Hear Our Voices

The wonderful Anat Hoffman was arrested  recently at the Kotel, for the crime of saying the Shema out loud there with a group of women who were in Israel celebrating the Hadassah centennial birthday. Even to write this sentence seems surreal – how much more so for the people who experienced this event and what followed. Anat was handcuffed and her legs shackled, she was strip searched, dragged along the floor, and finally left in a cell with a young woman accused of prostitution who herself was the target of lewd remarks from the staff.  She was not allowed to call her lawyer.  There was no bed in the cell where she was held overnight. Anat, who describes herself rightly as “a tough cookie” was frightened and miserable.

No charges were made and the next day a court released her on condition she did not go to the Kotel for 30 days.  Why was this allowed to happen? As Anat herself says “What is the purpose of arresting a woman, interrogating her, collecting video footage of her every move, questioning witnesses and spending hours writing reports, if at the end charges are never made? I believe the purpose of this harassment and treatment is to wear down the leaders of our women’s prayer group, to exhaust us into giving up our struggle for these rights.”

I consider myself to be one of the Women at the Wall and am part of their Chevra. I daven with them on the rare occasions I am in Israel on Rosh Hodesh – they actually only go to pray the  morning service once a month, early in the morning, and in accordance with constraints imposed upon them take their torah scroll around the corner to the Robinsons Arch area to read it. (Bizarrely the perceived holiness of the wall appears to the ultra orthodox ‘minders’ to be only where it meets the Kotel plaza.)  Like thousands of men and women around the world, I care about what happens to this relatively small group of women from across the religious community who choose to pray together at the site of the Temple in Jerusalem.  I care because they are looking after some of the most important values in my Judaism – of mutual respect, of sensitivity both to prayer and to the complex differences in prayer that are the signature of the Jewish world, that all people are able to pray in peace and community, that every voice is heard.

Why are women’s voices being suppressed in some ultra conservative Jewish communities, and why is the State of Israel complicit with this suppression when its founding principles state the exact opposite?

The phenomenon is known as “Kol isha erva”, which could be translated as “a woman’s voice is licentiousness” and even a cursory study of this concept shows an increasingly narrowing of interpretation over time until it becomes the exact opposite of the original biblical statement. In Song of Songs we read the verse O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.’ (2:14) “let me hear your voice “Ki kolech arev” for your voice is sweet”. Whoever wrote that beautiful book which is found in Tanach clearly believed that women’s voices should be heard and that they are sweet (arev). In the Talmud, in a discussion specifically about saying the Shema in the presence of a woman who may be sexually alluring, one rabbi uses this verse and puns upon it – a woman’s voice is no longer sweet (areiv) but nakedness (ervah) [Berachot 24a].  This particular pun does not seem to become codified into halachah at the time – it develops over time and in hardens only in the sixteenth century – the great codifier Joseph Caro makes this clear when he writes “but it is, in any event, good to be cautious before the fact not to see hair and hear the voice of a woman singing during the recitation of Shema.”[Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 75]. This language makes clear that there is no general existing prohibition at the time of writing.

So a biblical verse used to describe the sweet voices of women singing is reinterpreted in the third century to suggest an intentional sexual provocation that might happen if a woman were to sing in the hearing of a man intent on praying Shema, and then by the sixteenth century the solution seems to have been not to get men to concentrate harder on their prayer but to quieten women’s voices – and this then hardens into the view that women’s voices should simply not be heard.

Let us be clear. Women pray in the bible. Their voices are heard. Rebecca goes to enquire of God when her pregnancy is hard. Hannah prays in the Temple itself – and ironically is accused of mocking prayer because she is speaking only in her heart and moving her lips soundlessly – The priest expects her to make a sound and is suspicious when she doesn’t. There is nothing pious or authentically Jewish about suppressing the voices of women at prayer. For every source that demands this kind of modesty from women, there are other sources that say quite the opposite. The responsa literature has always taken into account context, culture and norms when judgements are decided and this has historically happened even in the discussion about women’s voices. It seems that the reverse process is now happening – context, culture and norms are being created by the decision to criminalise women’s voices at prayer, and the history of women’s prayer is being buried by a modern kind of fundamentalism.

So if this prohibition is being used more and more in the modern world to shut women out from the public domain, we have to ask ourselves why – what is going on in some parts of the Jewish world that the men want to assert such a misogynistic power? What are some men so terrified of living alongside that it has come this week to the arrest and violent treatment of a middle aged woman for singing the Shema in prayer?. Why should the Kotel, remnant of the Temple and focal point for Jews across the world, become de facto the most orthodox of synagogues, rather than a place of prayer for all Jews? Why when Judaism has a strong tradition of recording all opinions rather than only the majority decision, should all voices that are not part of one world view in Judaism be silenced? And why when the declaration of Independence states that : “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will,, foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure 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; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” are the police involved in 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 have been arrested with increasing frequency for praying at the Kotel just like women pray all over the world. Their voices and even their images are being denied, suppressed, removed from public discourse by a fanatic few who claim that theirs is the authentic Jewish response. It is not. And we cannot sit back and let it become by default the assumed voice of Jewish authentic tradition.  This must be challenged every time and everywhere  it happens. In the words of the prophet Isaiah “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep my peace (62:1). Anat and the Women of the Wall will not. I will not. Will you?

