I do not know if Ophir Ben Shetreet will remain observant, but if she doesn’t, I may know the reason why. – Barry Gelman

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News of the suspension from school of Ophir Ben-Shetreet, for performing on the Israeli hit show, “The Voice” in violation of her school’s policy of Kol Isha (the ban of women singing in public) is now well known.

The school’s decision to suspend Ophir is theirs alone. It is also true that schools have the right to discipline students for breaking the rules. No one should fault the school for implementing a standing policy.

Having said that, this story does offer an opportunity to discuss an issue that is present when rendering Halachik rulings.

This particular ruling on Kol Isha is an example of a ruling that, given the current social reality, may very well result in people feeling alienated from Halacha. On this concern I quote Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa from a full treatment of Kol Isha: “The assertion of the Maharshal, (accepted as practical halakha) that psychological and spiritual need is considered an important concern that justifies reliance upon a lone or minority halakhic opinion. And according to reliable accounts, there are women in certain communities who are so offended by the ruling forbidding them to sing in public that they turn away from the Torah and commandments due to it.”

Writing about Kol Isha (Techumin Vol. 32), Rav Moshe Lichtenstein noted this point and rightly points out that as far as many in the public are concerned, a strict ruling on Kol Isha, is a rule that sheds light on the entire system of halacha, i.e. a system that discriminates against women by restricting their self expression.

There are legitimate and well-substantiated alternative views regarding the nature of the Kol Isha prohibition.

Rav Bigman notes that according to some authorities, the prohibition of Kol Isha only applies in the context of the recitation of the Shema.: “Important Rishonim held that the main prohibition of listening to a woman’s voice is only during the recitation of the Shema and other core parts of the prayer service, in accordance with the intuitive context of Shemuel’s statement “the voice of a woman is erva.”

Rabbi Avraham Shammah wonders why the stricture against Kol Isha is upheld with such vigor while other prohibitions meant to limit contact with women and possible transgression are not. For example, he notes that Shulchan Aruch rules as follows: “ A [male] person has to distance himself from women, very very much” and then asks: “Do all of those who arise to forbid hearing the voices of women uphold everything that is written in this halahka? Do they distance themselves from women very, very much? The answer is “absolutely not!”; certainly not [according to] the intent of our teacher [R. Yosef Karo]. It should be expressed in clear language: in our day, society is mixed (men and woman). And even in the most stringent haredi groups, there is a mixed society at various levels. Work places are mixed, even in the haredi sector, and married men and married women meet there on a daily basis for the course of hours. The grocery stores in this sector are completely mixed, at banks married men and married women work and meet; likewise, in the markets, the streets, and every locale. We find, then, that this halakha has been dismissed and ignored, until it is no longer regarded strictly. Go out and see what people do in the market.”

His answer is insightful: “From a logical point of view, this [inconsistency] is intolerable, especially because those same people who rule stringently are not generally known for deficiencies in [halakhic] judgment. It seems to me, and this should be said as a generalization, that what is being considered is not really a matter of [women’s] modesty. Rather, halakha is being used as a religious marker. That is to say, in a situation where it is quite impossible to be stringent, such as distancing oneself from women very, very much, people aren’t careful. But it is very easy to be stringent in forbidding hearing a woman’s voice, while – in the best case – the added value of an internal sense of religiosity is great. In a less positive light, it is a minute effort for a huge return of being able to externally demonstrate one’s religiosity. This phenomenon, that generally is quite widespread, is worthy of penetrating criticism, and the words of the prophets are brimming with such [criticism].”

Rav Shammah makes another interesting point about how Halacha considers subjective reality. “Centuries ago, the Ritv”a relied on this principle, [and wrote] at the end of Kiddushin: “ … and so is the law that everything is according to what a person knows about himself, if it is appropriate for him to maintain a distance [from women] because of his sexual urges, he should do so, and [for him] even to look at women’s colored clothing is forbidden … while if he knows that his sexual urges submit to him and are under his control … he is permitted to look and to speak with a woman who is forbidden to him and to ask the well-being of another man’s wife, and that was the situation with Rabbi Yohanan who sat near the gates of the mikve and was not concerned about his evil inclination, and [with] Rabbi Ammi,

in front of whom the king’s maidservants went out [to sing and praise him], and [with] several of the Sages who conversed with those ladies, and [with] Rav Ada bar Ahava of whom it is said in K’tubot that he lifted a bride on his shoulders and danced with her and did not concern himself with [unseemly] thoughts- [all these behaved as such] for the reason that we stated …”.

