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.

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Reflecting on Reflecting – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 24, 2014

The only way we can discuss prayer is on the basis of self-reflection, trying to describe what has happened to us in a rare and precious moment of prayer. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; The Insecurity of Freedom: Prayer as Discipline pg. 255)

 

This is the great paradox of prayer. As Rabbi Heschel says a few lines later: “You  cannot, of course, analyze the act of prayer while praying.” Doing so would be to violate the sacred nature of prayer as total immersion (See pg. 255 in the Essay Prayer as Discipline for more on this). On the other hand, we cannot afford not to spend time self-reflecting on our prayer experiences. Like anything else in life, events that we let go by without contemplation, leave little impact on us.

So, we have no choice but to find time after we have prayed to try our best to recollect how we were feeling when we prayed. Maybe this is the companion to Adonai Sifatai Tiftach….” said before we pray. That statement is actually a request for help that we pray with Kavannah.

After we have prayed, we should look back to see if it worked. Was there a particular time during Tefilla that I felt moved? Was there a particular time I felt distracted? How can I duplicate the times i found moved and minimize the distractions?

We should also do this institutionally. if there was a particular teffila that had the community engaged, consider the elements and see if they can be duplicated on a regular basis. And, if there are elements of tefilla that do not engage the people, it may be time to envision a different approach.

Meaningful prayer is so difficult. We can attain success in prayer more often if we take time to reflect on how we pray, what works and what does not.

 


Different Roles-by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 29, 2014

I came across THIS ARTICLE by Rabbi Avi Shafran, my old 10th grade Rebbe.  There is a lot he writes in the public arena that I do not agree with, but this one I really did.  I articulated a similar notion in my post in this blog about Maharats HERE.  Indeed when our Maharat here at Bais Abraham asked me if she was expected to go to the weekday Schacharit minyan, I told her that of course she could but it was not expected, and perhaps she would like praying at home better and spending the time with her young children or learning.  

 

Men and women have different halachic obligations and as Orthodox Jews we believe that men and women are different.  Because the genders bring very different voices and points of view to the table is precisely why we must empower women to be Jewish leaders, to be learned, but we must take care not to push them to be the same as men.  This could send  observant Judaism down a dangerous path of erasing the distinctions between the genders, much as has happened in some more liberal Jewish movements.  Ultimately such a path does not honor women and their leadership, their power, and uniqueness nor does it honor men’s, but rather takes something precious away and creates fewer opportunities for both genders to bring their strengths to the community.  


Learning from Hillel and Shami

June 3, 2012

A Brooklyn based newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, has recently tried to cast more inclusive sections of Orthodoxy in a negative light.  Instead of understanding Rabbi Zev Farber’s recent Morethodoxy post about the cultural place of women in shul as a tension between two competing values, that of traditional prayer architecture and process on the one hand and that of the desire by the halacha to honor and include all Jews (even women) on the other, Yated saw only one side.

In the Gemara (Shabbat 31a) Hillel and Shamai argue regarding conversions.  Convert after convert comes to both Shami and Hillel and each convert presents themselves as insincere, desiring to convert to only some of the laws of the Torah or to convert for selfish reasons.  Obviously the decision to accept or reject such converts lies again in a tension between two competing halacic values, on one side the need to not dilute the Jewish people and their commitment to Torah, and on the second the Jewish value of embracing others and not mistreating the stranger.  Shami emphasizes the first value over the second in an extreme way, so much so that he chases the would be convert out with a stick, and Hillel emphasizes the second value, so much so that he immediately embraces the seemingly insincere (yes I know what Tosfos says)  convert and converts them all right away.   Which is right?  Both are legitimate Jewish opinions, both the word of God, but only one is the halacha, the path we as Jews are to follow, that of Hillel.  Indeed the Talmud explains that the law is like Hillel due to his embracing, tolerant personality (Talmud Aruvin 13b).

Today Yated is suggesting YCT Rabbonim continue to be excluded from the RCA. In times past their camp suggested the RCA be excluded from Orthodoxy.  Today they suggest YCT’s future talmide chachomim are illegitimate, in years past they (or papers like them) suggested the RCA’s Godol was illegitimate.

When I was growing up in the Charedi world I heard only slander about the RCA and Yeshiva University.  That YU was a, “Rabbi factory” and that their musmachim knew nothing.   I think I was 15 before I realized that “JB” was not a famous criminal but a Gadol Ba’torah, Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovetchik.

Any orthodox person who is over 30 and grew up to the right of modern orthodoxy remembers these things.  But the RCA did not become a new movement as people feared; the RCA saw itself as legitimately orthodox and in the eyes of much of the orthodox world remains so.

Less tolerance for fellow Jews and human beings, a less embracing attitude toward the would-be proselyte, dismissing ways within halacha to include women in traditional tefilah, these things, though perhaps sounding pretty frum, do not make one more of a Torah Jew.  Just ask Hillel.


Rediscovering Prayer –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 4, 2010

Perhaps I speak only for myself but I think generally we have lost the concept of prayer.  The upside of prayer in the Orthodox community is that we do it often.  But this is also the downside.  As a result of the commonness of our prayer I think, at least for me, prayer often can become the saying of words, the recitation of formulas, the fulfilling of an obligation.

 

The gemara (Berachot 29b)has an interesting instruction for prayer that may help us:

“Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes their prayer fixed (kevah, which prayer should not be) their prayer is not beseeching/prayerful (tachanunim).   What does “fixed prayer” mean?  Rabbi Yaakov the son of Rav Idi said in the name of Rabbi Oshiyah, (a fixed prayer is)“anyone who feels their prayer to be something which must be carried” (Rash”i- as an obligation to be fulfilled), The Rabbis say, “Anyone who does not pray in words of tachanunim” (Shulchan Aruch- tachanunim is like a poor person asking for alms in pleasant language), Rabah and Rav Yosef said together, “(a prayer is called fixed) If one is not able to say something new in it.”

 

It seems from the Talmud there are 3 factors in making prayer what it should be (in fact some achronim say that one who prays kevah,  a prayer which is fixed, has not prayed at all (Elyah Raba, Magen Giborim, et al).  To review the three factors in the gemara above which make prayer what it should be are:

  1. How we feel about the prayer.  If we see prayer as a chiuv, an obligation to be fulfilled like other mitzvoth, instead of as a conversation with God.
  2. The language with which we pray. If we read words from a book, instead of speaking like one person to another in nice language and tone.
  3. If we read the siddur and do not say anything new in each prayer.

 

Since we are different every day we must in our conversation  with God, insert words of our own.  This should be done, the poskim say, in the middle 13 berachot of the amidah.  In at least one beracha and some say in all of the berachot, we should speak to God about and ask for what we personally and our people and world generally need at that moment.

 

I personally have found that numbers 1 and 2 are hard to control but 3 is more doable.   It is hard to pray 3 times a day without feeling it obligatory, hard to see God as a personal Deity in conversation.  But I find that by beginning with number 3, in my very small way, that numbers 1 and 2 sometimes develop.   Try it.   Next time you daven, in each of the middle 13 berachot of the amidah talk to God about what you need pertaining to that blessing just before the chatimah, the ending of the paragraph.   Talk to God about what the world and Jewish people need.  If you can do it in Hebrew that’s great but English is ok too.

 

This mode of beseeching, of seeing God as a parent from whom we request what we personally need rather than an infinite Deity before whom to laude, is the real path of Jewish prayer, as the Talmud said long ago.  Don’t worry about it taking you too long to daven, it will become something that at least sometimes you will look forward to and will change everything.