Is it kosher to listen to Neshama Carlebach in concert? Go to an opera where women are singing solos? Enjoy the latest production of “Fiddler on the Roof“?
Based on traditional rabbinic law, the prohibition known as kol isha (literally, “a woman’s voice”) is based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14: “For your voice is sweet (arev) – and your appearance pleasant (naveh).” It has had the Orthodox world in yet another gender-driven debate.
Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the men from the allure of a female voice and the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.
The essence behind hearing a woman’s voice is not solely its intrinsic sensuality, as many halachic authorities have indicated, but the functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study.
Although liberal Jewish communities around the world do not adhere to the strict interpretations of kol isha, in Israel it has become an issue of religious rights for men and women on both sides of the debate.
Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the Kol Isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training course because it included women’s singing.
An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and make a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of this religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.
The religious authorities who have jurisdiction over the Kotel have framed their opposition to women publicly praying at the Western Wall around the kol isha prohibition. Since 1967, women’s collective voices at the Kotel have been silenced. In December 1988, Women of the Wall was founded to secure women’s rights to hold and read the Torah in public in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Each month on rosh hodesh, the group meets and prays at Robinson’s Arch, the place designated by the authorities in 2003 for women’s public prayer.
The Psalmist encouarges us to “lift our voices” (Pslam 147) and to “open our mouths” (Psalm 144) to declare God’s glory. Our voices are our instruments towards religious freedoms. Let us find the path together as we sing God’s praises, male and female in one united voice.
Reading Anne- Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has caused me to wonder, what would “having it all” looks like. As I was letting my imagination go and dreaming big, a teaching from the Jewish wisdom book, The Ethics of Our Fathers came in to my head. “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
I began to think about the wisdom of that statement. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. We each have our lot in life, and if we can make peace with it then we could indeed lead happy and fulfilled lives. We would not want for anything. On the other hand, if we all accept whatever we have, then there would be very little drive to make the world a better place. Human ingenuity is sparked by an individual desiring something to be better than it is. Without this drive to make things better we might all still be living in caves and hunting and gathering for our food.
The article sparked an internal debate about this delicate balance between being happy with what I have and striving for more. If I may be chutzpadick enough to compare myself to Mrs. Slaughter, I see many similarities in our personal stories. Like her, I have entered a field previously dominated by men, and I am very thankful for the women before me who led the way. Like her, I have a spouse who shares parenting and domestic duties equally. And like her I have a wonderful job which affords me flexibility when I need to attend an event at my daughter’s school or take her to the doctor. When I look at the big picture I feel rich. I am happy with my life and my work.
And yet…I have a desire for more. Like most women, I too make compromises to balance life and work. To rise in my field to a position of national prominence I would have to travel much more than I am willing to do. I choose to be home with my husband and daughter. By making this choice I am limiting my career trajectory. In addition, I work in a field still dominated by men and a male definition of what a leader looks like and sounds like. I don’t have a long beard or a deep voice. My leadership style is not always recognized as “leadership” because I have a quieter style which focuses on relationship building rather than being the center of attention.
There is so much I want to change both in my field in particular and American society as a whole. I want a world where men and women have the ability to reach the height of their career success and have time to be with those they love.
But my guess is that even when that happens, life will still be a balancing act. It might be easier to balance work and home life, but it will still need to be done. And we will always need to balance being happy with what we have and striving for more. This is part and parcel of what it means to be human.
Hope is a Jewish value. The Psalmist says “Hope in Adonai and be strong.” The national anthem of Israel is Hatikva – the Hope. Yet, in the Jewish community today I hear more complaining and lamenting than I hear expressions of hope.
This past week I spent a day with a group of women Jewish non-profit professionals. We gathered under the auspices of Advancing Jewish Women and the Jewish Community. Over the course of the day we identified obstacles to women’s advancement in the Jewish non-profit sector, and brainstormed ideas to overcome these obstacles. The women at the gathering were smart, articulate and creative in their ideas. But the highlight of the day for me was when we all had a chance to share our personal journeys. We were asked to create a collage the represented two points of challenge in our lives and how we chose to overcome those challenges. Each woman took a turn relating the events that formed their adult identities. Stories of deep challenge were shared: deaths of family members, job loss, painful transitions, and sexual harassment. Each story brought tears to the eyes of those gathered in the room, and we sat with each other in our pain.