In addition, in spite of all the complexity and difficulty with the matter, one should not easily dismiss the [concept] of the public becoming accustomed [to mixing with women], or that [the public] does not perceive a woman’s voice as [provoking] lewdness. This [aspect] of being accustomed [to mixing with women] has significant weight in general reasoning, and the poskim have relied on it, each according to his method.”

Others have limited the prohibition to circumstances when one intends to enjoy forbidden pleasure (Sdei Chemed citing Rabbi Aharon De Toledo. This is also the opinion of Rambam according to Rabbi Yechiel Yakov Weinberg) or only to women whom the listener knows personally.

The Orthodox establishment should consider these views as L’Chatchilla rulings in the service of the overarching goal of making Halachik living accessible and tolerable to as many people as possible.

I will close with a quote form Rav Chaim of Volohzin reminding us of the difference between theoretical Halacha and the very real people affected by Psak Halacha.

“I see that regarding most things we are headed in the same direction. It is just that you incline toward stringency, since the matter is not cast upon you. Just like you, I too did not turn to the allowances that emerge from study before the burden of decision-making was placed upon my shoulders. Now, however, as a result of our many sins, our environs have been orphaned of its sages, and the yoke of ruling for the entire area was placed on my shoulders … And I calculated with my Maker, and I saw it a personal obligation to gather all my strength in order to persevere in finding a remedy for the agunot.  (Responsa Chut Ha-meshulash I:8) (see here  –  Halakha and Morality Part 2)

How Ophir will react to a very strict interpretation that ostracizes her by marginalizing other, equally valid, interpretations, in anyone’s guess. What is so disappointing here is that Halacha is being used to drive people away from observance instead of being used to bring them closer.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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28 Responses to I do not know if Ophir Ben Shetreet will remain observant, but if she doesn’t, I may know the reason why. – Barry Gelman

  1. Alan Yuter says:

    Great essay! Perhaps we should publicize Shofetim 5:1 and OH 75:3 and ask who is following Torah law. Kol haKavod. Alan

    On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 9:42 AM, Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth, Depth and Passi

  2. Nachum says:

    “I do not know if Ophir Ben Shetreet will remain observant, but if she doesn’t, I may know the reason why.”

    I’m sorry, that’s a very offensive thing to say. Perhaps your observance is based on how other people act (I doubt it, but teh very fact that you wrote that headline seems to imply that it’s an issue for you), but basic judging l’kaf zechut, if nothing else, should have us assume that she’s made of tougher stuff than that.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Shalom,
      My comment was based on experience and the comment of Rav Bigman. “And according to reliable accounts, there are women in certain communities who are so offended by the ruling forbidding them to sing in public that they turn away from the Torah and commandments due to it.”

      I have heard that Tav Aharon Soloveitchik took a similar approach when asked about women saying Kaddish. His permissive ruling was based on the concern that women may turn to other movements if Orthodoxy rules strictly on that one.

      I think it is naive to think that feelings of being disenfranchised do not take their toll.

      Shabbat Shalom

  3. Aliza Fischman says:

    Isn’t the prohibition of kol isha incumbent on the listener, not the singer? If so, they shouldn’t suspend her, but rather discipline any of the male faculty who watch that show any given week.

  4. The Dude says:

    So… a school doesn’t have the right to take action when students violate community standards? And you really beleive such a student would be justified in leaving Orthodoxy? That is what your title implied.

    Why can’t you accept that this school has standards? The girl, as was reported, was suspended because parents of other students were concerned.

    Why can’t you accept that not everyone practices a pick and choose Judaism, so popular today in your communities?

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Shalom and thank you for your comment.

      Of course a school has a right to take action. i made this point in the blog post itself: “The school’s decision to suspend Ophir is theirs alone. It is also true that schools have the right to discipline students for breaking the rules. No one should fault the school for implementing a standing policy.”

