Silencing Women's Voices: Time To Speak Up
Fri, 02/15/2013
Special To The Jewish Week

I was riveted by the recent story of an Orthodox Israeli young woman, Ophir Ben-Shetreet, who sang beautifully on the Israeli talent-search program, “The Voice,” and as a result was suspended from her Orthodox school for two weeks because of the prohibition against women singing in public if men are present.  Ophir’s performance and evident charm inspired people around the country.  The judges praised her as “modest” and “pure,” and she could serve as a role model for young Orthodox women who feel the desire to express themselves and develop their talents.  Instead, she was condemned.

We in the Orthodox Women’s Leadership Project deplore the attempt to prevent her from utilizing her talents and pursuing her dreams because she’s female.  Israel is not a totalitarian country, true, and she could choose to attend a different school.  Our problem is not with the school’s actions, but with a system that insists that a young woman cannot share her passion for singing in a public forum. 

Rabbi Zvi Arnon, of Ophir’s moshav, said, “There is not a single rabbi who will permit a woman to sing in front of men.”  As an empirical statement, this is false.  More importantly, poskim [religious decisors] throughout the generations have known that different individuals sometimes need different answers.  Whatever the general ruling ought to be, perhaps when faced with a young woman with such talent and passion for song, the opinions that allow such singing (a popular view among some rabbinic sages), should be invoked.

The larger, more serious problem, however, is not the silencing of this one particular voice, but the silencing of voices of Orthodox women in general. Our community is filled with passionate, articulate, educated, and thoughtful women – who care about the halachic tradition and who strive to integrate religious values into their personal and communal lives. Yet, their voices are not heard. Our community has not found a way to promote the thought leaders who exist among this constituency. They are underrepresented in our congregations, on our organizational boards, and at the helm of our schools.

Also recently, Prof. Vered Noam wrote a searching and heart-wrenching piece in Musaf Shabbat about the “inner barriers” created within ourselves, largely because of the gender roles within our religious practices.  She describes contemporary zimmun [the communal invitation to birkat hamazon] practice insightfully: men and woman eat together, converse together, discuss together, laugh together, clean up together, and then separate for the religious part of the meal, on the halachic grounds that men and women shouldn’t mingle.  As Noam says, the women are not marginalized by this process; the significance of zimmun is.  When professional and intellectual women are barred from any meaningful role in shul, it is not the women who suffer, but the integrity of the shul experience.

Women have never found a real place within Orthodox shuls, because Orthodox shuls have never found a real place for women.  Increasingly, women choose to disengage rather than attend as passive observers. I experience this on Friday nights when my daughter and I are among the few women in the women’s section. As she grows more intelligent and sensitive, it is becoming more challenging to convince her that this is worthwhile. Is it better for women to stay at home and read contemporary magazines on the couch rather than take part in a meaningful religious experience? We have not heard talk of a crisis, perhaps because our communal leaders do not experience this on the most intensely personal level, as only a woman could. And this may simply be because our leaders are overwhelmingly men.

The pressing need of our community is to get our women’s voices heard from positions of leadership. When our rabbinic leadership discusses whether something is halachically legitimate, or communally desirable, women are by definition not participating. To effect change, we need to restructure our communal institutions and make systemic changes so that female leaders are represented across the board. Beyond debating whether a ritual practice may be open to women, our male leaders need to be partners in promoting our women as thought leaders.

For years I have watched with intrigue and envy as our rabbis have been able to take the time to think, write and respond to weighty issues in a way that few Orthodox women can emulate, for practical reasons.  Given our current model, rabbis have time built into their schedules and are paid as part of their professional responsibilities to think, write and speak, with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place for all of humanity. If the other 50 percent of our population were heard in the same way, our world would only be that much better.

Shira Hecht-Koller, Esq. teaches Talmud at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. She is a founding member of the Orthodox Women’s Leadership Project.