But we did not wallow in the pain. In each instance, I was amazed at the courage and perseverance the women showed. Not a one of us was knocked out by our painful experience. Instead we rallied and rebounded. Family relationships were reformed, new jobs were found, and difficult transitions turned in to wonderful new opportunities. The collective and individual strength of the women in that room awed me and filled me with great hope.
These women are the next generation of Jewish leaders. Each is poised to take the helm of a Jewish non-profit in the near future. I can assure you that the future is in good hands.
These women have the wisdom to steer the Jewish community through this current period of malaise caused by the economic crisis and shifting religious affiliations. They will not moan about the state of the Jewish world as so many of our leaders do today. They will take the reins and with courage, creativity and perseverance lead us in to a new era.
“We can do it!” was the slogan pasted on posters of Rosie the Riveter during the Second World War encouraging women to help in the war effort. This poster has always been one of my favorites. Roise is strong, powerful, and above all hopeful. The job can be done and we can do it! Women should raise a new version of this poster across the community today.
I am profoundly hopeful that the very real obstacles women face in the culture of leadership in the Jewish community will be overcome. We have slowly been moving towards more inclusion of women in leadership roles in the Jewish community over the past 30 years. More must be done. But I see it happening. The income inequality gap will close. Parental leave and flex time policies will be instituted, and women will rise as leaders in established Jewish Institutions and as founders of new projects yet to be launched.
The women I sat with this week are my hope. They go to work each day fighting for a better world for all. The psalmist asked “I turn my eyes to the mountain from where will my hope come?” My hope comes from the stories and leadership of these women. We have a lot to look forward to!
An Orthodox rabbinic colleague Rabbi Zev Farber recently posted on Morethodoxy a piece on the experience of place women have in Orthodox synagogues. He concludes his post with: “Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakhah and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.”
In response to this, I posted a comment to him “While I share the sentiments here, I am wondering why Rabbi Farber has written what is essentially a thirty or forty year old dated post, including the Flintstone and Ozick references. My fifty two year old wife would vigorously nod in agreement and my age seventeen and twenty seven daughters’ eyes would glaze over and say deal with it”. (My twenty four year old is a less frequent synagogue attendee, but the one she attends less frequently would be Orthodox.)
It is interesting where we draw our lines in the sand. My daughters would never put up with being denied equal access to Jewish text, but are more at peace with ritual inequality or difference. They do not harbor a secret desire to put on tefillen. As my daughter put it “Why would I? Nobody in my community does”.
I am left to wonder why this is the case. What changed between my wife’s generation and my daughters’? I think part of the answer is that my daughters are the beneficiaries of those women and men who came before them and fought the battles, created the learning environments and opened up the doors of the Beit Midrash. What is striking is that the ritual practices per se are not the issue. The fact that their voices can now be heard appears to be critical. They are not silent but engaged participants in the debates of Jewish life. If they are not bothered by not being able to read Torah, it is because their voices can still be heard in the Beit Midrash actively engaging our sacred texts.
In a different vein, but I think not unrelated, I see a liberal approach to social issues. On the one hand they are committed to Taharat Hamishpacha (family purity laws) and there was no question my daughter would cover her hair after her wedding. However my sense is that on issues confronting their gay friends, my daughters simply want their friends to be happy in whatever relationship they are in.
In acquiring a voice and becoming active learners, these young Orthodox women are at peace with their place in the synagogue. They love the best of the Orthodox community, but they retain their moral voice. As committed to halakhah as they are, they retain their sovereign self.
Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”
This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.
Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.
But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.
As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”
But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.
In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.
So will I eat peanuts this Passover?
I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”
Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.
I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves. But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.
This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech. On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech. This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.
On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that. Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else). That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.
At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side. It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective. I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.
It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech. But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it. Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard. They set the tone for the rest of us.
A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012
There is no conformity for liberal Jewish women in the synagogue when it comes to wearing a head covering. Look around you the next time you go to a bar/bat mitzvah. How many women and post bat mitzvah girls are wearing a kippah? Is the female rabbi wearing any kind of headgear? Does it vary from denomination to denomination? Is there a growing cultural tradition that is evolving in the 21st century? Are Jewish women being shaped by what we wear or don’t wear on the bimah?
