonnie Raitt. Candice Glover. Carly Simon. Carole King. Corinne Bailey Rae. Cyndi Lauper. Esperanza Spalding. Florence Welch. Imogen Heap. Janelle Monae. Jennifer Hudson. Kelly Clarkson. Lily Allen. Loretta Lynn. Martina McBride. Mary J. Blige. Miranda Lambert. Norah Jones. Reba McIntire. Sara Bareilles. Susan Boyle. Taylor Swift. Tori Amos. Wanda Jackson….I think that’s 30.

On the flip side, there are also some male singers whose voices are traditionally thought of as backing vocals to hookup sessions. What about Lionel Richie? Marvin Gaye? Justin Timberlake? And then there’s the epitome of sexually impure thoughts, “Careless Whisper,” by George Michael. Don’t believe me? Ask Jenna Marbles.

Probably the worst case I’ve ever heard for kol isha was after my high school’s production of Hello, Dolly!. The next day, people were talking about in class, and one of my classmates (who I’ll call Yitzy) said the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard:

“When I saw Dolly at the top of the staircase, and she turned around to sing the first words of “Hello, Dolly” over her shoulder at the audience, I knew the meaning of kol isha.”

What a cop-out, if I ever heard one. So the pretty girl in the body-covering red dress sang on key and in character, and you got turned on. That’s your problem (or a problem in your pants), not hers. Stop blaming the ladies, men, and look at yourselves. But not in public.

In conclusion (and I do have one), I think that kol isha is severely outdated and quite misogynistic. I’d like to think that we’ve come further in time, to a place where men can control their baser instincts, and where a woman’s voice does not automatically summon the devils of lust. And not every man finds every female singer, no matter how sexy her image or music, attractive. It really serves no purpose other than to suppress someone’s voice just in case it might arouse someone else, which, again, doesn’t solve the problem of the perpetually horny man. Blaming it on all women is not fair to either sex.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, listen to Barry Manilow, and think dirty thoughts.

In other news, shout-outs to my first hits from Benin (bienvenue, Lauren!) and Azerbaijan (xoş gəlmisiniz, Zahid!). I don’t know how much having two friends give you hits for just logging on from their home countries because you asked, but I also got my first visitors from Venezuela (bienvenidos!) and Senegal (bienvenue!), two countries where I know no one. I know that this post materialized in full on the morning of February 18, but my internet went out at 12:54 AM, after I had done a bunch of edits but hadn’t pressed the update button, but I’m hoping that I continue my uptick of hits just the same…

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