Saturday, March 08, 2008

652. Kol isha

This past Friday evening I went to services at a very different synagogue than usual—an Orthodox congregation. This particular shul and mine share many more similarities than differences, our practice of prayer both based on music, song, and deep ruah. (Although they don't use instruments, of course.) In fact, we would not exist had not this community paved the way for a revival of old-fashioned, neo-Hasidic-style ecstasy.

But they are still Orthodox, and I had to sit behind a mehitza. I can bear to do this once every few years. I listened to beautiful male harmonies coming from the bima, a sound I love in the word of secular music, but all I could really hear was the missing female voice. (Which surprised me because, all things considered, I prefer to hear men sing rather than women.) I harmonized quietly to fill in the gap, afraid to raise my voice lest I inadvertently offend someone on the other side of the room who subscribed to the idea of kol isha.

I was honored to pray with this deeply spiritual community, and of course respected their practices—and was reminded of my own, a very long time ago. The first time I came to my synagogue, I was unnerved by the sight of a woman leading services; although I didn’t live in the Orthodox world, I never forget the rules I knew as a child. Breaking them, even years later, felt transgressive. But I got used to it, and soon could imagine no other way for the universe to be. Sitting in a room where this right did not exist felt like it had been stolen from me on a personal level.


George said...

There are opinions that hold that "kol isha" does not apply when the women are in a group and if the men cannot see them.
My daughters go to a Carlebach minyan on Friday nights, and I can tell you from personal experience that the singing there is from both sides of the mechitza.

alto artist said...

Yes, I have read that... very interesting. Here the men could see the women, and I also know people were present who had many different levels of observance--so perhaps some were OK with the idea and some not. I also noticed that very few of the women present were singing above a whisper. So I wasn't sure what the custom was. It is all very interesting and confusing!


alto artist said...

I should add that I did attend with women who went to this synagogue on a regular basis and WERE singing. So I think my concern was just about how loud I could sing without making anyone else uncomfortable.