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