Navigate to Belief section

A Different Voice

When a woman learns the art of Torah chanting, she realizes she is part of a new religious tradition—as well as a very old, sacred one

Siân Gibby
February 16, 2012
Illustration Tablet Magazine, Torah photo Congregation Beth Emeth
Illustration Tablet Magazine, Torah photo Congregation Beth Emeth
Illustration Tablet Magazine, Torah photo Congregation Beth Emeth
Illustration Tablet Magazine, Torah photo Congregation Beth Emeth

For generations, Saturday mornings at most synagogues sounded the same. After the Shaharit, or morning service, was completed, and after the Torah was paraded around and rested on the bimah and unrolled, chanting commenced. Of all the liturgical tasks, the chanting of the Torah is the most religiously and traditionally significant. Indeed, the rest of the Shabbat morning service—like that of the daily services and those on holidays—is in fact a lead-up-to and down-from the recitation of the holy scriptures in public. And for centuries and centuries, when this sacred chanting began, the odds were nearly perfect that it would sound like this. Or, should you happen to be in a Sephardic synagogue, maybe this.

But these days, what more people are hearing is this. Or even—should you find yourself in the women’s minyan of even Orthodox Sephardic synagogues—this. This is because the task of chanting the week’s verses from the Sefer Torah is increasingly being taken up by women—a group that, as of five years ago, includes me.

I come by my love of singing honestly: My paternal grandparents immigrated to America from Wales, and the Welsh are famously devoted to song; my mother, whose grandparents lived in Ireland, was an amateur choral conductor and a choir soloist. So, to me it seems like the most natural thing in the world to live life, particularly religious life, through singing. Like my mother, I joined choirs as a young adult. I even sang for a brief time in a Presbyterian church choir: Although I’m sorry to say that the lyrics about Jesus always left me cold, nevertheless the music and the ruah we experienced and generated singing it made for a pleasant, if not entirely satisfying, faith experience.

It wasn’t until I became a Jew and sang as a Jew in shul that I finally achieved a perfect religio-musical synthesis. Because the entire congregation sings the whole service at my shul, I get to participate the best and happiest way I know how. So you can guess how delighted I was to discover that a kind of singing forms the centerpiece of Jewish ritual worship: In every congregation all over the world, the Torah text is chanted aloud—not read, but rendered in melody. And how excited I was at the possibility that I could actually be the one to do it.

Tradition holds that the ta’amim, the cantillation marks that denote the melodic phrases used in the chanting, were given at Sinai along with the words of Torah.

These vocalization and punctuation marks were agreed upon around the end of the ninth century CE, and they were rendered in Western musical notation in the 1500s. The ta’amim, aside from being useful as an aide memoire, during times when texts were taught largely orally, also contribute to a syntax and punctuation system, which potentially has ramifications of meaning for the text. Ta’amim were also considered throughout the ages as a valid (indeed, some would say authoritative) form of textual commentary.

Even in ancient Israel, people chanted the text—chanted, not read aloud. In the Talmud it says, “Rabbi Shefatiah further said in the name of R. Yochanan: If one reads Scripture without a melody or learns the Mishnah without a tune, of him the Scripture says (Ezekiel 20:25), ‘Moreover I gave them laws that were not good …’ ” But not just any melody. “Even today most worshippers consider cantillation to be quite different from the art of secular singing,” writes Joshua R. Jacobson, in his staggering 2002 tome titled Chanting the Hebrew Bible. “Moreover, within the synagogue the person who chants the prayers (ba’al tefilah) is regarded as more of a musician than the person who chants the Bible (ba’al keriyah).”

Among the traditional reasons he cites for why the Torah was chanted, aside from halakha, is hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of doing a mitzvah, the making of a commandment more pleasing to God.

