I happened to stumble upon this lovely link this morning.
Q. Why does Jewish law object to women singing in front of men?
A. The rule derived from the Talmud (Ber. 24a etc.) is kol b’ishah ervah – “A woman’s voice arouses (desire)”.
Charming, isn’t it?
The rabbi goes on to point out that this is not an exclusively Jewish form of sexism.
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”… Men both want and don’t want to hear the female voice, and several religions, not just Judaism, seek to control it.
Women, you see, aren’t allowed to have anything a man might want. It’s just like how it’s so sinful and immoral to display fresh produce in a grocery store—a man might be hungry, and want to eat some of it without paying for it. And naturally it’s absurd to think a man could or should control his own appetites. What kind of godless culture do you come from, anyway?
Don’t worry, though. This is not merely misogyny. It’s messianic misogyny.
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.
So women should not sing in front of men because Messiah, somehow. Or else he’s just embarrassed by the primitive chauvinism of his own religion, and wants desperately to try and change the subject. I know I would.