Going solo: New view of ‘kol isha’ lets girls sing on their own
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The Megillah reading was over, and in the Bet Midrash a party and talent show were in full swing.
Suddenly the room was quiet, as a girl in a lace dress Purim costume bared her soul to students, faculty, and administrators. Just her voice, her microphone, and her guitar.
It’s happened a million times before, and will happen again, but the Purim Talent Show on March 7 was Shalhevet’s first.
You can take everything I have,
You can break everything I am,
Like I’m made of glass, like I’m made of paper…
Facing the crowd was sophomore Danielle Lowe, singing Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” in a gentle soprano that seemed to capture the fragility of the moment.
I will be rising from the ground – like a skyscraper…
That night Danielle ended 19 years of not allowing girls to sing solos because of the religious concept of kol b’isha erva – generally translated as“a woman’s voice is erotic,” or “a woman’s voice is nakedness.” The same word – erva – is used in the Talmud to describe a woman’s hair, a woman’s shin, and even “the handbreadth of a woman,” and debate on its meaning regarding singing has followed paths similar to that on other subjects.
Shalhevet’s rabbis decided to change the policy this year, adopting an interpretation common in Orthodox schools on the East Coast but not previously used here.
But there was little fanfare. As she introduced Danielle – the first act of the evening – Student Activities Director Raizie Weissman announced that it was a first, and asked a surprised Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal to comment.
Rabbi Segal walked up and explained that Jewish law supports girls singing alone, providing it’s not done in a provocative fashion. He said he’d studied many teshuvot, or rabbinic interpretations, on the issue and felt comfortable permitting girls to sing alone in within certain perameters.
That said, he added that it was important to respect those with different opinions, and encouraged everyone to respect and honor anyone who wanted to leave the room.
“She’s a trailblazer,” Rabbi Segal added, leaving Danielle alone at the mike.
After she finished, Danielle was met with a standing ovation and booming applause for her performance and the new policy regarding kol isha.
“Singing in front of the school was a truly amazing experience and I love performing so any chance I get is always great,” Danielle said later. “Knowing that it was a monumental event for Shalhevet made it an even greater experience. I know a lot of girls that want to sing, but never had the opportunity.”
Once she broke the ice, more girls wanted to sing. Without having planned to, sophomore Natalie Dahan went up and sang Adele’s “Someone Like You,” accompanied by the party’s band.
“I felt super nervous and I was shaking because it was my first performance in front of people by myself,” Natalie said. “Once I sang the first verse I felt comfortable, like I owned the stage.”
After a few minutes of surprised silence, the audience seemed comfortable too.
“I think that the new policy is a great change for Shalhevet,” said junior Jordan Banafsheha. “I never really connected to the reason behind the former policy and I think it’s great that Danielle had the opportunity to sing by herself and it was a great performance.”
Senior David Fletcher agreed.
“I feel like it gives a fair opportunity for girls to have their voices heard,” said David, who sings bass in the choir. “Also, it will be less complicated and more convenient to have one girl sing the solo as opposed to two. Not to mention it will sound better.”
The change coincided with a filming by Development Director Aaron Keigher of a skit based on The Wizard of Oz for the annual Trustees Dinner March 12. In the skit, the role of “Devorah,” based on Dorothy, was sung by sophomore Liat Bainvoll,and solos were needed. The skit was cast before Purim, though filming didn’t start until afterwards.
Liat had sung solos many times before, in musicals with the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts (YADA).
“It didn’t feel like a first,” Liat said. “I’ve always thought that the kol isha policy was uncalled for because it is out-dated.”
The phrase kol b’isha erva is found in the Talmud, Masechet Brachot 22A. Under its former interpretation, Shalhevet had a mixed choir but prohibited girls from singing solos.
This made it impossible for Drama to put on a musical, and when the choir sang, solos had to be sung by two girls together, so that the individual voice of each girl was covered by the other. Not wanting to favor one gender, boys sang no solos either.
