Kol ishah: the voice of a woman

Despite significant strides in past decades, women worldwide have yet to achieve egalitarianism. For example, recently in Iran, a woman who was originally found guilty of adultery was sentenced to death.

The United Nations continues to slide downward in repute and utility. In September 2011, it plans to convene Durban III in New York City, another conference ostensibly directed at stemming racism. The memory of the original World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 and its display of antisemitism should serve as a warning to avoid yet another UN-sponsored fiasco. Wisely, the Canadian government has decided not to participate in this charade.

And, recently, in “advancing” women’s rights, the UN has established an agency, designated UN Women, to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited from driving and require a male guardian’s permission to travel or to have surgery, has now been elected to the new agency’s board. The thought is mind-boggling.

In Canada, we should be proud of the gains made toward gender equality, although there is much yet to be achieved. Egalitarianism is an entrenched constitutional right through sections 15 and 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the courts have provided a thorough analysis as to the nature and meaning of those provisions. We have had a female prime minister. Of the nine judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, four are women including the chief justice of Canada. The Alberta Court of Appeal, the province’s highest court, is the only provincial court of appeal that includes more women than men, and the previous two Governors General were women.

We are readily offended by religious regimes that subjugate women, but what about our own faith community? Many rabbis, cantors, synagogue presidents and community leaders are female. But, sadly, branches of our community, in Canada and throughout the world, treat women as second-class citizens. In Israel recently, dozens of Haredim clashed with around 200 worshippers from the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The men were disturbed by the mixed prayer taking place, as well as by the women’s singing. Last summer, the group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, was arrested for praying in public with a Torah scroll.

Closer to home, we frequently encounter the prohibition against the “voice of a woman” in formal prayer, celebration and other facets of Jewish life. This prohibition can be traced to the Talmud, in particular, the Gemara, and connotes the notion that the voice of a woman is attractive to a man and that a woman’s singing will distract the man from prayer.

The issue of kol ishah, in terms of equality, is somewhat akin to the requirement of modesty. The dictates of modesty have led to several controversies in Quebec, including one at an exercise facility where women working out in front of full-length windows disturbed the sensibilities of chassidic men.

The prohibition of the voice of a women and the requirement of modesty underscore a view of the roles of men and women in traditional Judaism.

It’s time to re-think an outdated, antiquated and discriminatory view of the traditional roles and responsibilities of men and women. The Talmud is rich in interpretation and reinterpretation. Even Halachah has been the subject of interpretation. Nothing is immutable, nor should be fixed for all time, and even the “word of God” must be applied contextually as circumstances change through passing generations.

What should be immutable, if anything, is the notion of egalitarianism between genders and respect, dignity and equal opportunity for all members of our faith. Regarding the notion of modesty, what do the traditionalists fear – that men exposed to the voice and sight of a women will lose control or become so distracted as to render them incapable of prayer? This is insulting to men, just as the deprivation of participation in all facets of Jewish life is insulting to women.

Let us be uplifted, inspired and enriched by all voices that celebrate our rich heritage, including kol ishah, the voice of a woman.