A new issue of the JOFA Journal will soon be in our subscribers’ mailboxes; its theme is Orthodox women in the performing arts and sports. The headline we’ve given it is “Raising our Voices”—because many of the articles deal with the topic of kol isha, a woman’s singing voice heard in public. But I think a better title might be “The Dance.” The difference is not about artistic genre, but concept. Let me explain.
A rabbi I highly respect once told me that halakha—Jewish law—is like a dance between the rabbis and the Jewish people. The rabbis are the leading partner, putting their arms around the people and guiding them this way and that. But if they are out of rhythm with the people, if both are not moving in the same direction, then the dance will fail and the dancers will be frustrated with each other.
Within this issue of the journal, one can see the dance in motion around the issue of kol isha. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, in a d’var Torah on Vayishlah, recalls Rashi’s question about the whereabouts of Dina, Jacob’s daughter, when Jacob was about to cross the river and confront his brother Esau. The Midrash tells us that Jacob had put Dina in a box to protect her, so that Esau would not lay eyes on her. However, Rashi tells us, because she had been inappropriately locked up, Dina became a yatzanit someone who “goes out,” and she fell into the hands of Shechem—to far worse consequences. Rabbi Herzfeld sees this story as instructive for the issue of kol isha, in which over-stringency has had the effect of drowning out the voices of women and girls in every context and thereby squelching their spirituality. He calls for a more nuanced view that takes into consideration the content of the singing, not just the gender of the singer.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s understanding of kol isha is presented in tandem with the voices of women who wish to pursue careers in singing and struggle with the notion of kol isha. They run the spectrum from the Hasidic women’s rock band Bulletproof Stockings, who only play for all-female audiences, to Neshama Carlebach, who, after years of conflict, has concluded that kol isha ”is an antiquated, misogynistic concept that has no place in our modern society.” Neshama believes that she is following her father Shlomo Carlebach‘s conviction in stating that, for her, singing is “a holy calling.”
We also hear the voice of the young woman, Ofir ben Shitrit, who placed second in the Israeli talent competition, “The Voice,” and was consequently suspended from her religious school. We meet the Glaser sisters, who sing together both on stage and around the Shabbat table. We hear singer Rebecca Teplow proclaim, “It cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to encourage hearing the inner voice of the soul’s yearning.” For each of these musical women, kol isha is no theoretical question, but is central to how they will live their lives and pursue their chosen paths.
There are few places in the Orthodox world where halakhic issues are discussed from the perspectives both of the rabbis and of the people for whom these decisions are critical. The JOFA Journal is a forum in which the voices of women struggling with, and living joyously with, halakha can be heard. It is a place where “the dance” that is the process of halakha can take place.
I have been hiding from the audience my entire life. I am not sure if this is because I have performance anxiety or that kol b’isha erva (a woman’s voice is nakedness) has presented an obstacle. Is it both? Has my anxiety been influenced by my fear that I am not being a “good girl” when I sing in public?
After many years of “hiding” from public performance, I’m stepping onto the stage. Just thinking about it sets my heart racing. Although I am still anxious because my education defined the Jewish woman in a certain way, I have come to the conclusion that it cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to help people hear their soul’s yearning for spiritual greatness. I now need to tap into my inner strength and model for my children, my students, and future generations what I believe.
I come to this concert with a singular idea: Orthodox women singing in public are an endangered species. Our people, theoretically guided by the maxim, “every Jew is responsible for all other Jews,” don’t even realize the importance of this species to the spiritual biosystem or even that it is in such danger.
Judaism teaches us to release ourselves to faith and connect to God through mitzvot. Through mitzvot, we realize that each of us is a living Sefer Torah, part of an infinite God. Everything emanates from our faith in God and our Jewish community. Much of this is accomplished by women, the core of Jewish families.
Women are creators of life, physical developers of the next generation. Jewish women also define spirituality in the home. We are Jewish because our mothers successfully connected their children to God.
“If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman “then song is the pen of the soul.” While God’s words of Torah flow down to our minds and actions, joyous song carries our souls upward to connect with the Almighty. Jewish women are connecting their children with words of Torah, but many are not tapping into the spiritual core of ecstatic singing that Rabbi Zalman spoke of.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s article, “Kol Ishah” states that many rabbis including, Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi David Bigman, agree that women may sing publicly. Many in our community have not adopted this view and run the risk of destroying our spiritual community if women are treated like Dinah and locked in a box. Rabbi Herzfeld writes: “If we deny the girls of our community the ability to express themselves through song, we run the very real risk of allowing them to be serenaded by an alternative influence.” Consider Neshama Carlebach’s recent announcement that she is “making aliyah to the Reform Movement.”
Rabbi Herzfeld further points out that by not allowing women to sing, the Orthodox community is teaching men that girls “are such erotic creatures that it is impossible to have an encounter with them that is not erotic…We are in fact reinforcing the notion that our spiritual personality cannot rise above our physical nature.”
After reading Rabbi Herzfeld’s article, my interest was sparked and I did some research. It seems that the word erva comes from the root ayin-raish-hey which means to uncover, bare oneself. The idea of revelation in this root seems to be more innocent than the Gemara’s later definition of erva as unchasteness or lewdness.
Right now I choose to understand the idea of a woman’s voice as revelatory – innocent and chaste – and my songs as pronouncing the Jewish truth of holiness that is a part of our lives.
The following experience describes how redemptive music can be:
Two years ago I was wheeled into emergency surgery on Yom Kippur. Still awake, the nurse asked if she could play my CD that I had given the surgeon. I had not heard my CD in years and did not sing or listen to my music the entire time I was sick. (Often, we drift from the things we need most in our lives.) Lying on the steel table, I nodded, closed my eyes, and heard Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing), while the anesthesiologist told me to count back from 20. This was my prayer on Yom Kippur.
To listen to Rebecca’s music and for information about her March 9th concert in Tenafly, go to rebeccateplow.com. All proceeds will benefit JOFA.