Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Woman Cantor

Okay I'm getting sick of people whining about the woman leading kabbalat shabbat in Riverdale.

So let's set a few things straight

(Warning: This will be a bit of a rant if you don't like rude rants against accepted Orthodoxy then you are at the wrong blog):


The first thing I hear is "Kol B'Ishe Erva" (A Woman's Voice is Nakedness ) Most Orthodox authorities consider it forbidden to listen to a woman sing because it's considered promiscuous. However, there are very legitimate (and in my humble opinion more intelligent) approaches which essentially permit women singing. The first that comes to mind is that of Rav Bigman Rosh Yeshiva of Maaleh Gilboa in Israel. He wrote a rather lengthy and technical teshuva(in Hebrew) on the topic which I personally think is more true to the primary texts than stricter approaches and he basically concludes that woman singing is only considered promiscuous when done in a sexually provocative way. (Duh!)

He says five considerations have to be taken into account when a woman sings
-The atmosphere (I guess no smoke machines)
-The Words of the Song (No Pop)
-The Musical Style (No Pop)
-The Woman's Clothing (No Pop)
-The Woman's Body Language. (Definitely no Pop)

SH: I support prohibitions on pop music ;)

Folks! The woman cantor in question is not exactly grinding up against the bima and singing love songs for the congregation. She is not dressed like a popstar and performing songs with sexual themes. She is singing Kabbalat Shabbat for crying out loud! If you are turned on by that then you probably need to get out of the Beit Medrash a little more! It is completely appropriate it is completely asexual and we can rely on Rav Bigman and say it is halachically permissible!

The Spirit of Halacha

But ah this is not enough! Apparently there is something now called the "spirit of the halacha"! Oh didn't see that coming! What this means is grumpy Rabbis when they have utterly failed to justify a halachic prohibition on something resort to invoking the spirit of the halacha. Now the spirit of the halacha is an utterly subjective thing. It is unwritten, it is uncodified, it's not anything besides "I don't like this" Is that seriously a good objection? Cummon! " I don't like this" is not a legitimate reason to object to something. No one is forcing you to go listen to the woman cantor - if you don't like it daven somewhere else - but let those who are more open minded than you do their own thing - even though they are breaking your imaginary spirit of halacha which, let's be honest, means "things which make me feel uncomfortable because I'm still mentally chained to the Ancient World."

Moving on... Can someone perhaps explain to me how a woman cantor is against the spirit of the halacha in the first place? What part of a woman leading an optional part of the liturgy is against "the unwritten spirit of the halacha"? Does that mean that the halacha is sexist? Is the spirit of the halacha against women doing anything? Are the Modern Orthodox people objecting to Rabbi Weiss, really saying that the spirit of the halacha = our chauvinistic 18th century views. Fine! Get up and have the guts to say it! Don't invoke imaginary systems of the SOH. Get up and say proudly "Rabbi Weiss you are not Orthodox because Orthodoxy demands that we treat women differently than men and not allow them to perform any leadership functions whether or not halacha allows it." Cut the sophistry and say "I'm sexist and I'm proud!"

Don't get me wrong the primary works of halacha i.e. the Gemara and Shulkhan Arukh are exceedingly sexist. Why? Because they were written more than 500 years ago! Even if that ONCE was the spirit of the halacha - to be sexist, the times are a changing and it's time to realize that those bits of halacha which imply or encourage sexism are OBSOLETE! It's time to move on folks, check your calendar! It's the twenty first century!

Is Rabbi Weiss a rabble rouser? Does he like being controversial? Probably. But that does not justify the unfair treatment he is getting from the Centrist and Right Wing Modern Orthodox (Chareidim are a lost cause I ignore them) He is working within the bounds of halacha and Orthodoxy and saying "Listen folks, It's time to get with the program,stop sucking up to the Chareidim and really live up to your name - Modern Orthodoxy." They have no right to object.

Phew! Okay I'm calming down now.

Edit: Here is the official statement of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale

Edit: Dov Bear's take on this:

In particular, I'm ireful about RYA's refusal to even discuss the way in which Torah teachings might be interpreted to make Orthodox Judaism more female-friendly. The world RYA admires tolerates lengthy and learned discussions about the permissibility of stealing from the US government. When it comes to ripping people off, halacha becomes a flexible tool, and every possible out is considered . When it comes to making women more comfortable with Judaism, this creativity is not welcome: suddenly there's no maneuvering room. This is bogus, and RYA knows it. Avi Weiss may not qualify as a Torah Sage, but he doesn't act without basis. His arguments in favor of allowing a woman to lead kabalas shabbos deserve to be discussed with the same care and respect as any other halachic argument. If, at the end of the long and careful discussion, you still think he's wrong, say elu v'alu and give Rabbi Wiess's community the same respect we give those Hasidic communities that run roughshod over torah hashkofa and accepted halachic protocols.* He is not to be rejected, insulted and thrown onto the trash heap simply because your mistaken sense of propriety is offended.
Read more at DovBear


Shalmo said...

