Sweet voices and sour fanatics

By Sylvia Rothschild, November 5, 2012

Even to write this seems surreal. A woman is arrested and removed from a holy site by the police. The place? The Kotel, in Jerusalem.

Her alleged crime? Wearing a tallit and saying the Shema out loud with a group of women.

Anat Hoffman, who chairs the equal rights group, Women of the Wall, has told of how she was strip-searched and handcuffed, left in a cell overnight without contact with her lawyer. Anat, who calls herself as “a tough cookie”, was frightened and miserable.

She was released the next day. But, as she says, “what is the purpose of arresting a woman, interrogating her, questioning witnesses and spending hours writing reports, if at the end charges are never made?”

Why are women’s voices being suppressed, and why is the state of Israel complicit when its founding principles state the opposite?

Why do the police arrest women who pray and not men who throw chairs?

The issue stems from the rabbinic idea of kol isha ervah — that a woman’s voice is licentiousness. But, in fact, the biblical source for this has been turned on its head.

In Song of Songs, it says: “let me hear your voice (ki kolech areiv) for your voice is sweet”. This suggests a clear belief that women’s voices should be heard and are sweet (areiv).

In the Talmud, in a discussion about saying Shema in the presence of a woman, Shmuel puns on this: a woman’s voice is no longer areiv, but nakedness (ervah). But this was not codified into halachah until the 16th century, when Beit Yosef wrote: “it is, in any event, good to be cautious before the fact not to… hear the voice of a woman singing during the recitation of Shema.”

So, by talmudic times, a biblical verse describing the sweet voices of women has been reinterpreted to suggest an intentional sexual provocation if she sings in the presence of a man reciting the Shema. And, by the 16th century, the rabbis are seeking to quieten women’s voices rather than encouraging men to concentrate harder on their prayer. And, by today, we have the view that women’s voices should simply not be heard.

Let’s be clear. Women pray in the bible. Their voices are heard. Hannah prays in the Temple and, ironically, is accused of mocking prayer because she is moving her lips soundlessly. The priest expects to hear her voice and is suspicious when he doesn’t.

There is nothing pious or authentically Jewish about suppressing the voices of women at prayer. Responsa (rabbinic guidance on halachah) always takes into account context, culture and norms even when discussing women’s voices. But, today, it seems that the reverse is happening — context, culture and norms are being forged from the decision to criminalise women’s voices, and the history of women’s prayer is being buried.

Why are women being forced out of the public domain? Why are parts of the Jewish world (the marginalisation of women in this way is not limited to Israel) legitimising misogyny? Why is the Kotel becoming the most Orthodox of synagogues, rather than a place of prayer for all Jews? Why, when the Declaration of Independence says Israel will offer “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” are police arresting the women who are trying to pray, rather than the men who are throwing chairs at them from the other side of the mechitzah?

Women’s voices and even their images are being suppressed and removed from public discourse by a fanatic few claiming theirs is the authentic Jewish response. It is not. And we cannot let it become so. It must be challenged whenever and wherever it happens. In the words of Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep my peace. Anat and the Women of the Wall will not. I will not. Will you?

Sylvia Rothschild is a rabbi at Wimbledon & District Synagogue

Last updated: 7:45am, November 5 2012