I spent the summer of 1997 at an Orthodox Jewish summer camp in northeast Pennsylvania. I was 15 and preoccupied by a crush on a tall, green-eyed counselor named Tzvi. Like many of the counselors, he was newly returned from yeshiva in Israel and was responsible for my increasing familiarization with terms like kol isha and shomer negiah. These represented, for me, relatively new boundaries in a world already demarcated by the rhythms and restrictions of religious practice. Being shomer negiah meant you wouldn’t touch a member of the opposite sex outside of immediate family members. This concept applied equally to men and women. Kol isha was different. Literally “woman’s voice,” it was the prohibition against men listening to women singing, and women singing in front of men. In this way, Tzvi unknowingly initiated me into the world of desire and introduced me to the ways in which our religious tradition would police that desire.
And so it was also thanks to Tzvi that I became familiar with the oeuvre of singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan and the mortal danger she posed to the souls of the boys and man-boys around me. Tzvi bought a copy of Surfacing and immediately discarded the cassette insert featuring her photo. It was permissible, he explained, for a man to listen to a woman singing provided it was a recording and he did not know what she looked like. Because a beautiful voice belonging to a woman may cause him to have improper thoughts about her and if he then had a face and a body with which to connect those thoughts … well, you can probably figure the rest out.
I actually couldn’t entirely figure the rest out because I was a pretty sheltered 15-year-old but I trusted Tzvi because his green eyes were really special.
I did not consider the difficulty inherent in remaining ignorant of the face of a pop-culture figure and I did not have the language or desire to question this received wisdom regarding kol isha. But as an adult who is no longer infatuated with Tzvi (though I am friends with him on Instagram—hi, Tzvi!), I am able to recognize it as a concept undergirded by an unease with women being voice and body at the same time. I understand, retrospectively, that my friends and I were encouraged to think of ourselves as the unwitting nuclear weapons in a Cold War fought over and within the souls of boys and men.
We were both integral to this battle and outside of it. As young women, we were not endangered in the same way. Female desire is not a live category in Jewish legal literature and the male gaze is everything. This meant that, though our physical presence was a spiritual danger to men, we were, for better or worse, denied the agency usually accorded to sexualized women. We were not Sirens poised to ensnare men with our enchanting voices and bodies (neither were the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey but that’s a story for another time). Instead, we were portrayed as possessing an eternal sexual naivete: You can’t possibly know or understand what it means to be a man (meaning, to experience desire). It was therefore best to follow all behavioral directives—formulated, as it happens, by men—involving our voices and bodies without thinking about them too much.
This rationale has the effect of silencing women’s voices and eliminating female agency, decreeing certain things to be unknowable. We must take their word for it. Importantly, it does not seem to apply in the other direction; male rabbis have spoken authoritatively about the inner workings of women’s bodies and minds for more than 2,000 years. Most crucially, this view of women, which mandates separation of voice from body, relegates us to lives lived in pieces. In one context we can be body but not voice (women cannot sing in front of men); in another, voice but not body (men can listen to a recording of a woman singing if he does not know her personally). We risk fragmentation when we wish to live public lives.
For Jewish kids, summer camp inevitably gives way to the High Holidays, the plaintive centerpiece of which is the blowing of the shofar. At 15, I went from listening to Sarah McLachlan to hearing a man blow into a ram’s horn. Like Tzvi’s encounter with Canadian soft rock, the shofar ritual is dependent on an unconventional arrangement of body and voice. An animate body connects with an inanimate one and we call the result kol shofar, the voice of the shofar. Like a ventriloquist with a dummy, the two bodies together produce an effect that neither could conjure on its own.
But the ventriloquist effect doesn’t end there. For centuries, we Jews have understood the kol shofar as a wordless call to repentance, a sound meant to wake us up to the need to change our ways. But we are also taught to hear it as the cry of the sinner asking for forgiveness. In this way it is not only a sound for us but also a sound by us. The baal tokea, in blowing the shofar, produces a sound that stands in for the collective voice of the congregation, as if those gathering to repent are throwing their voices. Our inarticulate cry emanates not from a human mouth, as you would expect, but from an animal’s body.