Enter Diaspora Girl, a website that sells sassy headcoverings for the girl who wants to “rock” on a Shabbat morning at the local temple. The site asks women to decide between “those flimsy little white things at the door of the shul that look like Thanksgiving turkey decorations” and their affordable and spiritual hip designer hats. If you are a modern Jewish girl who likes the idea of ritual headgear, but you are “cognizant of the fact that traditional kippot look about as cool on women as sandals with black socks look on men” then these hand-made gems are calling you to take action with a credit card.
What is a Diaspora Girl? According to the owner, Rina Barz Nehdar, a diaspora girl is someone who refuses to conform to the mainstream. They have their own thing going on and the power and the chutzpah to stand out from the crowd.
“The women most attracted to my product are women who are trying to find their niche in the Jewish world without giving up their individuality,” writes Nehdar.
Diaspora’s funky and feminine kippot are crocheted from cotton and/or cashmere and are adorned with beads, sequins and ribbons. Each style has a fun name, “Dreamcatcher,” “Japanese Blossom,” Goldilocks and “Belladonna.” Women like choices in their style of headgear. A skullcap by every other name looks and feels ritually different.
Are they cooler to wear than hats or kippot for women? Do they really prevent “hat hair”? Inquiring heads want to know!
When I began leading Shabbat services during rabbinical school, I dressed up for prayer. A weaver from Asheville, North Carolina supplied me with a dozen kippot of various shapes and colors and yarns. No black yarmulkes for me. I am a fashion-conscious female rabbi looking to distinguish myself and my wardrobe from the masculine model. My tallit matches my kippah and sometimes the color of my dress. As a rabbi pioneer on the bimah, I continue to cause a red carpet stir at the Oneg.
Today, when I walk into a reform synagogue, a kippah on a woman is an anomaly. In Conservative synagogues those white doilies are still quite popular. More women wear a tallit and a kippah during a Reconstructionist service. I continue to individuate my synagogue look. By definition, I am a diaspora girl.
My eldest daughter Na’ama wore a kippah and a tallit at her Conservative bat mitzvah in 1985. She has not worn her handmade prayer accouterments for 27 years. Perhaps these funky hip kippot will convince her to be another diaspora girl. It is never too late to begin a trend even in my own family where the heads of three girls lie in the balance. Let’s all go funky! My treat!
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.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
The words of this song reverberated in my head on Friday night as I attended a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both men are being remembered this weekend. Though from very different traditions, they became friends and fought for justice and civil rights together in the sixties.
The power of their work and the words they preached hold a special significance for me this year. Earlier in the day on Friday, I attended a meeting about female rabbis and their job placement issues. Last spring, all rabbis faced a very difficult job market, but women, older rabbis, and single rabbis had especially hard times finding jobs. Congregations gravitate towards male rabbis in their thirties who are married and have young children. The meeting I attended was to help brainstorm ways to cut through this narrow image of what a rabbinic leader looks like. Many ideas were shared; one was to have a “Diversity Shabbat” during which time congregations would learn about women rabbis. I interjected “and gay rabbis too” another woman said, “and single rabbis.” “Well, wait a minute” a voice said, “I don’t know that we want to lump together women and gay rabbis. A gay rabbi can hide that he or she is gay on a resume, but a woman can’t. We need to stand up for ourselves and protect our interests.”
I was shocked by this response. The Conservative Movement only recently decided to ordain openly gay rabbis, and it is still controversial in some circles just as women’s ordination was almost twenty years ago. (And some will argue still is.) However, I strongly believe that once the Movement decides to ordain a particular class of rabbis like, women and gays, then the Movement must support all of its rabbis and help them find jobs. For a woman rabbi, herself a minority to stand up and say that we should not be concerned with the plight of gay rabbis is abhorrent to me. We are all in a very small boat together. If we do not protect and stand up for each other, then we are all going to sink. Dr King’s famous line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” speaks to me loud and clear.
Add to this that the meeting took place in a congregation in Bergen County New Jersey. Over the past few weeks four synagogues in the county have been vandalized. In the last event, a rabbis home was firebombed while the rabbi and his children slept inside, just as black activists homes where firebombed in the south in the sixties. Luckily the rabbi and his family escaped with only minor injuries. http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local/new_jersey&id=8498756 As a result of this criminal activity police are actively patrolling the streets around every synagogue in Bergen County.
Seeing a police car sitting outside of both the synagogues I attended this shabbat was at once reassuring and anxiety provoking. The anxiety came from the fact that the police felt we needed protection, and then, the fact that they were there was reassuring. It was a strange mix of emotions. I would rather the need for them to be there did not exist at all.
