Why Don’t the Women Sing in Shul?

July 18, 2014

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.