      My point is that I think the policy is a mistaken one as it will drive people away.

      As to picking and choosing – i addressed this as well in the blog when I noted the following form Rabbi Shammah. here is his language.

      “Shulchan Aruch rules as follows: “ A [male] person has to distance himself from women, very very much” and then asks: “Do all of those who arise to forbid hearing the voices of women uphold everything that is written in this halahka? Do they distance themselves from women very, very much? The answer is “absolutely not!”; certainly not [according to] the intent of our teacher [R. Yosef Karo]. It should be expressed in clear language: in our day, society is mixed (men and woman). And even in the most stringent haredi groups, there is a mixed society at various levels. Work places are mixed, even in the haredi sector, and married men and married women meet there on a daily basis for the course of hours. The grocery stores in this sector are completely mixed, at banks married men and married women work and meet; likewise, in the markets, the streets, and every locale. We find, then, that this halakha has been dismissed and ignored, until it is no longer regarded strictly.”

      The point is that Poskim have found a way to deal with this aspect of the Shulchan Aruch but, for some reason, have not deemed it necessary to give equal treatment to Kol Isha.

      Finally, it is not about picking and choosing. It is about constructing an approach to Halacha that makes observant life most accessible and considerate of the people it will impact.

      • Yisroel says:

        I would be able to agree with this response if not for the last paragraph

        “Finally, it is not about picking and choosing. It is about constructing an approach to Halacha that makes observant life most accessible and considerate of the people it will impact.”

        I do not think this can be farther from the truth. This concept that you bring to the table has been brought before in many forms. The most recent is the Reformed movement whose very idea was bring Judaism and mesh it’s principles with the modern age. When there was a discussion in the reformed circles about driving on Shabbat in order to get to shul, they agreed that in order to convenience everyone you were allowed to.

        Judaism is not meant to be changed in order to be “more accesible” we have our strict laws that they must be preserved in its entirety.

        Maybe an analogy will be of help.

        What is marijuana referred to? A common reference is “the gateway drug” that even though marijuana is not terrible, it is still a drug. And once you do one drug you have an exponentially higher risk of experimenting further with more harmful alternatives.

        So to in Judiasm there is a concept of being “Poretz Geder – Breaking the fence” The third mishna in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our fathers, states that we must make a fence around the Torah. Just like a barrier protecting a dam, once there is a crack trickles of water rush forth and unless you fix the crack it will only get bigger.

        WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO ADD SUBJECTIVE THOUGHTS INTO THE OBJECTIVE TORAH.

        Consideration you say. Do you not believe in the Akeida, when you read that portion of the torah do you stop and say… “GOD how dare you not be considerate of Abraham’s feelings, maybe he will go off the derech?

      • Barry Gelman says:

        Shalom and Shavua Tov.

        For a reply to the question of subjectivity, please see my reply to CS.

        Regarding the question of Avraham and Akeidat Yitzchak, I have always found the midrash quoted by Rashi to be instructive and insightful as to a view within CHazal about the Akeidah.

        רש”י בראשית פרק כב פסוק יב

        כי עתה ידעתי – אמר רבי אבא אמר לו אברהם אפרש לפניך את שיחתי, אתמול אמרת לי (לעיל כא יב) כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע, וחזרת ואמרת (שם כב ב) קח נא את בנך, עכשיו אתה אומר לי אל תשלח ידך אל הנער. אמר לו הקב”ה (תהלים פט לה) לא אחלל בריתי ומוצא שפתי לא אשנה, כשאמרתי לך קח מוצא שפתי לא אשנה, לא אמרתי לך שחטהו אלא העלהו, אסקתיה אחתיה

        “Abraham said to Hashem, ‘I will lay my thoughts before You. Yesterday You told me that through Isaac will offspring be considered yours; then You said take your son (as a sacrifice); yet now You tell me, do not stretch out your hand against the lad Hashem then answered him, ‘I will not profane My covenant, nor alter that which has gone out of My lips (Psalms 89:35). When I told you to take your son, I did not alter what had gone out of My lips; I did not tell you to slay him, but to bring him up on the mountain. You have brought him up, now bring him down’.”