Historically, there are a couple of reasons women have not had aliyot, gone up to the bimah to either say the blessing for the Torah reading or chant it themselves. One reason involves kavod ha tzibbur, or honor of the congregation. Put (very, very) simply, kavod ha tzibbur posits that a situation in which anyone other than a serious and thoughtful man, a pillar of the community, standing at the bimah and engaging in a ceremonial way with the Torah runs a risk of imperiling the dignity of the congregation (this is particularly true if the person at the bimah can be said in any sense to represent the congregation before God). This would seem to argue for having individual synagogues make their own decisions about who is and is not grave and decorous enough to be at the bimah. It also makes a good case that those who are at the bimah should take being up there extremely seriously.

But as Leora Tannenbaum, an Orthodox woman writing for Tikkun, has argued, there’s no reason to believe that women would take this any less seriously than men—and indeed much to suggest the opposite. “When I am learning and practicing my leyning, I feel as though the Torah is inside my head, heart, and body. It is an organic part of me,” she wrote. “Why would anyone want to deny this experience to girls and women?

At the start of the last century, groups known as “partnership minyanim” began springing up in communities in the United States and in Israel. These services feature both men and women taking part in leading services, including receiving aliyot. Such congregations also use mehitzas to separate the seating according to gender. One of the first such communities was Kehillat Shira Hadasha in Yerushalayim. Halakhic defenses of such services came from responsa by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro and Rabbi Daniel Sperber. But objections to these opinions from other Orthodox rabbis have concluded that either they have insufficient authoritative halakhic underpinnings or that, while women might in certain circumstances be permitted to have an aliyah, it is not fitting for women to chant every Torah portion on every occasion.

But at my synagogue, which is unaffiliated but most closely identified with the Conservative Jewish tradition, women do at least half of the leyning duties on Shabbat and on Mondays and Thursdays when the Torah is read. A regular Torah-chanter is my friend Harriet Goren, who learned to leyn as an adult and who has subsequently gone on to teach others to do it. Harriet went to an Orthodox Hebrew school but really came to informed religious life in adulthood. She had been an accomplished choral singer before she learned to leyn; and yet when asked what characterized her first experience chanting Torah she replied seriously and without hesitation, “Utter terror.” This is someone who was used to performing in public, but, she quickly discovered, chanting Torah is not the same thing. While the Torah service does seem to have elements of theater and performance, she clarifies, “what’s really happening up there in the midst of that intensity at the bimah is all about giving kavod to the Torah,” and it requires “humility—being aware of what you don’t know.”

One of her recent adult students was Rutie Havazelet, who grew up Orthodox, and whose father is an Orthodox rabbi. Rutie always enjoyed singing along with the ancient melodies in shul growing up, and she felt a desire to be closer to it. Once she became an adult and began attending a Conservative shul, friends there suggested they learn to chant Torah for a birthday that they shared. When I asked her what her father’s reaction was, she smiled broadly. “He was excited!” she said. In fact, he even insisted on being present at that moment.

I asked both Rutie and Harriet how they would characterize the experience of being at the bimah to chant, and they both agreed it is like being in a trance. You are hyper-aware, and the force of your concentration pushes you into an altered state of consciousness. “It’s necessary,” says Harriet, “to be open and sort of untethered, yet fully focused. You’re naked, in a way. On some certain level you have to have a lot of trust. Open yourself up in a way that lets God in.” But there is also another angle, Rutie added: “You become part of something bigger and older than yourself.” Both she and Harriet noted the importance of contributing to their community—part of doing their part. “There came a time when I understood I had a responsibility to do it; this is something I can do,” Harriet said. “I should contribute because I belong to this community. I felt lucky to get asked. I feel that way every time.”

Shearith Israel, a Sephardic synagogue—and the oldest Jewish congregation in North America—recently instituted a women’s Shabbat service, with women performing all the service duties, including chanting Torah. Lisa Rohde, wife of Shearith Israel’s Hazzan, Rabbi Ira L. Rohde, grew up attending Rabbi Harold Kushner’s Conservative shul. When she was bat mitzvah age, women and girls still weren’t permitted to chant Torah at her synagogue, but eventually the rules changed, and she and her sister enthusiastically learned to do it. As a young woman at Brandeis, Mrs. Rohde, who by that time had become Orthodox, joined and led services at women’s prayer groups there, and she participated in similar groups at Harvard Hillel.

