Left: Ophir Ben-Shetreet on Israel’s ‘The Voice.’ Right: Sister Cristina on Italy’s ‘The Voice.’
I’m not usually the type of person who goes in for reality TV shows. Especially not when they revolve around singing competitions, and especially not when one of their singers’ performances becomes an overnight Internet sensation, to be endlessly posted and reposted on social media.
So why did I feel compelled to watch a Sicilian nun singing a song by Alicia Keys on Italy’s ‘The Voice’ about a dozen times over the course of this weekend?
After giving it some thought, I realized it wasn’t the TV lover or even the music lover in me that drove my obsessive replaying of this video. It was the Jew — or, more specifically, the formerly Orthodox Jewish woman — that couldn’t resist its charm.
Strange as it may sound, watching 25-year-old Sister Cristina Scuccia belt it out on stage while a cluster of habit-clad nuns cheered her on from the sidelines, I couldn’t help but do a simple thought experiment: What if this were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman instead? Would she dare to sing like that in front of a mixed audience of men and women, knowing that her performance — her intimate voice — would be broadcast to millions more around the world? And would her ultra-Orthodox female friends stand there, cheering her on?
No way, I thought. Not in a million years. The reason why can be explained in two words: Kol Isha.
I held my seven month old daughter Ravi on my lap as we watched the video of Ophir Ben-Shetreet sing. The 17 year old alto gave a soulful performance on Israel’s The Voice, garnering the judge’s acclaim, and inducing some leg bopping on Ravi’s part. Recently, Ben-Shetreet has been the center of much controversy as the religious all-girl school she attends in Ashdod has temporarily suspended her for singing in public.
As a husband, father, feminist and Modern Orthodox rabbinical student, I am appalled. How can a religious school punish its students for their God given talents? How can its strict adherence to kol isha, the challenging prohibition of listening to a woman’s singing voice, blind the school leadership to the obvious kiddush haShem, the sanctification of God’s name, that took place in having a religious student talk openly about her faith to a largely secular Israeli audience and world?
A year ago, the Jewish community was discussing the attacks young Modern Orthodox girls faced as they walked to school in Ramat Beit Shemesh getting spit on by Haredi miscreants. Rabbi Dov Linzer, the dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, wrote then in The New York Times that: “The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.” A year later, the quest for religious tolerance lives on, as modesty patrol committees run rampant in Borough Park and Women of the Wall continue their uphill battle.