Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic SourcesPosted on October 24th, 2012 2 comments
I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.” I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term. I expected to find a long list of sources. I found three hits. I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.” So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations. No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature. And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement. So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:
If one gazes at the little finger of a woman is it as if he gazed at her secret place!? No, it means in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema.
Rav Hisda: A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers (Isaiah 47:2)” and it says afterwards, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:3).”
Shmuel said: A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14).”
Rav Sheshet said: A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats (Song of Songs 4:1).” (B. Berachot 24a//B. Kiddushin 70a//Y. Hallah 2:1; Shmuel’s saying)
This passage talks about things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema. I think reasonable minds would agree that a man might be distracted by seeing his wife naked before him while he was attempting to recite the Shema. But what comes next is, in essence, a list of what different sages find most enticing about women…a sort of sidebar to the main conversation. Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him.
When I realized this, I contacted one of my mentors and asked, “Is this really the entire basis for not allowing women’s voices to be heard?” He told me it was. I must admit, I was flabbergasted. We had been hung out to dry on the flimsiest of pretexts. I asked a fellow teacher what he thought of this and he said, “Well, when I was 15 I’d have been distracted by a woman’s voice.” To which I replied, “Why should I have to shut up for the rest of my life because you used to be 15?”
The prohibition is all the more surprising because Scripture and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly. Of course, Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21). Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).
In Mishnah, it is assumed that women sing professionally, publicly and liturgically:
Women may raise a wail during the festival [week] but not clap [their hands in grief]; R. Ishmael says, those that are close to the bier clap [their hands in grief]. On the days of the New Moon, of Hannukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief]. Neither on the former (i.e., the festival week) nor on the latter occasions do they chant a dirge. After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief]. What is meant by “raising a wail”? When all sing in unison. What is meant by a dirge? When one leads and all respond after her. As it is said: And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19). But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says: “He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)” (M. Moed Katan 3:9//B. Moed Katan 28b)
So, weighing our evidence, we have Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic testimony that women sing publicly and liturgically as opposed to a single statement by one sage which does not, in context, ban women’s voices at all. I believe there is far more textual support affirming the right of women to sing in public and at services than there is for banning it. “May the the sounds of joy and salvation be hear in the tents of the righteous (Psalm 118:15)!”
This week’s author, Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD., is the director of Maqom an online center for adult Talmud study.Guest Post, Israel, Rabbinic sources, Social Justice, Talmud, Tikkun Olam community, Israel, Prayer, Social Justice, Tikkun Olam, women
2 responses to “Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic Sources”
Aura Ahuvia October 25th, 2012 at 08:48
Thank you for a thought-provoking analysis of the Kol Isha stricture!
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