Why Don’t the Women Sing in Shul?

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

Today, a friend told me of a question her three-year-old daughter asked her in shul on Shabbat:

“Mommy, why do only the men sing in shul?”

She was not referring to the fact that only men lead the davening or read from the Torah. She was noticing that when the tzibbur as a whole responds, or sings together, that only the men sing. My friend said that the question made her want to cry.

This phenomenon has bugged me for many years. In a typical Orthodox shul, the men sing, chant, mutter, even exclaim aloud at various points in the davening. The women sing beneath their breath, hum, or even whisper. It is as if we have taken the model of Chana, rak sefateha na’ot – only her lips moved but her voice could not be heard – and expanded it well beyond the silent Amidah into the rest of prayer.

Why don’t the women sing?

There is a possibility that it stems from concerns for Kol Isha. However, in Modern Orthodox synagogues, most women (and men) know that a group of women singing together does not violate the prohibition. There is also ample halachic evidence that even when a single voice is discernable within the group or when one woman is singing alone, the prohibition of Kol Isha does not apply in the context of prayer, education, or other holy activities.

So, why don’t the women sing?

I cannot speak for other women, but I can tell you why I don’t sing. It is not a halachic reason, but a musical one: I can’t sing in the men’s key!

It may sound like a simple, almost too simplistic answer. But for me, it is the truth. By the time the baal tefillah, hits those high tenor notes, I am silent on the other side of the mechitzah, having dropped my voice a long time ago.

For other women, there may be other reasons: some may feel shy; some do not enjoy singing out loud or would prefer to simply listen. But those of us who do try to sing find it almost impossible. When the baal tefillah is singing a lower part, we are in our upper range, struggling to sing an octave above him. And then as he moves to a climactic chorus, his voice soaring (along with so many other male voices on the other side of the room) it is just too high. It is then that we women need to dip down into our gravelly lower range to sing along. At that point, even if we are singing, no one can hear us, let alone can we hear ourselves. It feels as if whatever they’re singing over on the other side, where all the action is, makes our voices uncomfortable, and it is easier just to fall silent.

It is no wonder that davening in a women’s Tefillah fills me with a sense of relief. Many other women have told me they feel it too. Ah, finally. Just our key. We all sing aloud. Finally, we can hear ourselves, and each other. The room fills with women’s voices, strong and spirited.

Of course, there is more than a simple a choice of musical key that can cause some women to diminish their voice in shul. Some feel that the synagogue is not an atmosphere that is open and inviting to women. The choice of key is symbolic of the larger phenomenon – that the locus of control is elsewhere in the room. The decisions that are made as to how the service runs all come from a place to which we have no access. While it’s true that all the men in the room are also at the mercy of the baal tefillah’s choice in music and the gabbai’s choice in aliyah, we women know that these positions will never be open to us. I cannot simply wait until next week to choose my favorite tunes for Kedusha at Mussaf. I might indirectly influence the choice when my husband leads davening, and he chooses tunes he knows I’ll enjoy. Thus, it is only when I have an emissary on the other side that I feel I can have a voice. And even then…. Well, let’s just say my husband has a lovely tenor voice which does not jive well with my alto.

But maybe that’s just it. Maybe we women need male allies, advocates on the other side of the mechitzah, who will think of us, who will sometimes ask us what our preference is, and how we’d like to sing. It may sound patronizing, infantilizing even, to assert that women need this. But the reality is that if Orthodox women are going to have a voice in the typical Orthodox sanctuary, a musical say in the davening, it will only be with the help of the men.

I recall one particular time it did happen for me, when I was in Chicago, serving in a clergy capacity Anshe Sholom, on a Shabbat when the rabbi was away. As the baal tefillah was about to begin singing Lecha Dodi, he suddenly stopped. There was a long, silent pause, after which he looked across the mechitzah at me and mimed a total blank. He had choked. He simply could not come up with a single Lecha Dodi tune in that moment. I’m sure if the rabbi had been there, he would have started a tune. But our baal tefillah looked to me as the clergy who would have to step in. And without missing a beat, I began singing, and he followed suit.