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild October 2012

4 thoughts on “Hear Our Voices

  1. Israel is denying the principles on which it was founded, and which made it a beacon of enlightenment in the Middle East, and indeed the world. It is now adopting the fundamentalist re-interpretation of the holy book, which has so appalled us in other countries and religions in the region- as you so cogently ask us-why?

  2. Susan Buxfeld commented on Hear Our Voices

    you said “The degradation of Anat Hoffman by the Israel Police is a result of continual disrespect for the law when it conflicts with her sense of social justice. She refuses to accept that her dress and style of prayer at the monthly demonstration is repugnant and an anathema to the vast majority of regular worshipers, male and female, who also have a perfect right to reject and scorn the pluralism she espouses, that schismatizes Judaism, and that defies the two thousand years of Jewish scholarship. Where does she see in the holy Torah that she likes to carry and read from any proof of pluralism and egalitarianism?”

    my response: The degradation of any human being is against Jewish law and the force of Jewish tradition since Torah times. All people are created in the image of God, Bereishit reminds us that God created male and female both in the image of the divine. Bereishit 1:27. You seem to think that degrading people is a perfectly ok thing to do if they do things you don’ t like- well it isnt.

    You also seem unaware of the very many Jews who find that the values espoused by Anat Hoffman are important and not to be rejected or scorned, and this includes a significant number of haredi Jews. You do not seem to be aware of the history and evolution of Judaism as we know it today. I cannot possibly give you a lesson in this standing on one foot so to speak, but I am sure that if you were interested to do so you could learn a great deal about this.

    you said: “The assertion that the Kotel should become a place of prayer for all Jews (ie to do as you see fit), would deny the place to that vast majority who could not condone halachic improprieties in such a holy place.”

    My response – Isaiah chapter 56 verse 7 includes the idea that the House of God should be a place of prayer for all peoples. The Kotel is actually only a maintaining wall of the Temple, but as a relic of this place surely it should also strive to become aligned with the word of God as envisaged by the great prophet Isiaiah. Secondly – there is absolutely nothing improper halachically in what Anat Hoffman or the Women at the Wall do. Ask your rabbi.

    You said “The author of this blog then tries to pull the wool over the eyes by trying to defend female song while she knows full well that that the allusion to the female voice in Shir HaShirim is purely allegorical as is the reference to other parts of the female anatomy. And she knows full well that the Talmudical decision that Kol (Be?)Isha Erva only applies as a Torah law to those men who are reciting the Shema while listening to women singing and not to a prohibition of the female voice.”

    I reply – there is no wool pulling by me – I rather think the misdirection and misuse of texts is all in the domain of those who wish to silence the voices of women in the public sphere. With regard to Kol Isha – I think you will find that I said that this statement was made in the context of men reading shema with proper cavannah. So why do you think it is being invoked to stop women speaking in the public domain in all other situations? Because maybe you are unware of this, but it is being cited to stop school girls singing at yom hashoah events and women soldiers singing hatikvah at yom ha atzmaut.

    “Da’at Yehudit” that require women to be modest, by dressing and acting not provocatively, and not singing, in front of men is intimated in the Mishna, long before the sixteenth century and before the Talmud’s completion.

    Intimated in the mishnah? Really? Do tell. Who decided that something not at all specific in the text is ‘intimated’ ?

    It is more interesting to me that you call it Da’at Yehudit – the knowledge of women, when you actually mean Dat Yehudit – the practise of Jewish women. I would be delighted for women to increase their learning, for then they would make decisions for themselves and study the sources and reasons for responsa. Interestingly Dat Yehudit is understood to be the practises and customs that women take on for themselves that are not required or prohibited by scripture – they are the result of the free choice of women and they develop differently in different places and times. This is something that the Women of the Wall do. They are neither required nor prohibited from reading torah and praying together – they follow dat yehudit by following the custom of women all over the world as well as in Israel, in having a full prayer service together and they choose to do so at the Kotel.

    you said :”The assertions in the blog that “men want to assert such a misogynistic power” and that “some men so terrified of living alongside” are totally incorrect. Orthodox Jewish Women want to live their lives according to the Shulchan Aruch and as such the vast majority don’t feel the need to challenge their status”

    Maybe you dont know, but the Shulchan Aruch does not forbid women wearing tallit, praying the liturgy, praying out loud, reading Torah in a group of women etc etc. Do find out about the group who pray together at the kotel at rosh chodesh – they include a large number of orthodox women who are following shulchan aruch in their religious lives. The problem is not these women, it is most certainly not halacha nor is it any Jewish traditional prohibition. They are not seeking to lead men in prayer. They are not seeking to provoke men. These are spiritual and Jewishly educated women who come to pray in a place that belongs to the whole Jewish people and which, in the words of Isaiah, should be a place of prayer for all peoples.
    I am delighted that you read the blog and I do hope that this will not be the last thing you read on the subject. I respect your right to live your life in the way you choose, just please don’t tell other women that they must follow your decisions about life too if they want to be authentically Jewish, and please do continue to learn about Judaism and dig deeper into our wonderful sources rather than rely on any predigested material. It may be that dat yehudit was originally dat yehudim – in other words the customs of the Jews as differing from the law of Moses (Dat Moshe). If so, how wonderful that we Jews are expected to develop our customs in order to come closer to God, to come closer to kedushah, to bring the world into a better state, and how much more wonderful that while men may not always take this task upon themselves, women have continued to do so.
    with all good wishes
    Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

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