Silence and Slavery

My daughter sings in the choir at her Jewish high school.  Only her mother can attend the annual concert. I am not allowed to attend as this would violate “kol isha” hearing the voice of a woman sing. While the school certainly allows my daughter to sing, out of modesty it cannot take place in front of men.

In many Hasidic sources, based on a Zohar passage, the Exodus from Egypt is viewed as the movement from silence to speech. Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was so intense that initially the people could not even respond to God and Moses’s call of redemption. They lacked the strength to simply listen to Moses.  The Exodus became the restoration of the authentic Jewish voice to the People, for at Sinai they spoke loud and clear as one to accept the Torah. Moses who in Egypt complained he cannot speak well gained a full voice at Sinai and for the rest of his life. It is no accident that our annual retelling of the Exodus story at Passover is such an important verbal activity. It is precisely though telling and talking that we show we are free of the oppression from Egypt. What emerges from this is that to give someone voice is to liberate them and to suppress voice is to enslave them.

In an American context this can certainly resonate with our concern for free speech. While Jewish tradition has many laws concerning proper speech and would recoil from the repugnant nature of much of what passes today as protected free speech, nonetheless one should be very hesitant to suppress someone’s voice because that borders on enslaving them. At the same time, there is much American society could learn from the ethics of speech that plays a role in Jewish tradition.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I have followed as many have, the issues of “kol isha” hearing a women’s voice that have played out both in a singing context and even women not being allowed to present at a medical conference in Israel recently sponsored by a very important organization Puah which works on issues in fertility. While this is not the place to enter into the legal arguments, there is an underlying tension being played out between traditional understandings of modesty, unfortunately and incorrectly placed as a burden/responsibility on women, and an open society where women are full participants in the public square. At least one leading rabbi has argued for a more open understanding of this issue, but what I have seen lacking is this viewing of suppressing women’s voices as an act of oppression. It returns the woman to a form of slavery and the silencer to a type of Pharaoh. However this will play itself out in Israel and in America, this imperative of giving voice to people must begin to enter into the discussion, even as the community wrestles with the imperative of modesty.

Posted on January 19, 2012

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