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Do you hear your selves? She is singing in front of a man...why is that so bad. just because she is a girl it doesn't mean that she doesn't have rights. She should be allowed to sing if she wants, besides singing is different then exposing yourself,and it is not like men are allowed to expose themselves but they are allowed to sing so... Also how is singing in public any different than singing prayers at synagogue and why does it matter if it is a group or just one women? In short I believe that women should have the same rights as men.

Right.Time to speak up from the comfort of the United States .If you want to make a change move to Israel and vote. Preaching to our brothers and sisters there is disrespectful.

קול באשה ערוה
is a Gemarah, you cannot pick which Gemarah you want to accept, and which -ch"v- not to accept.
you have an option to say you reject Judaism, so don't call yourself Jewish week, rether call it "secular week" or Islamic week"...

מים [ראשונים ו]אחרונים חובה
is also a Gemara. Yet most people do not do mayim achronim anymore. That's because it was interpreted in a way to remove the chova. So apparently, we can indeed reject certain things in the gemara.

קול באשה ערוה are 3 words in a vast sea of Halacha and its interpretation. They have already been analyzed and recorded in various books of Jewish law and taking a leap from ruling leniently on a question to being not Jewish (the Islamic week) is quite an accusation. I encourage people to read this blog post (http://morethodoxy.org/2013/01/31/i-do-not-know-if-ophir-ben-shetreet-will-remain-observant-but-if-she-doesnt-i-may-know-the-reason-why-barry-gelman/) where it is very obvious that there are multiple approaches, within the Jewish world, to evaluate this law. While I can respect those who are strict in this law, to call those who are not as strict not Jewish, is a dangerously wrong way to think.

I was taught in school that the prohibition is against men listening to an individual woman sing (women singing together is not prohibited). The prohibition is not against women singing when a man is present. It is incumbent upon the man not to hear this, it is not incumbent on the woman not to sing in front of a man. In other words, a woman can sing wherever & however she would like to, but man who does not want to hear a woman sing for religious reasons must remove himself from the situation.

Perhaps that is correct when no external factors are considered. However, this was a case when she got up in front of an audience which was in no way exclusively female and sang. (If it helps, consider the parallel case when other areas which are considered עריות are involved. Can a woman expose herself in public and claim that it's permitted since it's incumbent on men to not look? Doubtful, to say the least.) To say that it was not a violation of the halachot of קול אישה borders on the ridiculous.

Actually, according to this logic, that the prohibition is incumbent upon the man not to hear the "erva" of the woman's voice, would it be ok for a woman to walk in public with a short skirt or short pants? After all, the prohibition is upon the man seeing the erva, and is (to paraphrase your post) NOT INCUMBENT ON THE WOMAN NOT TO show her thighs IN FRONT OF A MAN. IN OTHER WORDS, A WOMAN CAN show her thighs WHEREVER AND HOWEVER.... The point I'm positing is that if its erva, then its immodest behavior to do in public, whether or not a man is actually present.

Yashar Koachech on this article. I really enjoyed it and it makes an excellent point about the way women are perceived in religious environments and leadership roles. Great job, Ms. Hecht-Koller, I'm proud to attend a school that has teachers and role models like you.

I think it's interested that the article sees the solution as "restructur[ing] our communal institutions and mak[ing] systemic changes so that female leaders are represented across the board[,]" because "women are by definition not participating [because they are not rabbis]." To me, the solution had always been to make women rabbis - whatever that means (Rabba, Maharat, whatever) - so they have the same exact role in the process as men. This article gave me a new perspective; instead of adding to the rabbinate, we could perhaps extend the roles who can make the executive decisions currently exclusively reserved to them.

This is pure speculation, but I think this model (expanding who can make decisions and lead the community) would be both (a) more likely to be accepted by the community and (b) more fundamentally radical in terms of how it affects the power of the rabbinate. I think a true expansion of this power would change how our community, and the values and halacha we shape, operates, and I think this would more likely be a gradual shift and require a significant change in mentality about leadership and power. Meanwhile, while adding female rabbis would be radical in its inclusion of women (and also less likely to permeate the entire community), I think it would be less of a shift in how it affects the general power of the rabbinate. Whether we'd want to change this general hierarchy is a completely separate question, though I feel it's a question worth asking.