  5. Moshe Y says:

    Rabbi Gelman, the Poskim distinguish between the Shulchan Aruch’s advice (eitza Tova) to distance oneself from women, which is inherently bound to subjective social norms, on the one hand, vs. the prohibition of kol isha, which most poskim consider to be objective and not tied to subjective social norms. This is a basic distinction and is discussed in the poskim. Ignoring this simple distinction betrays a lack of fidelity to basic Orthodox methodology. Another similar example is that many poskim consider having a mechitza at a wedding to be subject to social norms, yet no posek applies that to a mechitza in shul, which is objectively required. Similarly, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that one may daven in front of a woman with uncovered hair because that rule is tied to subjective social norms; but he also says that this does not indicate that hair covering itself is tied to social norms, rather it is objectively required.

    See:

    http://koltorah.org/ravj/The%20Parameters%20of%20Kol%20Isha.htm

    “Both Rav Ovadia Yosef (ibid) and Rav Yehuda Henkin (Teshuvot Bnei Banim 3:127) reject the claim that this prohibition does not apply today since men nowadays are accustomed to hear a woman’s voice. These authorities explain that since the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch codify this prohibition, we do not enjoy the right to abolish it. The Gemara and its commentaries do not even hint at a possibility that this prohibition might not apply if men become habituated to hearing a woman’s voice. Thus, all recognized Poskim agree that the prohibition of Kol Isha applies today”.

    You can legitimately rely on minority opinions that argue otherwise, but at least have the humility to recognize that the minority opinions are just that-minority opinions- and not the chutzpah to argue that the very fact that a legitimate minority opinion exists means that one has no right to simply hold of the mainstream, normative view! This is fallacious.

    Also, for what it’s worth, the Haredi world absolutely does abide by a strict policy of separation of the sexes wherever possible, as is well known. I’m sure you yourself criticize them for this. Separate buses, separate seating at weddings and concerts, etc. Yet you chide them for not separating in every single aspect of life, including grocery stores! This is a red herring, as such extreme separation is logistically impossible and is not even what the shulchan aruch is implying is even necessary. Shamah only brings it up as a straw man.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      I am not sure you understood the point of the post. It was to note that there are minority opinions and that a better policy is to rely on them rather than run the risk of alienating people. Perhaps it would have been clearer had I noted that they are minority opinions.

      • Moshe Y says:

        It’s one thing to argue that we have a RIGHT to rely on minority opinions in order not to alienate people. But you are not just respectfully and humbly arguing that it’s “better policy” to agree with you. You are asserting that all Orthodox Jews are morally OBLIGED to agree with you, and that those who don’t are rightfully subject to condemnation. You are accusing the hanhala and rabbanim of her school of bearing personal responsibility for potentially losing a girl to Orthodoxy for having the audacity to interpret the halacha plainly and not comporting themselves to rely on minority opinions. This is a very serious accusation.

        You could have argued that even if the school is correct on the halacha, this type of rebuke and punishment are just not constructive. I sympathize with that argument. But instead you are arguing against their interpretation of halacha itself. That’s what’s beyond the pale.

        Also,your closing paragraph states:

        “How Ophir will react to a very strict interpretation that ostracizes her by marginalizing other, equally valid, interpretations, is anyone’s guess.”

        But by your own admission this is not a case of a “very strict” interpretation vs. “other, equally valid interpretations”. It is a case of the normative halacha vs. a very lenient (but also valid) minority opinion.

  6. I think that the distinction between activity in private vs. public sphere is important. While the effect on the individual is important and should be an educational issue for the relationship between the individual teacher and student and parents and student, the fact is that that the student involved was performing publically and hence her activity was identified as the activity of a student of that institution. Was there any consultation among the faculty, student and parents before Ofir made the decision to participate or was there an element of provocation? It would be better to have more complete information before drawing conclusions.

    • Rahul says:

      I am dismayed at the conemmts regarding the need for gun control. I came across your website performing research about the Holocaust. For a part of your culture who suffered the horror of an event, that was not a freak of nature. Genocides have occured throughout history. And the Jewish people are currently under attack again. I feel it is ignorant to believe that the United States is immune from civil unrest or cataclysmic governmental change. Our founding fathers knew this and that is why the our Constitution was developed with the second ammendment so prominent. The founding fathers acknowledged human nature. As a citizen of the United States who is armed I will not let another Holocaust occur. I will stand up regardless if you do. The cost of freedom is not free, and acts of violence will occur. But, we must not let our guard down and run our nation with emotion. The right to bear arms is a key component to our nations freedoms.

