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Dear Rabbi

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

Dear Rabbi,

Many of my Orthodox male friends will not listen to a woman sing. What is that about?

Humming in Hackensack

 


Dear Humming,

Bans or prohibitions against certain actions deemed dangerous or socially unacceptable are common in all societies and religions. Every town has a speeding limit. And we know that Jews are not supposed to eat pork.

Your simple direct question penetrates into one troubling taboo directed at women but not at men. In parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, men may sing for women, but women may not sing for men.

Any observer can identify such an injunction as uneven and one-sided.

Not surprising. Within synagogues in nearly all Orthodox Jewish communities, women are segregated from men. They are instructed to sit behind a curtain or divider. In many arenas of Orthodox society women also are told to dress modestly and cover up their arms and legs.

To me it seems that a modesty dress code is another form of the segregation of women from the presence of men.

And you do not have to be a feminist to reckon that the ban on women singing is yet an added extension of segregation, an act of discrimination, one more denial of rights directed solely at women.

Now we know in general that the explanation or rationalization of taboos can be extensive and interesting to hear and even compelling in its substance. In this case, the rabbis propose that the ban on women singing to men is to regulate the degree of sexuality that may be expressed and exposed in public. All good and well. I have no argument about whatever basis people of faith choose to justify their actions or proscriptions.

The trouble with the taboo you ask about is that it applies in one direction and not the other, that women may not sing for men.

If this ban is based on sexuality, then the stricture says to us that figuratively a woman’s singing voice is an extension of her vagina, which of course she cannot display in public. Is it not fair then to ask, Is a man’s singing voice a manifestation of his penis? Is it okay for a man to parade around his sexuality but the same is not allowed for a woman? Or is singing not at all a sexual display? Which one is it?

If you think that such questions about Jewish men and women are ludicrous, try these. Are we ever going to say that the men are allowed to eat pork, but the women are not? That the men are permitted to steal, but the women are forbidden?

You asked what the singing taboo is all about? It’s reasonable to say that it is about segregation based on gender, the denial of equal rights to women, and discrimination against women. You may ask then, Aren’t all of those practices unacceptable in our modern Western societies?

Yes sir. Yes ma’am. They are unacceptable.

 

Dear Rabbi,

My friend gets up early every morning to study a daily Talmud page. By doing this he will go through the entire Talmud in seven years. His daily lesson lasts 30 minutes.

I know the value Judaism places on Torah study, but I wonder about the quality of such hurried study. In my experience the contents of the Talmud are complex and nuanced. Of what benefit is it to rapidly recite passages and to speed-read through their meanings?

Skim Free in New Milford

 

Dear Skim,

You touch on a sensitive issue. Many Jews believe that learning Talmud is the epitome of studying Torah. In turn they consider that practice to be the apex of all the commandments. Torah-study is an enriched ritual because serious learning may lead to inner cognition, to increased knowledge, and even to expertise. The highest goal of Talmud study is to become a lamdan-a learned master of the Talmud.

With that in mind, let me pose a few pointed talmudic questions to extend your inquiry. Can anyone become a lamdan through Daf Yomi study alone? Unlikely. It often takes weeks of intensive study to get through the study of the Tosafot, Rishonim, and Achronim (i.e., the major commentaries) on a single side of a page of the Talmud.

And it is fair to ask, What is the content retention rate of the average page-a-day-Talmud student? Probably low. And so if they do not become lamdanim, what do they get out of the daily study? We can reason that after seven and a half years of plowing through every page of the Talmud, some of them do absorb a great deal, while others actually retain little and remain unenlightened about the bulk of the contents of the Talmud.

Does everyone who accomplishes the goal of going through the whole Talmud feel good about themselves? Probably yes. To use sports metaphors, even those who do not run the whole race can feel a sense of accomplishment just by participating in a marathon. Even those who go to the practice batting cage to hit softballs can imagine they are at bat in a major league game in Yankee Stadium.

Of this we can be certain. The extensive time allotted daily to Talmud study is quite a hefty way for people to say to themselves and their families and communities: these are my precious values and I invest a lot of my time and energy in them.

Yes, frequent attendance at daf yomi or at other adult education opportunities in synagogues and communities are worthy endeavors. Please do keep in mind also that becoming a learned Jew through deeper toil and study is an even more worthy undertaking.

 

Dear Rabbi,

On the one hand, after reading about a rabbi who repeatedly used the ritual of women immersing as an opportunity to engage in voyeurism, I’m turned off to the whole idea of ritual bathing in a mikvah.

On the other hand, I know I’ll feel guilty about abandoning one of my religious practices, which had meaning for me in the past. What should I do?

Slams Dunking in Teaneck

 


Dear Slams,

Rituals are a potent part of your relationship to your culture and heritage. And special relationships are fragile. They hinge both on predictable consistency and on intangible magical elements.

The relationships embedded in the most prevalent mikvah-bath ritual are as complex as a double helix. One strand of complexity is that the mikvah bath permits Orthodox women, who refrain from sex with their husbands during menstruation, to resume the intimate sexual portion of their relationships. And for women from long-standing Orthodox family lines, another strand of the complexity of the ritual is how the mikvah connects them in a magical way to the innermost lives of their mothers, who practiced the same formal mikvah procedure.

Dipping in a mikvah also is an integral rite in a conversion to Judaism. And that is where the latest scandal occurred. To many of us, the bad acts of a rabbi were troubling enough to disrupt the magic of the ritual, that tacit allowance we permit ourselves that makes a bath into an enchanted personal transformation. A debauched rabbi violated the privacy of the immersion of numerous women converts. For many who heard it, the sad news of those acts poisoned the sacred well of the mikvah.

I tried to understand the plight of my sisters by thinking in terms of an analogy. As an avid daily lap swimmer for many years, I know how refreshing and invigorating and healthy a workout in the pool can be. And yet I also discovered that at times, the positive values of water can be disrupted. Sometimes because of errors or ineptness, the pool I swim in gets too hot for comfortable lap swimming or the chlorine chemical level gets too high and the water becomes toxic. That for sure spoils the enjoyment of my swimming. And it can affect my health. But I work hard to get that fixed. And I keep coming back to swim. It’s a consistent, even a constant part of my life.

Sure, I know that my inconveniences in lap swimming are not anywhere near equivalent to violations of a woman’s intimate privacy during her performance of a religious ritual. But my suggestion to you, via my loose metaphor, is that you try your best to continue to do those healthy positive things that you do, those activities of your life that in crucial ways define you.

When the motions of your life are disrupted, when you get distracted from the poetry of your religion, I urge you to bounce back, and to strive with vigor to set your faith and practices straight and to restore the magic to your rituals.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

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