Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

The Jewish Burka

The “Women of the Wall” prayer group has been planning to stage a first-ever Women’s Priestly Blessing at the Kotel this Sunday.  As of this writing, that effort has been stymied by Israel’s attorney general; the group has stated that they will abide by the decision, but will go ahead with their planned service.  While the cause of women’s rights has made tremendous strides recently in Israel, the suppression of female voices continues unabated.

The culprit here is a controversial talmudic concept known as Kol Isha (“A Woman’s Voice”), which like many religious restrictions has taken on a life of its own, expanding in scope over the centuries, as female voices have continued to be suppressed and demonized.

There are reasons for reducing a woman’s public role that might have made some sense once upon a time, within the internal logic of a traditional, pre-modern patriarchal society. But Kol isha was never one of them. It was always insidious, inviting suppression and, ultimately and inevitably, harassment and physical abuse.  Once a women becomes an object of scorn, or an object of temptation, or even an object of love — she has become, irrefutably, an object.  The ongoing violence practiced against the Women of the Wall stems from this objectification.  I fear that on Sunday we’ll see more of the same.

The Kol Isha controversy stems from a talmudic discussion where one rabbi, Samuel, called the voice of a woman ervah, meaning “indecent,” “shameful,” or “lustful.” He was referring to the recitation of the Sh’ma, which was not to be prayed while a woman was singing.  For, as the passage states, “the voice of a woman is indecent” (kol be-ishah ervah) and would be an improper distraction from concentration on holy things.

The idea that an un-muffled female voice can lead men into a state of uncontrollable lust is reprehensible, insulting to both women and men alike.  Are we guys that incapable of keeping our zippers zipped that we have to demand that women keep their lips zipped too?

Natalie Bergner writes on the Women of the Wall website that the talmudic prohibition flies in the face of biblical precedent; she cites the sensual love poetry of the Song of Songs, and the explicit command from God for Abraham to “listen to the voice of Sarah.”

The first wide-ranging halachic prohibition of a woman’s singing voice didn’t occur until modern times. In the journal Conservative Judaism, Emily Teitz writes that Jewish women’s singing voices were in fact heard throughout the Middle Ages, as teachers, entertainers and professional dirge singers, even within the synagogue itself.  Rabbi David Golinkin’s responsum on the subject suggests that in the Talmud, Samuel may not have been referring to a woman’s singing voice at all.

Golinkin adds:

There is no general prohibition against women singing in classic Jewish law based on the Talmud and subsequent codes and commentaries until the early nineteenth century. The current blanket prohibition accepted by Haredi and some modern Orthodox rabbis was first suggested and rejected by Rabbi Joshua Falk (d. 1614) and was only given as a halakhic ruling by Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer, in the early nineteenth century. However, this opinion is not in agreement with the simple meaning of the dictum by Samuel and with all of the opinions of the Rishonim (renowned rabbinic authorities of the Middle Ages).

The fact that such restrictions have become more pronounced over the past few decades mirrors the increased oppression of women in some quarters of the Muslim and Christian worlds and the increased polarization of American politics on religious grounds.  As feminism has taken hold, the reaction to feminism has been equally strong, pulling society both ways, to the left and to the right, and pulling hard.

With female cantors and rabbis proliferating in the non-Orthodox world, and now becoming a reality among the modern Orthodox, there is no turning back on this issue.  My conscience will not allow me to participate in ceremonies that give undue deference to Kol Isha — for instance, purely secular celebrations of Israel where a woman’s voice should be heard loud and clear. How absurd it is to hear the songs of Naomi Shemer or the verse of Hanna Senesh having to be sung by a man.

As a committed pluralist, I need to accept that for some Jews — and some iterations of Judaism — halachic justifications for the differentiation between male and female sex roles are internally consistent with an accepted worldview that existed in previous eras, long before feminism.  They were right, perhaps, for their time.  I can accept the fact that when I am praying with an Orthodox minyan, traditional restrictions regarding women will be upheld, mostly for reasons other than Kol Isha.

But we can’t allow Kol Isha restrictions to expand incrementally as religious restrictions so often do (as we’ve seen with the eating of lentils on Passover). Jewish tradition has no inherent problem with women. The problem isn’t Judaism — it’s Jews. And discrimination against women, like all discrimination, is a slippery slope, one that leads to objectification which leads to violence. We need to go all-out to reverse this disturbing trend.

Last year, when Israel’s new government was sworn in, one Haredi newspaper tried to airbrush women out of the picture completely.  Women, evidently, are meant never to be heard OR seen.  One wonders how that paper will handle the possibility of a female American president. What will happen when she visits the Kotel? What will happen when she, heaven forbid, speaks – or worse yet, sings?

Israel has become ground zero in the battle against the suppression of women’s voices. Golinkin cites a 2011 incident when nine observant IDF cadets walked out when a woman began singing a solo.  He concludes that there is “no halakhic justification for anyone walking out when women sing. But even if one accepts the very strict ruling… it is forbidden to walk out in order not to insult the female performers.”

At least in Israel, female singers have not been suppressed in major national ceremonies, including the official Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut ceremony on Mount Herzl.  Given current trends, this may not be the case in the near future.

Jeremiah (33:10) prophesied of a time when “the joyous voice of the bridegroom and bride would once again in the streets of Jerusalem.”  Evidently that time has not yet come at the Kotel.  Despite the progress we had hoped was being made, female voices of blessing will not be heard at the Western Wall this Passover.

Kol Isha is coming dangerously close to becoming the Jewish burka, a veritable symbol of the subjugation and humiliation of half our population.  We need to reverse this trend, in Israel and in Jewish communities everywhere. The Jewish burka must be eliminated.

It is time to silence Kol Isha.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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