Imagine a world without the voices of women.
In Reform Jewish communities, it is natural for a rabbi to lead her congregation in song, for a cantor to teach her favorite niggun during a Friday evening service, or for a young woman to lead birkhat hamazon, the blessing after meals, for her youth group. As a rabbinical student, I take the greatest joy in chanting Torah and creating lively musical services at my congregation. At our URJ summer camps, at our Biennial gatherings, at our synagogue Shabbat services, and beyond, music and song are essential to who we are as a movement. In our daily lives and in our sacred moments, a world without the voices of women would be dramatically different in the ways that we pray, sing, and connect with each other.
None of these practices are normative or acceptable in the halachic, traditional religious world. According to Jewish law, “kol b’isha erwah,” – a woman’s voice is considered a sexual incitement (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 24a; Kiddushin 70a) and should not be heard. This concept is commonly referred to as kol isha. The halachic proscription creates a world unimaginable in our congregations and communities: a world without the voices of women. Yet kol isha is among the exclusionary principles that continue to dictate the behavior, movement, and religious freedom of women who visit one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem – the Kotel, the Western Wall.
On Tuesday evening, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was arrested at the Western Wall for violating these restrictions, for the crime of wearing a tallit and lifting her voice in prayer. A long-time gender equality activist, Hoffman has been detained by police at the Kotel six times in over two decades as leader of Women of the Wall, a prayer group that meets monthly in the women’s section of the Kotel. This week, police arrested Hoffman with exaggerated violence in the middle of leading services celebrating the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization. Hoffman was arrested while she was proclaiming the Sh’ma, the central declaration of Jewish faith.
In the middle of our sacred words, Sh’ma, Yisrael, Hear, Oh Israel, Hoffman’s voice was silenced. I am proud to be part of a movement that deeply supports the equal participation of women and men in worship, music, and leadership roles. Calling to mind a melody composed by one of our pioneering women in music, Debbie Friedman (z”l), I am proud that I can sing another prayer: Sh’ma koleinu, Adonai Eloheinu! In this blessing, we ask God to hear all of our voices, to hear every voice. As we raise our voices against the restrictive policies of those controlling the access and actions of women at the Western Wall, we look toward a day when we will be able to overcome the prohibition of kol isha, and when every voice will be respected, valued, and heard.
Liz Piper-Goldberg is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She is a former legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center, has interned at the URJ, and currently represents HUC-JIR on the Commission on Social Action. This post originally appeared on the URJ RAC blog and can be found at: http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2012/10/19/shma-koleinu-hear-our-voices/