  7. Zev says:

    Ignoring the issue of Kol Isha for a minute, does participating in a reality TV show mesh with the values of tzniut incumbent on both men and women within our communities?

    I would tend to think not, since the purpose of these shows is to draw dramatic attention to the participants, but I’d be interested in other perspectives on the issue.

    • Abe says:

      Shalom Zev,

      All is relative. Relative to other reality TV shows being produced, this show does not ask the participant to do anything other than sing. Nor does the camera follow the person into his private life beyond seeing some of the family and a few interviews. The camera is not on 24/7 as on some other shows.

      Also, the fact that the show calls dramatic attention to the individual is not necessarily a breach of tzeniut either. There are many women who call attention to themselves because they are famed lecturers or journalists, Knesset members, etc. In and of itself, I do not think that calling even dramatic attention to oneself is a necessary breach of tzeniut.

      Additionally, in today’s climate, just being on TV is in and of itself not necessarily a breach of tzeniut as again there are Orthodox female journalists and talk show hosts. In today’s climate, being on TV, especially in a small country like Israel, is not that much different than being a member of the Knesset (in some senses).

      All in all, I would argue much depends on the comportment of the man or woman in question and not the medium.

  8. Maya says:

    This essay notices that Kol Isha has become a religious marker, a way of saying “I’m really, really frum”. Other movements have ways of saying “I’m really devoted to my sort of Judaism” that have to do with social justice, or pluralism, or God. If certain parts of the Orthodox world could mark themselves with something other than the way they sexualize any interaction with a member of the opposite sex, it would be a real pleasure to see.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Yasher koach on telling many sides of the story. You make an important note throughout (and in at least one response in the comments) that you reference *minority opinions* that stand against “kol isha” which can be thought of in this comparison as a “majority opinion.” This brings up a crucial point that whatever halacha one chooses to observe (including the option of none at all), they are all simply OPINIONS. Perhaps it is time to stop treating opinions as if they are commandments which, of course, they are not. Those who issue opinions do so based on their learning and their personal beliefs. We all have that ability – even if the title “Rabbi” doesn’t precede our names. In the end, an opinion is just that: an opinion.

  10. Mark says:

    Yasher koach on telling many sides of the story. You make an important note throughout (and in at least one response in the comments) that you reference *minority opinions* that stand against “kol isha” which can be thought of in this comparison as a “majority opinion.” This brings up a crucial point that whatever halacha one chooses to observe (including the option of none at all), they are all simply OPINIONS. Perhaps it is time to stop treating opinions as if they are commandments which, of course, they are not. Those who issue opinions do so based on their learning and their personal beliefs. We all have that ability – even if the title “Rabbi” doesn’t precede our names. In the end, an opinion is just that: an opinion.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      I would characterize Halacha differently. All of the rabbis noted in my post have all dedicated years and years (really their entire life) to learning and teaching Halacha. While they are opinions, they are opinions that are born our of complete mastery of the material. I often tell my students that Halacha is very democratic. Anyone has the potential to become a Talmid Chacham and a posek, all they have to do is put their minds to it and spend the time on it. The thing is that most of us do not. I was careful in this post not to offer my interpretation of the sources on Kol Isha. I did share the view of great Talmidei Chachamim who have put in the time and effort to be recognized as authorities.
      So in this ,case, it is not fair to say that “an opinion is just an opinion”.

      Shabbat Shalom

      • Mark says:

        Shabbat Shalom to you too.

        I believe the distinction you are making here is more about “informed opinion” vs. opinions. However, no matter how informed, learned, based on mastery, or how much time and effort went into forming an opinion, it remains just that: an opinion.

        All the best.

  11. The Dude says:

    Obviously Ophir’s community and school follow the more stringent approach in this area. That is their perrogotive. And I’m sure Ophir and her parents knew what they were signing up for when they chose this school.

