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Kol Ishah (The Voice of Woman)

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According to Jewish rabbinic law, the sound of a woman’s voice is enticing to men and can present a terrible distraction from their service to God.  That is why devout Jewish men do not pray in mixed groups, and when they do, women are forbidden from leading the prayers or even singing in full voice.  The prohibition of kol ishah is also how ultra-religious Jewish men in Jerusalem justify their shouting and throwing chairs at a group of women who wish only to pray aloud on the women’s side of the Western Wall.    

But I don’t really believe that it is merely the melody of kol ishah that troubles men.  I am fairly certain that our lyrics, especially those challenging the established hierarchy or suggesting alternatives to male-dominated institutions, get us into trouble.  Or perhaps it is the combination of tone and text that upset the men in charge: men who lead nations and represent us in government; men who lead religious groups and set their standards; men who in the 21st century in this country allow women to earn only 78% on the dollar for the same work that they do; men who command armies and lead our sons into battle. 

Women who raise their voices in protest at this leadership are often silenced.  I understand that it can be difficult to hear unpleasant words– words of criticism– and I recognize the human impulse to squelch that particular noise.  Kol ishah, when permitted to be heard at all, is expected to sing sweetly.

Perhaps that is why I did not find it surprising, though quite distressing, to hear the news that Iranian authorities seized the passport of Simin Behbahani, a prominent poet who has been critical of the Iranian government’s policies, especially those directed at women.  Behbahani has not been charged with any crime, yet her freedom to travel has been curtailed in a way that must seem familiar to her after decades of negotiating her freedom of speech with government censors.  Her poetry sings bravely, if not sweetly, about the ways in which men have ruled her country.  Her voice at 82 is still strong as she reminds us that those who lead  us cannot afford to ignore kol ishah.  

In one week, I will  join Jewish men and women around the world in the celebration of Passover, our holiday of the triumph of freedom over slavery.  At our family’s Seder, men and women will raise their voices, joyfully praising God for our redemption.  And I will pray for a new era of peace, in which kol ishah will be permitted to sing the melody of truth, and men will add the harmony to our song.

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Comments (1)

Amen! In Farsi, the word for poem and song is one and the same: "shehr." And indeed Simin's poems are songs of the highest order. Having our voices heard has been a huge historical struggle for women of all faiths, and all different kinds of rationalizations have been used in an effort to silence us–many of them having very little basis in actual scripture or revelation even.

Pamela, you are quite right that it is more our lyrics than our melodies that others find so threatening. That is why I so admire what you do everyday. Sing on sister, and know that this Iranian Muslimah for one is always proud to sing beside and stand behind you.

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