If orthodox judaism followed your advise .... well it just wouldn't be orthodox anymore now would it?

But perhaps criticisms like these can encourage change. I long deeply for orthodox judaism to transcent to the conservative approach, MO seem to be headed that way, but I hope others follow suit.

rabbichaplain said...

I'm not sure my first attempt at commenting went through, so if it did, I apologize for repeating myself.

In looking at qabbalat shabbat and the woman chazzan, you are correct that there is nothing strictly halachically problematic about it. However, when making legal decisions, meta-halachic principles do indeed play a role. This is something that might be annoying for you, as you have already indicated, but it is the way of the system, and for that matter any legal system. Certain principles guide the legal decision making process.

I think the reason MO rabbis and lay people are struggling with what Rabbi Weiss instituted has more to do with, too much too fast than it does with the actual woman's involvement. I also think concerns should and do exist for his yeshiva, YCT. I recall having heard a story that his son, who had been attending a partnership minyan in Manhattan, was told to lie low for a while so as not to ruin the yeshiva students chances of getting certain positions.

The reality is that the ramifications of Rabbi Weiss's decision are further moving out of the box of Orthodoxy into a different box, perhaps something like UTJ (Union of Traditional Judaism). This has been predicted for years but now it could be coming sooner than we realize.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Rabbi Chaplain,

>However, when making legal decisions, meta-halachic principles do indeed play a role.

A. Yes meta-halachic principles guide the paskening of a halacha but in this case there is NO HALACHIC PROBLEM.

B. In this case the only meta-halachic principles are sexism or a desire to not have women play any leading religious roles. If THAT is the meta-halachic framework that Orthodoxy operates under then something is seriously wrong.

Or are the other considerations that I'm missing?

I agree Rabbi Weiss is perhaps moving too fast. However it is extremely frustrating that little things like these are considered too fast in a movement calling itself Modern Orthodoxy.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. Completely agree.

"If orthodox judaism followed your advise .... well it just wouldn't be orthodox anymore now would it?"

Perhaps not, but it would be Judaism because Judaism has always and constantly evolved. The emphasis if important. If we emphasize orthodox, we receive an unhealthy focus on Borsalino Hats and whether there are bugs in Salmon; if on the other hand we emphasize Judaism we receive a vast intellectual tradition full of beauty and transcendent subtlety. Which is more important.

Shilton HaSechel said...

>if on the other hand we emphasize Judaism we receive a vast intellectual tradition full of beauty and transcendent subtlety.Which is more important.

Couldn't have said it better myself

Baruch Spinoza said...

Hello Shilty,

I agree with everything you said except one part in the beginning when you say a woman singing is not sexually attractive. You have to remember that people are sex machines, especially men. And we are nothing more than that. So it is very naturally for a man to be turned on by a woman singing, even if she is not dressed like Marilyn Monroe. So I do think the Orthodox have a point when they say that female songs can turn guys on. However, that does not mean I actually agree with the Orthodox about prohibiting women from singing because I am not repulsed by sex, I would actually encourage Jewish girls to dress sexier and sing more interesting songs, but whatever I am getting off topic.

Yes halacha is sexist because it was written by men who were in power to secure their power. In the same way the Torah and halacha is anti-Jewish because it was written by Jews to secure their power over non-Jews and so forth.

Puzzled said...

Well, a woman doing anything, especially something not conventional, like leading services, would be quite arousing to a sheltered yeshiva boy. The answer to that is to get them the hell out of the yeshiva.

However, it seems to me that this post, and many of the comments, are stepping around the real issue. The real issue is that orthodoxy is a movement, and that movement was and is defined by adherence to the shtetl worldview. You can't say "it's within the letter of this book, even though it's nothing like that worldview, so it's still orthodox." You just can't, orthodoxy is not defined by a book, it's defined by its sociology. Avi Weiss' "innovations" are not orthodox.

Now, I don't have a dog in this fight. I don't agree with orthodoxy, but I also think a woman would be far better off leaving orthodoxy than trying to fight her way into a leadership role in a sick, broken movement.

no one said...

The Shulchan Aruch says no to say the Shema or Shemona Esrah when hearing a woman sing. I guess some would like to expand that prohibition so as to feel good about themselves. They get to feel holy and get their appetite for conflict filled all in one shot.
It is not uncommon for people to try to be extra strict in order to satisfy their psychological needs and especially their good healthy obsession with sex.

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