    There are different community standards and there are choices. It’s not up to you, Rabbi Gelman, to dictate to this community what its public policy should be. What works in Houston, may not work in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, etc.

    Everyone has the right to make choices. But be mindful of the community you find yourself in.

    I feel bad for the girl – but to suggest that this warrants leaving Orthodoxy? Well, that’s silly.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Shalom,

      I do not think it warrants leaving Orthodoxy, I do think that the more women and girls feel alienated, the greater chance there is that they will leave orthodoxy.

      Of course, every community has the right to choose their policy and I would not dictate to another community what their policy should be. I am suggesting that the strict policy may have unforeseen consequences.

      Shabbat Shalom.

  12. Ilana Rosansky says:

    You don’t mention here the obvious, which is not that women are “forbidden” from singing, but rather, it is men (who cannot control their impulses) are prohibited from listening! For shame for constricting the women!! Chaval…

    Ilana Rosansky

  13. CS says:

    This is a tough issue, Rabbl Gelman, and I appreciate you trying to find a way for women to feel more included.

    My understanding of the halahic issues is that these points have been debated for centuries, but the prevailing opinion has always been that kol osha still applies in a situation like this. As a woman, there’s certainly something disappointing about not being able to sing in mixed crowds if you like to sing, but as a person who who respects the halachic process, preserving that is more important than always getting what I want to do.

    Here’s where you really lost me: “What is so disappointing here is that Halacha is being used to drive people away from observance instead of being used to bring them closer.”

    I thought halacha is meant to be a way for us to serve Hashem – not serve our own desires. I like cheese burgers and bikinis but I gave those up when I became frum! Was there a loss there? Are they things I somewhat miss still? A little. But for me, becoming an eved Hashem was to take the focus off of my ratzon and try to adapt to Hashem’s ratzon (i.e. Torah, mitzvos, halacha).

    I really do get that you’re trying to be sensitive, but I fear that the above statement begins to no longer be Orthodox. Because you could start making rationalizations and justifications for many more things the moment that the goal is just to keep people in the fold and not to be intellectually honest about what the best reading of the sources are.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I agree fully that Halacha is our way to serve Hashem – BTW – you read Yishayau Leibowitz for a very pure appraoch to this – and not for our own benefit or pleasure.

      The reason why what I wrote is Orthodox (if by that you mean, firmly within the Halachik tradition), is that I am quoting statements by well regarded Talmidei Chachamim. I did not print my views on Kol Isha. I noted that there are authorities who have a more lenient views – arrived at after analyzing the same material studied by those who rule strictly – and that as a matter of public policy, and for the sake of more people serving Hashem, that those lenient views ought to be adopted as normative.

      I would call you your attention to:

      חגיגה דף ט”ז ע”ב

      דבר אל בני ישראל וסמך בני ישראל סומכין ואין בנות ישראל סומכות רבי יוסי ור’ [שמעון] אומרים בנות ישראל סומכות רשות אמר רבי יוסי: סח לי אבא אלעזר, פעם אחת היה לנו עגל של זבחי שלמים והביאנוהו לעזרת נשים וסמכו עליו נשים, לא מפני שסמיכה בנשים אלא כדי לעשות נחת רוח לנשים”.

      See here for more on that. http://www.jofa.org/pdf/JofaFall2003.pdf

      There is precedent in Halacha for subjectivity playing a role n the process. Other Halachik considerations like Hefsed Merubah, Kavod Habriyot and Shalom Bayit come to mind as well.

      Shavua Tov.

  14. shachar haamim says:

    There was a recent story about a school in Israel in which a teacher lined up the girls to measure the length of their skirts. Naturally this caused great “outrage” amongst all the “morethedox” population – including a parent in the school who is active in the community’s women’s minyan and who took the story to the press.
    All my wife – who doesn’t cover her hair and who wears trousers – could say was to quote her mother who pointed out that when her mother was in a non-Jewish “proper” English public school, the girls all had to line up periodically with the headmistress and then kneel to the floor and whichever girls skirts didn’t cover their knees when they knelt would be sent home. Schools can have standards and the students should abide by them.
    Maybe that behavior by the headmistress turned every graduate of the school into an Angus Young groupie – who knows? But schools can have standards.

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