The laws of Kol isha

Kol Isha means “the voice of a woman”. As most people probably know, the term is used in reference to halachic prohibitions of women singing. Before I write about my views on these laws and customs, I should probably give a quick summary of the exact laws. Most Ravs rule that listening to a woman singing is permissible if a) it is an electronic recording, b) the woman cannot be seen (I.e, not a video- the yetzer hara cannot effect what cannot be seen), and c) one does not know the woman personally. Listening to a woman sing “live” (not a recording) is forbidden unless a) you are the woman’s husband, father (debatable), brother (debatable) or son, b) the song is of a religious nature, c) the song is a lullaby sung to a child, or d) the woman is singing as part of a group and her voice is not recognisable (debatable).

This is the most common set of rules followed by Orthodox Jews in today’s world. There are exceptions, though; some will not listen to recordings of the female voice at all (quite common among Charedim), and others might disregard the laws completely, or practice leniency in the case of operas or plays (for example).

Most not yet observant Jews who read about these laws are going to be gasping, complaining and making comparisons to the Taliban. I’ll be honest- even when I had already become somewhat observant I was pretty disturbed by kol isha. As a liberal Jew, I didn’t actually know about it, but by the time I was conservative/modern Orthodox, kol isha had made it’s way into my consciousness. I tried to ignore it, but thoughts kept plaguing me; can I really live a life in which I can’t sing? Am I willing to give up my hopes of a singing career in favour of Orthodoxy? And most importantly- how on earth will I stop singing, now I love it so much?

These questions wouldn’t go away. I loved singing, and whenever I wasn’t listening to music, I was practicing- or dreaming! At one point, I decided that I seriously needed to consider the whole issue of kol isha. I faced up to it; a career as an Orthodox Jewish female singer was impossible. Yes, some women have done it (approximately 4), but I really didn’t think it was a possibility, at least not if I wanted to be successful. So I had to choose between singing an Orthodoxy. Needless to say, I chose Orthodoxy. Why? Mostly because I felt a very strong connection to G-d; far stronger than the connection I felt to my own voice!- but also because when I seriously researched and considered kol isha, I realised that it was not restrictive but beautiful.

Kol isha isn’t about controlling women. It isn’t about forcing silence upon them, or taking away their privileges. Rather, it’s about honouring them. The laws are really very similar to the laws of tznius; tzenua clothes cover a woman’s body, but they show her honour, inner beauty, and piety. Daughters of the King are way too honourable to show off their bodies, and by dressing in a modest way, we prove that. By observing the laws of kol isha, we are elevating the importance of our singing voices. We chose to save them for our families- in particular, our husbands- and in doing so, we bestow great honour upon ourselves.

Have you heard the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”? It’s true. Just as a married woman makes her hair special by covering it, a Jewish woman or girl makes her voice special by saving it for the most important occasions- which don’t include karaoke, or the recording studio. When I realised just how beautiful this was, I made my decision; I was choosing a Torah observant life over a singing career, and in doing so, I had just made my voice far more beautiful than any number of singing lessons could have made it.

This week, let’s examine and try to find beauty in Jewish laws before we condemn them as outdated!

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