If you have ever prayed as a Jew, you know that so much of our liturgy is about finding creative ways for bodies and voices to collaborate. Sometimes it is simple and straightforward. We bow while saying thank you; we beat our breasts while expressing remorse. Sometimes it is more complex. The ritual ventriloquism of the shofar highlights the intersection between the carnal and the spiritual, conditions we like to think of as antithetical but which are of course inextricably linked; our humanity is defined by their concomitance and the shofar reminds us that that which we use for sin can be repurposed for salvation. But what about when these strange relationships between voices and bodies reveal not a homiletic allegory but a fissure? A man leading the congregational prayers recites the morning blessing, “Blessed are you, God, for not having made me a woman,” and the women in the synagogue must answer “amen.” The fiction of the ventriloquist act is betrayed; the liturgical version of an elaborate piece of wood with an arm up its wooden butt.
There is a different kind of disjunction when it comes to the shofar. The Talmud teaches us that its sounds are based on the yevava, the sobbing sound that Sisera’s mother makes when she realizes that her son won’t be coming home. The Book of Judges recounts the death of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, at the hands of a woman named Yael, who rendered him unconscious with some delicious milk and then drove a tent peg into his head. In the biblical account, Deborah sings a song in which she imagines Sisera’s mother awaiting his return:
Through the window she looked out, moaned,
Sisera’s mother, through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
why so late the clatter of his cars?”
Why, they will find and share out the spoils—
a damsel or two for each man,
spoil of dyed stuff for Sisera,
spoil of dyed stuff,
needlework pairs for every neck.
But, for Sisera’s mom, a funny thing happens on the way to becoming a metaphor. All of that horrifying talk of rape and spoils falls away, leaving only the sorrow of a mother who realizes her child will never return. The rabbis of the Talmud use her yevava to define two of the sounds of the shofar, one a series of groans and the other a wail. A later commentary on the Talmud notes that the custom to blow 100 shofar sounds corresponds to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother. I was taught this idea each year in school but only since becoming a mother has it truly inflected my experience of the shofar. Almost against my will, my reaction to the shofar sounds has become far more emotional as I very viscerally associate them with the grief that must swallow up whole a mother who has lost a child. What, after all, would be the point of words in the face of such unbearable loss?
So it is a shrewd move on the part of the Talmud, this aligning of the shofar sounds with a bereft mother. But in offering Sisera’s mother as the model for the cry of the shofar, the rabbis must empty out her yevava of words. What is, in the biblical text, a woman’s song that tells a story about another woman’s voice becomes only an inarticulate moan.
We get to not care about Sisera’s mother because she’s a villain in her story. But we have to care about the young girls who must somehow make sense of all the messages our tradition sends them about their voices and their bodies. In Coming to Writing, French feminist Hélène Cixous recognizes that it is the enforced separation of two forms of self—voice and body—that holds women back: “Write your self,” she implores, “your body must be heard.” All my life, body and voice have been triangulated by text but no voices like mine speak in those books and I am often cast as either the villain or the naif in the main plotline that is male spirituality.
If you’re someone for whom kol isha is an operative term, it may be easy for you to dismiss these concerns. Maybe you belong to an Orthodox community that is more lenient when it comes to the voices of girls and women. Maybe you are a girl or woman who doesn’t care to belt out solos in front of men. Maybe you think that the female voice is a gateway drug to topless parades in the Pacific Northwest. I have been in two of those categories in my life. But then I had a daughter. And then after that I had a son. And something shifted when I realized that I would be responsible for perpetuating the gendered differences in voice. I still haven’t figured out how to do it, aside from what my own parents did, which is to let a 19-year-old boy with a refreshing affinity for Lilith Fair artists break the news. I am overwhelmed by the responsibility of maintaining the dignity of the halachic system when so many of its practitioners understand dignity as something that precludes women; when the shofar is the only female voice we allow to ring out in the sanctuary and the only reason supplied for the absence of female voice is a definition of kavod hatzibbur that ties the dignity, the coherence of a congregation, to the requirement that women not cohere.
Is it consoling or disturbing that God seems to have encountered some of these same challenges? The Torah describes how, prior to the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments, when Moses spoke, “God answered him with kol.” Here, as always, God can only be voice, but there is some suggestion, just one verse later, that there is something to see: God tells Moses to descend from the mountain and “warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to see and many of them perish.” Like 19-year-old male counselors and Sarah McLachlan, the recipients of the Torah can hear God’s voice as long as they cannot see him. And then, two commandments into the theophany, the people beg Moses to get God to stop speaking: “You speak to us,” they entreat him, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” Sometimes we fear the voices we most need to hear.
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