Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Male and Female Interactions in Halacha

There is a disturbing article in Ynet about a lecture given to a group of soldiers by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. In an attempt to counter the rising trend of liberalism in religious Zionism he slammed rabbis who “kowtow to women”. I found that statement to be a little shocking. His focus was on issues of Erva – laws guiding sexual matters.

Among other things he says that it is forbidden to listen to Kol Isha – women singing. One must be willing to go to jail rather than do this, he said.

There are other things in this article that are even more upsetting. More about that later.

The prohibition of Kol Isha is based on a Gemarah in Brachos (24a) that says Kol B’Isha Erva. The voice of a woman is considered Erva - or nakedness. This prohibition refers only to her singing voice as that was deemed by Chazal to be erotic.

Poskim argue whether this is of biblical level prohibition or only rabbinical. But all agree that it is Halachicly prohibited.

The question arises about various applications of this prohibition. There are many Poskim who say that when singing together with men we can apply the principle of Trei Kali Lo Mishtamai - one cannot listen to 2 voices at the same time. Other Poskim say that it all depends on context. For example when singing Shabbos Zemiros there is no sexuality involved.

There are also those who are lenient about recordings and radio broadcasts. Since one cannot see the singer it loses the Erva component. Male sexuality is very visual. Furthermore the actual voices are not heard – only electronic reproductions.

None of these Kulos – leniencies - would allow a soldier to hear a live woman (as opposed to a recording) singing alone. But in cases where they sing together with men or listening to a recording or singing songs not associated with Erva such as Zemiros, children’s songs - or perhaps a national anthem or military song, there may be room to be lenient. The problem I have with Rav Eliyahu’s ruling is that he does not seem to make any distinction. He apparently assumes the stringent view in all cases.

I do not believe there are any real Poskim who would permit violating the basic prohibition against Kol Isha. But to issue a blanket prohibition without mentioning any of the Kulos available seems to me to be exacerbating an already tense religious/secular army situation.

But what is far more troubling are a couple of his other rulings:

Eliyahu stressed that listening to a woman deliver a speech, if she did so while using hand gestures, was also forbidden…

Men and women sitting together at weddings was also banned…

I have not seen any Teshuvos – responsa - on the prohibition against women speaking. Suffice it to say that I - and many of the most right wing Rabbanim - have seen many women speak at many Orthodox banquets. And it is virtually impossible to speak effectively without using hand gestures. I am not disputing the possibility that some Poskim say this is prohibited. I’ll take Rav Eliyahu’s word for it that there are. But I do dispute his implication that it is universally prohibited.

I have also never heard any Rav, privately or publicly say this was prohibited. It is true that a lot of organizations do not allow women to speak. But that is a Chumra. They are Choshesh L’Daas HaMachmir.

Being Choshesh L’Daas HaMachmir means that they allow for the possibility that the most stringent interpretation of Halacha is the correct ruling. This way they avoid any possibility of sinning. But this is not something that is required by Halacha. One may rely on Poskim that are lenient. Although in today’s ‘sliding to the right’ world the Chumra does seem to be the politically correct thing to adopt. For those who choose this route - that is fine for them. But they should not dismiss those Poskim who permit it by stating the Chumra as the base Halacha - as Rav Eliyahu seemed to do.

And this brings me to his prohibition against mixed seating at weddings. Clearly he is wrong. There is no universal prohibition in our day. This is based on the writings of the Levush, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe, an early Achron who lived about 350 years ago. He said that in his time – unlike the time fo Chazal and the Rishnonim -men and women do come into contact with each other with enough frequency as to reduce the problem of erotic thoughts. That was the reason for the prohibition. Infrequent contact used to arouse erotic thought when encounters would occur. So men and women were kept apart. Since that no longer applies he permits mixed seating at weddings.

Many people prefer to be Machmir – stringent - on this and not rely on the Levush’s leniency. That is fine for them. But to say it is Assur is just plain wrong.

I do not understand Rabbi Eliyahu’s rulings at all. He can Paskin for himself or for his Sephardic community that way. Perhaps Sephardim hold it to be completely Assur and completely reject the Levush. I don’t know. But the soldiers he addressed are not necessarily Sephardim. And telling them it’s Assur without any qualifications is over stepping his bounds in my view.

Now I am not such a fan of liberal stream of Orthodox Judaism. But I am opposed to driving wedges between Jews. These kinds of lectures tend to drive a wedge between not only secular and religious Jews- but between groups of religious Jews as well. And that is not a good thing.