I was riveted by the recent story of an Orthodox Israeli young woman, Ophir Ben-Shetreet, who sang beautifully on the Israeli talent-search program, “The Voice,” and as a result was suspended from her Orthodox school for two weeks because of the prohibition against women singing in public if men are present. Ophir’s performance and evident charm inspired people around the country. The judges praised her as “modest” and “pure,” and she could serve as a role model for young Orthodox women who feel the desire to express themselves and develop their talents. Instead, she was condemned.
We in the Orthodox Women’s Leadership Project deplore the attempt to prevent her from utilizing her talents and pursuing her dreams because she’s female. Israel is not a totalitarian country, true, and she could choose to attend a different school. Our problem is not with the school’s actions, but with a system that insists that a young woman cannot share her passion for singing in a public forum.
Rabbi Zvi Arnon, of Ophir’s moshav, said, “There is not a single rabbi who will permit a woman to sing in front of men.” As an empirical statement, this is false. More importantly, poskim [religious decisors] throughout the generations have known that different individuals sometimes need different answers. Whatever the general ruling ought to be, perhaps when faced with a young woman with such talent and passion for song, the opinions that allow such singing (a popular view among some rabbinic sages), should be invoked.
The larger, more serious problem, however, is not the silencing of this one particular voice, but the silencing of voices of Orthodox women in general. Our community is filled with passionate, articulate, educated, and thoughtful women – who care about the halachic tradition and who strive to integrate religious values into their personal and communal lives. Yet, their voices are not heard. Our community has not found a way to promote the thought leaders who exist among this constituency. They are underrepresented in our congregations, on our organizational boards, and at the helm of our schools.
Also recently, Prof. Vered Noam wrote a searching and heart-wrenching piece in Musaf Shabbat about the “inner barriers” created within ourselves, largely because of the gender roles within our religious practices. She describes contemporary zimmun [the communal invitation to birkat hamazon] practice insightfully: men and woman eat together, converse together, discuss together, laugh together, clean up together, and then separate for the religious part of the meal, on the halachic grounds that men and women shouldn’t mingle. As Noam says, the women are not marginalized by this process; the significance of zimmun is. When professional and intellectual women are barred from any meaningful role in shul, it is not the women who suffer, but the integrity of the shul experience.
Women have never found a real place within Orthodox shuls, because Orthodox shuls have never found a real place for women. Increasingly, women choose to disengage rather than attend as passive observers. I experience this on Friday nights when my daughter and I are among the few women in the women’s section. As she grows more intelligent and sensitive, it is becoming more challenging to convince her that this is worthwhile. Is it better for women to stay at home and read contemporary magazines on the couch rather than take part in a meaningful religious experience? We have not heard talk of a crisis, perhaps because our communal leaders do not experience this on the most intensely personal level, as only a woman could. And this may simply be because our leaders are overwhelmingly men.
The pressing need of our community is to get our women’s voices heard from positions of leadership. When our rabbinic leadership discusses whether something is halachically legitimate, or communally desirable, women are by definition not participating. To effect change, we need to restructure our communal institutions and make systemic changes so that female leaders are represented across the board. Beyond debating whether a ritual practice may be open to women, our male leaders need to be partners in promoting our women as thought leaders.
For years I have watched with intrigue and envy as our rabbis have been able to take the time to think, write and respond to weighty issues in a way that few Orthodox women can emulate, for practical reasons. Given our current model, rabbis have time built into their schedules and are paid as part of their professional responsibilities to think, write and speak, with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place for all of humanity. If the other 50 percent of our population were heard in the same way, our world would only be that much better.
Shira Hecht-Koller, Esq. teaches Talmud at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. She is a founding member of the Orthodox Women’s Leadership Project.