To Sing or Not to Sing?

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Dear Miriam,

I am having a very heated discussion with my husband about whether or not it’s disrespectful for me, as a woman, to sing in a group at a Shabbat table with families/husbands/men who try to avoid hearing a singular woman’s voice. Assume that these individuals are guests as well, not hosts of the meal. Please chime in without insulting the actual religious practice of Women’s Voice avoidance. For the record, my husband himself is comfortable with women doing whatever they want, but the discussion is about how to be good guests in someone else’s home.

Signed,

My voice, my decision?

Dear Voice,

The concept in question is called Kol Isha in Hebrew, and it refers to a prohibition in some religious Jewish communities where women don’t sing by themselves in front of men. (I’m strategically not providing any links about it because each one is biased in its own way, and thus not particularly helpful for our purposes.)

As someone personally and professionally committed to Jewish pluralism, I appreciate that your question specifically asks me not to comment on the religious practice itself. However, as someone personally committed to Jewish egalitarianism, I just want to acknowledge that some readers may not be able to engage with this question without deconstructing the practice itself.

The heart of your question, for me, comes down to this: Whose comfort are you (or your husband) prioritizing?

If you don’t sing at such a meal just in case someone might be offended, you are prioritizing the imagined discomfort of guests (people you may or may not know or see again but are sharing one meal with in someone else’s home) over your own interest in singing at the Shabbat table.

If you sing regardless of other’s potential discomfort, you’re prioritizing your own enjoyment of Shabbat, yes, but, I believe (without violating the terms of your question) that you’re also prioritizing the belief that people should be able to speak up for their own needs without preemptively silencing someone else. Also, my understanding is that the prohibition is against hearing one woman’s voice without others also singing, so you’re already assuming an extra stringency by debating about not singing with a group.

If it is important to your hosts that you don’t sing, whether because of their beliefs or those of their other guests, they have the responsibility to communicate that to you, ideally before the meal begins. Presumably, you know the hosts and could make some assumptions about their adherence to this religious practice. If that’s not possible, you could also watch the wife during the meal and follow her cues.

As for the other guests, though, even if you can assume something about them based on their dress or other ways in which they behave, it is still the hosts’ job is to make them feel comfortable, not yours. If someone feels so strongly about not hearing a woman’s voice that it would make it impossible for him to be present at the meal if you start the sing, he needs to share that with the host in advance as well.

It’s not your responsibility to be silent just in case. If you are truly in a situation where you feel like it is your responsibility to be silent, then you have to decide whether these invitations are worth accepting.

Perhaps one positive outcome of this heated discussion could be that you and your husband discuss how you handle this issue at your own table. Maybe in future Shabbat meal invitations, you write something like, “Men and women are both encouraged to sing at our table,” or when the singing starts, you take the lead or invite another female guest to lead a song.

Modeling a more transparent approach might encourage other people in your community to be more conscious and thoughtful of how they engage with these questions and how they communicate about them to guests. If you are hosting guests who follow this rule, perhaps you’d prefer to avoid singing at the table altogether rather than feeling excluded and excluding your other female guests.

If you are in a community where people care about kol isha, you’re probably also in a community where the standard answer to religious questions is, “Ask your rabbi.” Go ahead and see how your rabbi would answer this question, and then you and your husband can discuss that together as an additional perspective.

I’m, obviously, not a religious authority, but I am something of an authority on creating and sustaining meaningful community. If this is an issue that feels divisive and stifling in your community, I encourage you to surround yourselves with people who share your beliefs and can belt out a tune with you around the Shabbat table.

Be well,

Miriam