Would it be so hard? I’m sure there are many musical women in our congregations who would jump at the chance to choose a tune, and yes, choose the key. Of course there are many Orthodox settings where women are leading Kabbalat Shabbat and other parts of Tefillah, but in situations where a woman cannot lead, at least let her lead from behind. I venture to guess that when the women’s voices are comfortable, we will more readily belt out Lecha Dodi – or Etz Chayim Hi or Aleinu – and that this will further our ability to feel like full participants in the room. I wonder what would happen if the women chose the key. I wonder if the men would begin to understand our experience. I wonder if we might create a beautiful harmony of the masculine and feminine voices in prayer, voices that could combine and together, reach the heavens.

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17 Responses to Why Don’t the Women Sing in Shul?

  1. Susanna Levin says:

    I don’t agree that this is a matter of who picks the key. I know a bass (a guy, that is) who is similarly frustrated when tenors pick the key. Some baalei tefillah must be baritones or basses. They’ll be easier for altos to sing along with, & even for some sopranos, for that matter. I think it’s a matter of acculturation. Women don’t sing in Orthodox shuls. Some shuls won’t let them. Women may *think* that the shul won’t let them. Women think of themselves as being on the ‘sidelines’ in the shul, & they don’t want to stand out. The geography of most O. shuls is like that, actually (there are rare exceptions). This may not change until the culture of inertia (‘that’s the way it’s always been done’) changes.

    • Dedi says:

      I agree, it is mostly the tradition that women think of themselves as on the sidelines — which, in O synagogues they are. On shabbat, I daven in a YI, and I always sing. Song for me is essential to good davening — just find the octave that works. Now that I am saying daily kaddish for my mother, A”H, I daven at 6:30 or so at a small shul’s beit midrash, the only woman, in my little constructed “cell!” I find myself participating much as the men do– mostly under my breath to keep up, but often responding aloud; our voices go in and out, and no one ever comments to me. In fact, one guy commented in a positive way, that I always respond Amen aloud. Those of us who do sing aloud, should keep it up as an example to the other women — many of them young, who I think are encouraged by the Israeli seminaries not to!

  2. Lisa Liel says:

    Two points:

    1) I sing in shul. At YI. As you say, there’s no halakhic reason not to, and I enjoy it. And I can pretty much manage whatever key I need. I even sing at the table at the shul’s seudah shlishit. Who knows, maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised frum, but I don’t see a problem.

    2) The word you’re looking for is “jibe”. Not “jive”. It makes me crazy when people do that.

  3. Yael says:

    In the shuls I prefer, we DO belt with the men ( easy for me, since I do have a mezzo) , I refer to the one MO,another orthodox, and the big Portuguese syn in Amsterdam) . But then, the Baal Tefilla usually sings more or less in our key :-) . Sometimes (in the smallest syn) the Baal Tefilla slightly adjusts his key, so that we can sing along .
    Would it be feasible to just ask?

  4. THIS is why we need Maharats, to give voice to ritual concerns of women in Orthodoxy in a way that men wouldn’t think of and don’t fully understand. Thank you, Maharat Finegold.

  5. Jesse Rosenberg says:

    From a strictly musical standpoint, much of this argument seems unconvincing. In a great many cases, from “Happy Birthday” to operatic duets, men and women sing in the same key all the time: men simply sing an octave lower.

  6. Shum'el says:

    Rachel,

    I’d say with prayer, singing, chanting etc, this is for G-d and not for anyone else but him, so women shouldn’t be afraid of joining in because of what men think. In Shul, this shouldn’t be about being able to sing like you’re in a cast of a west end musical. It is more to do with the heart and Kavanah; I’d like to think that a sincere person, who isn’t the best singer is heard by G-d as if they were the best in the world.

    I’m all in favour of different tunes and styles to worship, whether they or new ones completely or using (in my case) Sephardi ones. In fact it would be quite cool to have 3 or 4 different tunes, which might keep people alert and make them really think about what they are doing and saying. In my pad ( I live with 2 of my sisters and 2 non Jews) we sing new Shabbat songs every week, as my sister, Hannah, is reasonably good at writing music (as well as playing the piano). I can’t see the traditional tunes being written down in Tanakh, The Talmud or other bits of authoritive texts, so we should be free to do new ways of doing stuff.