But there is a need. There is still a need for Jews to be protected in this country. There is still a need for African Americans to treated equally. There is still a need for homosexuals to be seen as created in God’s image like every other human being. And there is still a need for women to fight for their rights. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”
On this day when we remember the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King we need to stand up and fight for justice, for equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal pay. We cannot let minorities turn on each other as they fight over a very small slice of pie. And we cannot let hate and fear take over our communities. I hope you take some time today to both remember and to take action. What injustices affect your life? Start there and then work to help others.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
People often ask me why I decided to become a rabbi. Some would say in a condescending tone, “You want to be a rabbi? What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish girl?” In response, I would smile and say, “A very good job, thank you.” But it would not be lost on me that those who expressed this question did not think that women should be rabbis. Though I entered rabbinical school almost a decade after the Conservative Movement started ordaining women, and almost two decades after the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements had done the same, a woman becoming a rabbi was still an oddity.
My path seemed strange to almost everyone I encountered. There were no rabbis in my family, so I was not building on a family tradition, and I did not grow up going to Jewish camps or day schools. I did however have a rich Jewish home life, and discovered Jewish feminism in college. Jewish feminism hooked me. Yes, I know, this sounds strange to many. But I voraciously read about the Jewish women’s movement and emerging feminist theologies in writings by Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg, Rachel Adler, and Paula Hyman. Their way of looking at the traditionally patriarchal Jewish tradition through a feminist lens captivated me. My mind whirled with images of a female God, of women’s seders, and stories based on female biblical characters. This was my way into Judaism. I saw that Judaism was not a closed tradition ruled by men is long beards, but rather was something living and growing before my eyes. The idea that I could add my voice to creating new rituals, writing new stories, and opening up Jewish wisdom to others excited me. And so, I found myself applying to rabbinical school much to everyone’s surprise.
What I encountered when I entered the professional Jewish world was not quite what I expected. I naively thought that the major battles had been won. Women could be rabbis right? That meant that the Jewish world was open to women in leadership roles, that women would get jobs, be paid equal salaries, and not suffer sexual harassment and stereotyping right? Right?
Take a look at the survey published last week by the Jewish Daily Forward. The article’s title says it all, “Gender Equality Elusive in Salary Survey.” In the Jewish professional world, Jewish non-profits, women earn 62.5 cents to every dollar a man earns, and women make up just 12% of the top leadership positions. An article in The New York Jewish Week last spring chronicled the difficulty women rabbis are having finding jobs. Surveys of women rabbis also find that they are paid less then male rabbis in the same positions and that a stained glass ceiling exists. Only one woman in the Conservative Movement is serving a congregation with more than 500 families. (The larger the congregation, the larger the salary of the rabbi, generally speaking.)
Contrast this to an article in the New York Times this week with the tile, “ They Call it the Reverse Gender Gap” which states that: “For starters, young women today — and not just in the United States — are moving quickly to close the pay gap, or in some cases have closed it already. ….Women are ahead of men in education (last year, 55 percent of U.S. college graduates were female). And a study shows that in most U.S. cities, single, childless women under 30 are making an average of 8 percent more money than their male counterparts, with Atlanta and Miami in the lead at 20 percent.”
There is more work to be done in the Jewish community. I am still inspired by the first wave of Jewish women who fought for women to be counted equally in a minyan, who argued that women could be synagogue presidents, read from the Torah, and be rabbis. This week, as one of the women who inspired me down my path, Dr. Paula Hyman, who was the was one of the founders of Ezrat Nahim a Jewish consciousness-raising group that advocated for women’s equality in American Jewish life, and who went on to be the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, died from cancer. her death is a wake up call. Though women have accomplished a great amount in the past thirty years, there is more work to be done!
Many borders still exist in the Jewish community. In the next thirty years I hope to see them come down. Women who choose to enter the rabbinate, or become leaders in Jewish non profits should have the same opportunities as men, and should be paid the same salaries. According to The New York Times, the rest of America is already there. The Jewish community should be too. I want other women to be excited about what they see happening in both secular and religious Jewish life and want to join it, just as I did. They should not encounter low salaries, organizations run mainly by men while women make up 90% of the other positions, and lack of parental leave.
My path into Judaism and the rabbinate may have been strange. But I fully believe that there are many paths someone can take. We need to keep those paths open and welcoming. We are all created in the image of God. It is time we treated each other that way.
Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Paula Hyman