While I have always felt strongly about the acceptance of female rabbis, perhaps the community is more likely to adapt towards the inclusion of women in this way (the model you suggest), since it is less of a "lighting rod" issue for the media to explode on. Either way, some sort of change is clearly needed, and I think we're beginning to see how the community shapes itself around these ideas. I'd also be curious to know what you think of the model of female rabbis.

Thank you for this article.

Very insightful! I agree that there is a lot of latent frustration produced in the Jewish community as a result of these issues. I'd only like to add that it is not only halachah, but certain of our social values that cause this unequal distribution of leadership. Modesty, for example, or rather the misinterpretation of it, is a value often conflated with halachah and too frequently used as grounds for preventing women from taking more public roles. In order for this problem to be addressed the Jewish community needs to seriously rethink what our values mean to us as well as how those values relate to halachah and how they don't.

I wholly disagree with your suggestion that halacha could be melded so that Ophir could sing publicly. It is in-line with Blu Greenberg's assumption that "If there is a Rabbinic will, there is a Halakhic way." Such thinking transforms halakha into an obstacle course, such that we can avoid uncomfortable things if it isn't to our liking.

Aside from that, your article taps on a important issue in our community -- the lack of female voices. This is an article which you may enjoy: http://www.kolhamevaser.com/2012/12/our-side-of-the-mehitsah-an-open-letter/

The author claims to speak for women "who care about the halachic tradition". At the same time, the author has a problem "with a system that insists that a young woman cannot share her passion for singing in a public forum."

The problem with such a position is that the halachic tradition is the source that says women should not sing in public.

While it is true, as the author mentions, that there is a very small minority view that the tradition to prohibit women singing in public doesn't apply today, the vast majority of authorities hold that it does. If so, why is it wrong for the 'system' to be in adherence with the vast majority of halachic authorities? (Or for a school to adopt the majority view?)

Is it the author's position that current halachic authority's positions are not valid because they are male and don't represent a female view?

Please correct the translation error. Zimmun is not "singing songs at the Shabbat table", but te introduction to Grace After Meals. Zemirot are songs.

For clarification, zimmun is the obligation of communal invitation to birkat hamazon, not as the editorial insertion translates, "singing songs at the Shabbat table."

I agree with much of the body of the article, but I take issue with the first section, and more issue with the attempt to connect it to the article's main argument. It is the opinion of many if not most rabbic authorities that what Ms. Ben-Shetreet did is halachically forbidden, and the school acted in accordance with its halachic opinion. To look good disobeying halacha is not inspiring to Orthodox women; it is, on the contrary, a stumbling block, encouraging a priority shift away from observance. If her five minutes of fame had been due to performing on Shabbat, I am certain she would not be mentioned in the article, and I find it troubling that Ms. Hecht-Koller allows herself to judge the school's actions based on her more liberal halachic view. It is particularly problematic that the fact that there is a halachic dispute that underlies her condemnation is not made explicit.
More importantly, it is wrong to put this in the context of "silencing voices." That the phrase can even apply is only due to equivocating the literal and metaphoric. Ben-Shetreet did not have her opinions ignored or dismissed: she was rebuked for literally singing. The challenges involving women's role in the halachic process is a completely separate issue, and it is one that ought to be far less controversial. Hecht-Koller's desire that a prohibition be overturned is revolutionary; her desire that women not have their social and intellectual status downgraded as soon as halacha is discussed is not. To tie up women's leadership roles with the less stringent observance that Ms. Hecht-Koller advocates is not only wrong, it is quite likely alienating of the more stringent members of Orthodoxy and ultimately counter-productive.

The term "zimmun" is not translated properly.

Nice job Ima! I totally agree with you on that!

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