    With the Kol Isha, I appreciated the link. I’d add that in the Hebrew Bible there are passages where it is clear Jewish women are singing in front of men or are a part of worship (Exodus. 15:20-21,1 Samuel 18:6,1 Chronicles 25:5,Psalm 68:26).

  7. Maya says:

    I don’t think that I can agree that choice of key is the main factor inhibiting women from singing in Orthodox contexts. I’ve been in a significant number of Orthodox shuls and a significant number of non-Orthodox ones, and the keys just aren’t that different. Whether a woman or a man is leading, I end up needing to swap octaves- I’m just used to it.

    I think it’s about having enough women with confidence to sing who are present throughout the service and willing to start singing even though there isn’t a bulk of women present yet. When there is mixed seating, I at least am less aware of the gender balance and therefore less aware of whether other women are singing. When there is separate seating, and I’m one of 4 women present in shul- it becomes more intimidating to sing out comfortably. Maybe if more women came to shul on time, or even a little earlier, and focused on the davening (it’s hard to feel comfortable singing when people are chatting all around you, too), there would be a more supportive space for women to sing.

  8. anitasilvert says:

    Interesting point. Although I admit, I have the same trouble with tenor cantors . One answer? Actual harmony. Why unison? Our congregation makes itself into a beautiful choir. I can’t sing with our tenor chazzan, so I harmonize with him. So many voices lifted in praise and prayer – and like the world itself, we harmonize, complement each other, and make a joyous noise.

  9. Shira E says:

    I am a student on a college campus with a strong orthodox community and this is a discussion I often have with my friends. I started pointing out the issue of an uncomfortable key to some of the boys who regularly lead davening and they were pretty receptive. I would agree with others that this is not exclusively the reason for lack of volume on the women’s side. But I think this is one we don’t often consider.

    For those who seem skeptical, consider the fourth perek of tehillim sung in Kabbalat Shabbat (mizmor shiru lashem shir chadash). The traditional tune is sung in a key that forces many women to begin in a high head voice, but then switch down to a lower pitch. The contrast is not a comfortable one.

    • Lisa Liel says:

      I have this same problem with most men and most women. My normal register seems to be 180 degrees off from most people. It’s rare that I don’t have to switch octaves in the middle. At our women’s tefillah group, the woman who usually does pesukei has a range that matches mine. The woman who usually does shacharit is 180 degrees off. I can’t see how this is a gendered issue.

  10. […] Rachel Kohl Finegold published an interesting piece today about women singing in synagogues. She […]

  11. IH says:

    As a male who davens in a Partnership Minyan, I find I sometimes have this issue in the opposite direction (I,e. the female Sha’Tz singing in a key that I find uncomfortable and find myself oscillating between head and chest singing).

    That said, I suspect this is not the primary reason for why many women don’t sing in shul. From my vantage point, that is more a function of the spectator aspect that develops from out of the traditional (inactive) role of women in shul.

  12. I don’t sing out loud very often to avoid tzaar l’baalei chayim :P but yeah, I do agree that the key issue is emblematic of the larger problem of men not worrying about the needs and desires of the people on the other side of the mechitzah. It might be infantilizing or whatever, but we’ve opted to be part of this system by stepping into the shul, so we’ve gotta roll with the decisions we’ve made and accept the situation for what it is…

  13. Jon Baker says:

    Women sing in the shul where you grew up, Yavneh Minyan, generally led by Lynne C, who (with her daughter) sings in Jewish choirs.

    And I agree with Susanna Levin that the key problem is simply different ranges, not different sexes. We used to sing all of benching on Friday night when I was growing up, and still do at sedarim (I don’t spend shabbat at my mother’s, generally). It was always a fight between Dad and Mitch and me as baritones, and Mom as an alto. But then, I have the same problem with a lot of the tenor baalei tefillah, bopping up & down an octave to stay in tune.

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