The Voice of a Woman Singing: Debbie Friedman
by Rabbi Daniel R. Allen
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his writings just after the 1967 Day War asked “What part did the State of Israel play in the day-to-day life of the Jews outside the land until recent events?” It was an appropriate question for the times. His view was that too many Jews took the existence of the State of Israel for granted and did not marvel at its very existence.
Today, with a campaign to question Israel’s very legitimacy, the leadership of the Jewish people certainly does not take Israel’s existence for granted, though it is unclear about Jews in general. Now, however, it is time to ask the corollary question to the one Heschel raised:
What part do we as Jews who do not dwell in the land play in the day-to-day life of the State of Israel?
We have a great deal to offer. Israel is suffering from the role of religion in the state and in the lives of its people. Judaism, as administered by the official government rabbinate is coercive in the public domain. The Israel Defense Forces is now under pressure to prohibit women from singing in the company of men. In the Halacha this is known as “Kol Isha” which refers to an edict in Talmud from Rav Shmuel that states that it is forbidden for a man to hear the voice of a woman.
Leading Israeli Rabbis have recently said that if a male soldier is in a situation where a fellow soldier, a woman, is singing he must leave the setting even on pain of facing court martial and executed. The basis of this judgment comes from several passages in the Talmud. In one such passage (Sotah 48a) Rav Joseph said ”When men sing and a woman joins in, it is licentious, when a woman sings and men answer, it is like a raging fire.”
Can it be that the Rabbis thought so poorly of men that they are viewed as incapable of controlling their own sexual urges? Must it be that in order for men to remain “pure” women must not be present in their public, civic, communal and religious lives lest men not be able to control themselves?
It is a demeaning view of men as well as women. It is a view that plays to the basest of human behavior rather than aspiring to the highest forms of human conduct.
One of the gifts of America to the world is the separation of religion and the state. We must share that gift with Israel. One of the Reform movements gifts to American Jewish culture has been music. We must share this with Israel as well. Debbie Friedman was a pioneer of modern Jewish music. Today Cantors, song leaders and Rabbis with guitars are part of her legacy in the ruach of our davening. She exemplified the best of what Kol Isha – the voice of a woman – can add to our very souls.
It is this gift of music with which we can daily interact and participate in Israeli life. It is through the cross cultural exchange of music between American and Israeli Jews, inspired by Debbie, that we can influence the daily life of Israel and in turn Israel can influence our daily lives as well.
Our life rhythms and our musical rhythms may differ from those of an Israeli, but the Jewish rhythms of our lives are quite similar. These similarities include; Jewish holidays, Jewish life cycles, the mitzvah to improve the world for all of humanity, the Jewish affirmation that “we are all created in the image of God” and thus need to be treated equally.
It was Debbie who made the words of Theodore Herzl a rousing Zionist anthem with her Im Tirzu. It was Debbie who affirmed Israel by transforming the seminal Zionist message of Lech Lecha into a Zionist anthem L’Chi Lach. She sings of our land, the land that God will show us, the land where we will make Gods name great and where we shall all be blessed.
It is nearly a year since Debbie left this corporeal world. In her name, and with her music as a guide, it is time for us to work to challenge those who would not hear the voice of a woman. We must inspire Israel to aspire to seek what is best in both men and woman as equals. It is time for us to raise our voices as proud Jewish women and men to influence the day to day life of Israel. It is time, as we approach Chanukah, to rededicate our efforts to bring the gift of KOL Isha, the equal voices of women to our people both here and in Israel.
Israel is truly extraordinary by its very existence. This is all the more reason for us to work every day for a more inclusive, democratic, Jewish pluralistic Israeli society. Kol Isha v’Kol Ish – the voices of all men and women are needed to protect Israel and to enable her to thrive.
Rabbi Daniel R. Allen is Executive Director of ARZA.