Kol Isha—the voice of a woman. In many Orthodox circles, it is forbidden to hear the voice of a woman singing publicly.
I was not expecting concerns around kol isha to come up in the egalitarian community where I have been blessed to serve a congregation for 18 years. Yet when a community-wide Chanukah menorah lighting was being planned, it was pointed out that if I were to sing the Orthodox community would not be able to be a sponsor of the event.
I have been a cantor over 40 years—since the age of 19. I’m a fourth-generation cantor whose family was almost completely destroyed in the Holocaust.
You’re really going to tell me I can’t sing in public?
The debates around kol isha are based on one sentence uttered by the Amora Samuel in Babylon, circa 220 CE. Samuel said “kol b’isha ervah—a woman’s voice is like nakedness, unchaste, and improper.” Over the centuries, this phrase has been expanded with rabbinic interpretations, until the Rabbi Moshe Sofer (who died in 1839) ruled that hearing a woman’s voice was forbidden. Later rabbinic authorities concurred, leading much of Orthodox Judaism, including Chabad and other Hassidic communities, to embrace this ruling.
According to the heteronormative Orthodox interpretation, the voice of a woman is so sensual it would distract men from concentrating on prayers. Because women have more self-control, we can listen to men, but men are so weak they would be tempted. As Golda Meir wisely said many years ago when the government suggested a curfew for women in order to address sexual violence, “If men are the ones raping, let them have the curfew!” If a woman’s voice is so distracting to men, then, get some control of yourself!
This is not about the Orthodox versus the non-Orthodox. In fact, it was an Orthodox, Lubavitch-leaning progressive rabbi who told me I should lead the High Holy Day services for the 2000 member Conservative congregation at Boston University Hillel in 1976. He said that kol isha didn’t apply to the modern world anymore. This Orthodox rabbi encouraged my cantorial career because he understood that a centuries-old interpretation of a statement in 220 CE couldn’t rationally be applied in the present day.
I began studying to be a cantor at a time when there were very few other women in the profession, though I grew up surrounded by hazzanut. (Both my father and my grandfather were cantors.) I was the second woman to serve a Conservative full-time pulpit in Norwalk, CT, in 1981. In 1982, I founded a national organization of women cantors to strengthen each other, sing and learn together. The Women Cantors’ Network, now with a membership of over 250, is a lifeline for many women (and a few men) in the cantorate, and I’m very proud of its journey.
Indeed, the American Jewish community has gone on a journey striving towards gender equity. The majority of the cantors recently ordained are now women. We have a right to lead our synagogues and communities in a public platform. So why are we still worrying about kol isha? That my not singing at a community event was ever considered is problematic, and demonstrates that this is an issue that needs to be discussed openly. Should the views of a few dictate the direction of an event for the entire community?
A follower was surprised I was so upset, “It’s not about you, it’s not about your voice.”
You’re right. It’s about the voice of every woman who wants to sing in public! It’s about respect for the American Jewish community, which is now led by hundreds of women rabbis and cantors.
I won’t be told that my voice is not welcome in public because of an extreme belief based on an interpretation that is not actually Jewish law. Customs and traditions have been reinterpreted over the centuries. It’s past time that we reinterpret this one.
If hearing a woman’s voice is not acceptable to some, then please stay away from our public celebrations and gatherings, so you won’t be tempted by the voice of a woman cantor.
Our tradition says, “Don’t separate yourself from the community.”
We are the community.
Don’t separate yourself from us.