With Shabbat Shirah approaching, the rabbis discuss whether kol isha will be the
next gender issue to fall by the wayside, or whether it’s a tradition worth protecting.
Rabbi YAEL SPLANSKY
holy Blossom Temple, toronto
Rabbi MARK FISHMAN
Congregation Beth Tikvah, MONTREAL
Rabbi Splansky: It will soon be Shabbat Shirah, when every congregation chants the songs attributed to Moses and Miriam at the shores of the sea. This is the first time in the Torah when Jewish prayer is set to music.
In a spontaneous celebration of their shared liberation, musical praises are offered by both men and women: “the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. Miriam then sang to them, ‘Sing to the Eternal God, who has triumphed gloriously; the horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.’”
Rabbi Fishman: What is so incredible about this passage is that while the men are singing on their own, a careful reading of the text teaches us that the women were also singing on their own, too. Miriam takes the lead and all of the women follow her.
It seems that singing is something that was done separately, or that the celebrations and revelry emerged with a separation between the sexes. Judaism has read elements into its texts and traditions where public, passionate expressions of emotion were conducted with women and men separate from one another.
Rabbi Splansky: And yet, the rationale for either limiting or silencing women’s voices when in the presence of men, referred to as kol isha, is to protect men from their own weaknesses. I always found this reasoning insulting to men and a dangerous definition of Jewish manhood.
The news of the day demands that men in all societal settings discover the dignity of self-control, so that women can be seen and heard without fear. Does the current conversation shed new light on the matter of kol isha?
Rabbi Fishman: I think there is much to say when it comes to how we view old or seemingly archaic laws and traditions. Take, for example, the case of yichud (the prohibition of a man being in seclusion with a woman who is not his wife). Many look upon this idea as old-fashioned and sexist, as if men are inherently unable to control themselves.
I think a large part of our world today, and especially the public conversations that are being had, are centred around self-control. Both men and women need to remind themselves that every person can be tempted when in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong person. I find that such laws, as opposed to being viewed as sexist or outdated, can actually be seen as providing guidelines for living a life limiting temptation.
Rabbi Splansky: I have joined with Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jewish women for public prayer at the Kotel. Our voices were nearly drowned out with screeching whistles blown by protesters – mostly young women.
Within much of the Orthodox world today, the leading and teaching voices of women are being heard and appreciated by both women and men. This is reason for celebration. Some authorities, however, draw a line between the spoken voice of a woman and the singing voice of a woman. Do you think it’s only a matter of time until the singing and praying voices of women are similarly welcomed?
Rabbi Fishman: The prophet Jeremiah made a beautiful point when looking toward the future redemption. He described that time as one where “a woman will encircle a man” (Jeremiah 31:22). While a lot of ink has been spilt on this verse and what its interpretation may mean, it is clear from many commentators that, in the future, there will no longer be the disparity between men and women that there is today. Rather, a sense of profound leadership and guidance will emerge specifically from women.
I see this already taking place. Some of the world’s leading Torah scholars and popular teachers are women. This is certainly the case in Israel, where hundreds are currently filling the seats in Israeli theatres and lecture halls to hear various women preach to the masses. As our world continues on its march toward redemption, it will be Jewish women leading the way.