In the early 1990s, Shearith Israel began expanding the role of its women’s services, and because of her experience, Mrs. Rohde was involved right away, both in leading services and in teaching women how to chant. Now she assists both young girls and boys preparing for their b’nei mitzvah. She also has taught a number of adult women, some of whom, she says, grew up in Orthodox communities where women chanting was not the custom. “When I first started, as a teenager, there is no question that my motivation was to do everything the men/boys could do,” Rhode said. “Now, it’s more for the sake of transmitting the tradition to others. By offering the women’s services, women, at least, get to actually learn to say the prayers.” Does she still feel the awe? “My natural shyness has not left,” she admits, “even with so many years’ experience of leading services and reading Torah and Megillah, anyone watching will see that my hand still shakes when I’m reading!”

All of which raises the question, at least for me: If women leyn in the right spirit, solely for the service of God, can anything about it seriously be considered dangerous or improper?

I learned to leyn from Kenneth Cohen, a man who had been a frequent ba’al kiryah at the Sephardic (Orthodox) synagogue Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. One Shabbat he came to my shul and chanted Torah, and as I listened to him, I sat frozen in the pew—it was the most haunting, entrancing thing I had ever heard in my life, and clearly holy. I plucked up enough courage after the service to introduce myself to him and ask if he would teach me, which he graciously consented to do. After the first time I leyned on Shabbat, a female congregant came up and told me that hearing the unusual, to her ears, melody chanted in a woman’s voice made her think about what the Shekhinah, the female aspect of the Godhead as described in kabbalistic teachings, might sound like.

Since then, I have leyned twice at my shul to the mixed congregation, in honor of my parents’ yahrzeits. Next month I will do it again, to commemorate my mother’s birthday. She was a great and beautiful singer, my mother, and it was in honor of her singing life that I took my Hebrew name, Shirah. When she was dying of kidney failure, in the winter of 1999-2000, after my brother and sister and I got her set up in the hospice room, she asked us to play for her, on a nonstop loop for days, a CD recording of the Tallis Singers performing Spem in Alium, her favorite piece of music. That breathtaking sound, the eerie melding of 40 separate and distinct voices, ushered her from this world into the next one, literally. This bizarre, uncanny piece of medieval choral music has a quality that reminds me of what the congregant said about a woman’s voice chanting the Sephardic trop: It is a sound that is not of this world, in some sense.

I became a Jew just four years after Mom died, and when I went back to look at the Latin lyrics of Spem in Alium, the words that those 40 voices were singing on behalf of my mother’s spirit as her body shut down, I was happy to discover that they weren’t addressed to any messiah, including the one she, a Christian, might have been expected to have had on her mind as she lay dying. No, the words of prayer that accompanied her spirit on its journey back to her Creator were davka these:

I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel,
Who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and Who absolves all the sins of suffering man.
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth,
be mindful of our lowliness.

And this, I believe, is the spirit with which the women I have spoken to about leyning approach the task, as they stand at the bimah—trembling, likely as not—and chant the words of Torah for their assembled brethren and/or sistren. These women are not singing, not performing, but rather rendering service to their fellow Jews, in the ancient tradition, and doing it solely l’ Shem shemayim: for the sake of heaven.

Audio clip of Leviticus Ch. 22: 26-33, Torah cantillation: Ira Rohde, cantor; Schola Hebraeica, Donald Barnum, chorus master; Neil Levin, conductor. Courtesy of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music

Siân Gibby holds the position of writer/editor at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. She is the translator of Intimate History of the Great War, by Quinto Antonelli; The God of New York, by Luigi Fontanella; and Resistance Rap, by Francesco Carlo.