Question. Why does Jewish law object to women singing in front of men?
Answer. The rule derived from the Talmud (Ber. 24a etc.) is “kol b’ishah ervah” – “A woman’s voice arouses (desire)”.
I will come back to the “b” in front of “ishah”, but let me first address your main question. It is not only Judaism that has a problem with female voices. A French writer, discussing the opera and its music, says, “She who sings must die”. Female characters in many operas do die by the time the performance ends. The idea seems to be that the more rapturous a woman singer becomes the more she enters another realm. Men both want and don’t want to hear the female voice, and several religions, not just Judaism, seek to control it.
The halachic objection applies especially during religious worship and especially when the singer is both seen – the “b” in front of “ishah” indicates “with the (sight of) the woman” – and heard.
Though many translations render “ervah” as “lustful” or “impure”, deriving it from “ur”, “to be bare”, I recommend a translation which links the word with a verb that means to awaken or arouse: there is a form of this verb in L’chah Dodi when we say “Hit’orari”, from a root which is also spelled “ayin-vav-resh”, to wake. The passage calls upon Zion to awaken at the coming of the Messiah.
Question. What can be done about the wrongs in the world?
Answer. Whichever way we understand the words “the world” – as nature, or as humanity – there are certainly things that appear to be imperfect.
The Maharal of Prague taught that the human being is capable (and duty-bound) to work on both aspects. He is able to find the areas of incompleteness in nature and use his mind and energies to improve them. He is also able to find the areas of incompleteness in the human character and use his brains and conscience to overcome them.
By carrying out both tasks he shows his superiority over every other element in creation.
MANNERS & MONEY
Question. Do you agree that money is the root of all evil?
Answer. No. It can cause evil, but it does not have to.
The same may be said of two other human drives – sex and food. Kohelet says, “ohev kesef lo yisba kesef”,
“He who loves money will never be satisfied with money” (Eccl. 5:9),
which may also be said of sex and food. And the pursuit of these desires can lead you to unethical actions: if you simply have to have more money, sex or food, you will be tempted to steal from or exploit other people.
Any legitimate human desire must be disciplined. That is why Judaism is so concerned with business ethics, bedroom ethics and eating ethics. As far as money is concerned, the money must be pursued honestly and used for constructive purposes, supporting yourself and your family, assisting the disadvantaged and strengthening the community.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.