The policy had remained consistent under all heads of school since Shalhevet opened its doors in 1992, and was in force as recently as January, when Rabbi Segal asked the Penn Shabbatones not to sing songs with female soloists at their performance in Town Hall.
Earlier, however, he had indicated a policy change was coming. At a meeting with Boiling Point editors shortly after his arrival in August, Rabbi Segal said he saw no reason why girls couldn’t sing solos. When he learned the policy was different here, he said he would want to prepare the community first.
But he is confident the new policy is consistent with halachik sources. Asked about his reasons, Rabbi Segal produced many pages of sources he’d compiled to explain the change.
In particular, he cited the work of Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ma’ale Gilboa in Israel. In a 2009 essay titled A New Analysis of ‘Kol B’Isha Erva,’ Rav Bigman quotes the Maharshal’s view “that psychological and spiritual need is considered an important concern that justifies reliance upon a lone or minority halakhic opinion.
“And according to reliable accounts, there are women in certain communities who are so offended by the ruling forbidding them to sing in public that they turn away from the Torah and commandments due to it.,” Rav Bigman continues.
He also states: “There is no prohibition whatsoever of innocent singing; rather, only forbidden is singing intended for sexual stimulation, or flirtatious singing,” and supports the statement with many opinions and examples.
“I went through the teshuvot of Rav Bigman … and the primary sources, and feel comfortable with the notion that kol isha applies [only] to solo singing of a sensual nature,” Rabbi Segal said. “If a student is dressed properly, the song is about a modest or even holy concept, and she is not singing in a way that is intended as erotic – then I believe yeish al mi lismoch – there is halachic support for this.”
The basis for the former policy, according to Judaic Studies Principal Rabbi Ari Leubitz, was that since there was a diversity of opinion on this subject, the most reasonable accommodation would be to allow only multiple girls’ voices.
But Rabbi Leubitz, too, supports the change.
“We are at the point where no one is challenging our commitment to Orthodox values, and as a co-ed school we want women to participate as much as possible,” Rabbi Leubitz said. “The new policy is backed with various poskim.”
It’s also consistent with what music teacher Mrs. Joelle Keene has been teaching in the Ninth Grade Music Appreciation course, where she has informed students of the nuances of the word erva which is used to describe a woman’s voice in the source that raises the issue.
“Erva is an unclear word, meaning everything from nakeness to revealing to immodest to erotic,” says Mrs. Keene. “People should go by community standards — that is, girls shouldn’t even sing bentching (grace after meals) in a home where women don’t normally sing it, because to do so would be really distracting, like someone coming to school dressed for the beach.”
Orthodox community standards in kol isha vary widely, ranging from female-only performances – no men allowed – in Bais Yaakov and YULA Girls high schools to more liberal policies in New York and New Jersey . Girls can sing solos at Ramaz High School in Manhattan and SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, while Frisch School in New Jersey has a policy like Shalhevet’s old one – mixed choir is okay, but girls have to sing solos in groups of at least three.
“Everyone who lives in the modern world is used to hearing women’s voices in song and, therefore, those voices are not sexually arousing,” said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, principal of Ramaz. “Men who never hear women’s voices would react differently.”
As he did at the Purim performance, Rabbi Segal has given assurances that the views of those who disagree with this policy will be respected. Prior to having any female soloists sing, students, parents and faculty will be advised in advance of the program being offered. If they feel uncomfortable, they may elect not to attend.
For now, there is anticipation from Shalhevet’s musicians about the enhancement of performances by girls.
“This policy being taken away is one of the best things that is happening to this school,” Maya Rosenman, sophomore Choir and Band member said. “No voice should be stifled, whether it’s in freedom of speech or music.”
Mrs. Keene said the band and choir would start presenting girls’ solos immediately, and Drama Director Ms. Emily Chase said a musical could be presented too, as long as it was non-sexual in nature.
“There are dozens of musicals that fit this criteria,” said Ms. Chase. “I choose plays every year based on the people who show interest in auditioning, so that I can include as many people as possible and highlight their talents in the best way.”
No musical is currently scheduled so far, but perhaps Fiddler will be playing on our roof sometime soon.
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