Voices are raised in song everywhere from Broadway to school musicals, but it’s a brand-new experience on the stage at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy. For the Orthodox school’s two student performances of Les Miserables last week, boys and girls sang together for the first time.
The change was a small but significant act of harmonizing Jewish law with community norms, said Joshua Levisohn, headmaster of the Rockville school.
At issue is a Talmudic dictum known as kol isha — that the voice of a woman is sexually suggestive to men. From that ruling came a halachic (Jewish legal) restriction on women singing in public. The school has always followed that ruling, and has restricted girls older than fifth grade from singing in public.
So what caused the change?
Rena Fruchter, who leads the school’s dramatic arts program and directed last week’s performances, said “an unfortunate incident” caused the change.
Last year, Berman Academy invited Olney Theatre Center’s National Players to perform Animal Farm, based on George Orwell’s book.
“There was no mention of music in the publicity,” Fruchter said.
But there was music. And, more problematically, there was singing, including women’s solos. By the time Fruchter and other school administrators realized that, the audience was seated and the performance was underway.
“We had to do some fast thinking,” Fruchter said. “But there was nothing to do.”
So she asked the performers to stop the show.
“The majority of the people would have been comfortable to stay,” she said last week. But letting the play continue would have ignored the authority of the rabbinic ruling and contradicted one of the school’s most important values.
The incident started a discussion within the school community about kol isha. Levisohn took the matter to Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, the school’s posek, or halachic authority. Breitowitz consulted the legal books for precedents and issued a ruling.
He based it on another Talmudic dictum that holds, “multiple voices are not heard distinctly.”
In a letter to Berman Academy parents, Levisohn wrote: “Rabbi Breitowitz has decided that it is appropriate to rely on the [multiple voices] principle as the policy of the MJBHA and for mixed group singing (boys and girls together) to be permitted… .”
So when the 21 students performed “At the End of the Day” and “Look Down,” they sang as an ensemble. (Another 15 students were on the crew.) Because the law forbids girls to have solos, boys were not allowed to either.
Cast member Eleanna Weissman, a 10th-grader, said the ensemble singing was a new experience for her and the school.
Senior Zev Shields said that singing with girls exposed him to “skill sets that I didn’t know existed. They sang high harmonies I didn’t know were possible.”
When the group launched into “Do you hear the people sing?” they could answer “yes” for the first time.
As a cofounder of the Berman Hebrew Academy Dramatic Arts Society (HADAS) in the late 1980s, a word of historical perspective and a comment.
When HADAS began, no rabbinical decisor (posek) was consulted about musicals. The then headmaster, Rabbi William Altschul, had previously been headmaster at the Flatbush Yeshiva High School, which had a tradition of musicals with boys and girls. singing When I asked him whether we could perform Rice and Weber’s Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he agreed — it had been done at Flatbush — but the understanding would be that women would sing their solos as duets, because of the principle enunciated in the article. It took one “That’s not fair” from my daughter to convince me that under the circumstances we should not perform musicals.
So it seems that now the Hebrew Academy has caught up to Flatbush — and the Hebrew Academy — in the 1980s. This doesn’t surprise me. The prohibition of hearing women sing in musicals is a recent one and has little basis in the classical Jewish sources and for good reason — women singing in theatrical performances was unheard of before the modern period. When acculturated Jews started attending opera the question was rarely asked; the Talmudic prohibition of hearing a woman’s voice referred to her speaking voice, not her singing voice, and that, only under certain circumstances, and the modern extension is simply another case of the rightward move of contemporary orthodoxy under the influence of Hungarian and hasidic customs and law, and, in the case of the Berman Academy, the influence of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.
But the Academy is not alone in its rightward move. In the 1990s, the Horev School for Girls in Jerusalem still invited fathers of eighth-grade students to the class play. After my daughter graduated, that stopped (the developments were unrelated.)
Still, I congratulate the school for taking one small step backward toward a historically less misogynistic orthodoxy.
I attended MJBHA(originally Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington) from 4 year old nursery through high school. HADAS has done wonderful performances, ones in which I was also casted.
I would like to point out that besides from HADAS performances it was customary for the eight grade graduates to sing songs. At my eight grade graduation there were songs that everyone sang together. No solos. But, yes, men and women did sing together, in front of a mixed audience. I therefore see the statement “The school has always followed that ruling, and has restricted girls older than fifth grade from singing in public” to be somewhat innacurate. I”m not sure how or where to find the information regarding these school policies, but if you ask alumni there were definitely times where male and female students sang together.