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.
by Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray
There are more questions than answers. Perhaps there are no good answers anyway, but we must ask the questions to remain human. Elie Wiesel of blessed memory was the teacher of teachers, our modern day prophet who dared ask questions and dared to admit there are no good answers. His answer was to remember- remember the victims, remember the history of the victims and yet, reject despair and continue to hope.
Prof. Avinoam Patt, of the University of Hartford presented an excellent workshop at the Museum of Jewish Heritage last November. He acknowledged “the enormous challenge of teaching the Holocaust, and the sacred burden of memory.” He focused on literature, diaries, memoirs and fiction to help students develop empathy. The Diary of Chaim Kaplan shared fears, rumors, and the struggle of daily life. In l940, he thought this is the worst it could get- having no idea what was lying ahead in the concentration camps. In the face of life and death, remarkably the ghetto library still celebrated the loan of the 100,000th book. In A Diary in the Vilna Ghetto, Hermann Kruk shared, “ Today there was a celebration in the ghetto- the loan of the 100,00th book from the ghetto library...reading books in the ghetto is the biggest treat there is. Books link us to freedom; books connect us to the world.” If you want to understand Jewish values, it is right here- study, intellectual growth, and moral values. Prof. Wiesel taught us that having advanced degrees like the Nazi leadership was useless without moral and ethical education.
I remember a class with Prof. Elie Wiesel when he described the sheer joy and privilege of holding a prayer book. It shook me to my core- really? How many times have I held a prayer book, and how many times did I feel it was a privilege? This was the first time I understood the power of prayer- imagine being in a concentration camp and the mere act of owning a prayer book would be met with instant death.
Elie Wiesel described the power of holding a prayer book in your hands. The connection to our ancestor’s prayers, our prayers, our connection to G-d and the hope and strength we can get from that connection.
Reading and studying the diaries of the Holocaust can bring us closer to the hearts and souls that were lost. Those brave enough to defy the Nazis and write down the daily atrocities for future generations. Risking one’s life to write something you’re not even sure will survive you. The least we can do is read them and remember.
Primo Levi wrote, “ If This Is a Man”…I commend these words to you- carve them in your hearts…”
Elie Wiesel wrote in “ Night”, “ … never shall I forget those moments that murdered my G-d and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as G-d Himself. Never.”
This article was first published on Forward
Prof. Wiesel taught us that to be Jewish was not only a miracle but a holy responsibility to remember and continue.