A Holy Calling

By Neshama Carlebach

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Chassidic movement was once asked: "Why is it that Chassidim burst into song and dance at the slightest provocation? Is this the behavior of a healthy, sane individual?”

The Baal Shem Tov responded with a story:

Once, a musician came to town—a musician of great but unknown talent. He stood on a street corner and began to play. Those who stopped to listen could not tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the glorious music, whose equal they had never heard. Before long, they were moving to its rhythm, and the entire street was transformed into a dancing mass of humanity. 

A deaf man walking by wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in middle of the street?

Chassidim are moved by the melody that issues forth from every creature in God’s creation. If this makes them appear mad to those with less sensitive ears, should they therefore cease to dance?1

It is that “melody that issues forth from every creature in God’s creation” that has been the focus of most of my life. I was raised listening to it in my father’s voice and was blessed to join him in making that music. Sadly, not every person is able to be moved by the music my father and I embraced. 

Kol isha, the Orthodox Jewish prohibition against men hearing a woman’s singing voice, has been a tumultuous struggle for me for much of my adult life. I am well aware that many observe this custom religiously and with great conviction. To them, it is reasonable to insist that women refrain from singing to ensure that religious men avoid distraction from holier thoughts.

I have chosen not to adhere to this rule of kol isha. I perform in front of women, men, adults, children, Jews, and non-Jews. The joy music brings, its power to unite and inspire, are too important to limit my audience. At the same time, though, there are many within the Orthodox community who criticize my choice on the basis of kol isha.

As perhaps the most prominent Orthodox Jewish woman to publicly ignore this custom—which, I believe, is an antiquated, misogynistic concept that has no place in our modern society—my position is, unfortunately, often met with anger and rage. Some openly blame me for being a bad influence on their daughters and community, while others imply that I am somehow responsible for the impending demise of my own tradition.

For me, the most painful allegation is that I am regularly told that I bring shame to my father’s great name and cause his soul to suffer in the hereafter.

When I was sixteen years old, I had the privilege of singing with my father on a TV show in Israel. The host disliked my father’s approach to Judaism, and at one point in the program, in an attempt to antagonize him, he began to attack my father for his having invited me to join him in song.

My father rarely became angry. That moment, though, was one instance I remember clearly. My father stared into the eyes of the host, and said: 

This world is falling apart. There are women in the world who don’t light Shabbat candles, who don’t know God, who feel like they don’t have a place in this world. My daughter is singing for them! We don’t live in the shtetl anymore. The world is changing, and my daughter needs to sing! When someone is dying of a heart attack, you don’t give them a Band-Aid!

At that moment I knew that my path was laid out for me. I knew that my work had a holy calling. 

The moment on that television show was the first turning point of my life. When people berate me, I think about my father’s eyes on that day. He spoke with such clarity as he voiced his conviction that women need to be heard as surely as men. 

Kol isha does not belong in twenty-first-century Jewish life. It should not be a woman’s responsibility to protect men from themselves. Rather, if men are so easily consumed by sexual or less-than-holy thoughts, it is their responsibility to get help. It is each person—man and woman—who is accountable for his or her own behavior—not someone who, through music, has chosen to bring light, laughter, and love into the world.

We are taught that we are each created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. We learn that we are each responsible for our own actions and behaviors during our time on this planet.

Rav Kook once wrote:

Sometimes we rigidly cling to a state of consciousness or point of view that keeps us stuck in wrongness— whether wrong acts or wrong viewpoints. And that has become our norm. This rigidity is an illness that comes from having being immersed in a terrible slave mentality, a mentality that does not allow the liberating light of teshuvah to illumine, with its awesome strength.

To the point: We are, as Rav Kook writes, “stuck in wrongness.”

God does not want women to be silent. Men do. Or at least, men did, many years ago. We no longer sacrifice animals. We no longer stone people to death. Yet we allow too many people to claim that this archaic, excessively strict minhag represents the uplifting and sanctifying best of our tradition. This is, I believe, a distortion of Judaism 

and a misrepresentation of God’s word. We are given the
gift of free will, and we are commanded to cherish and
celebrate it.

Simply put, kol isha is a construct that, in a modern
age, serves only to repress and silence. In our own holy
community, women are abused, but counseled to remain
silent. Women die alone as agunot, unable to remarry when they are left without a get. Women must sit idly by, must quietly remain at the back, and must collectively
accept a position as second class individuals, people, and Jews. Such constructs are at once appalling, roguish, and blisteringly defaming of this spiritual and communal culture we celebrate and honor.

No more. I renounce it. So should you.

How odd that in a culture so proud of its willingness to question, argue, and debate, certain issues are still swept under the rug. I believe that this is emblematic of Rav Kook’s point. We are, in fact, “stuck in wrongness.”

Sometimes, when we are wrong, when that to which we have previously subscribed is suddenly changed or discredited, we are afraid that this means that the core of our beliefs is also wrong. However, the truth is that Judaism and our community have always changed, grown, and evolved to address the challenges of the age. The time has come for change in our community that allows women to be whole people—wives, mothers and teachers, but also singers, writers, and leaders.

It is time for women to rise and redeem themselves from artificial bonds of slavery. As I write this, we are approaching Pesach. Let us all find our own redemption from whatever enslaves us. Let us stop being afraid, and let us create a world where all of God’s children can sit in the beauty of God’s light, without prejudice and without fear.

As for me, I know this: I was born to sing, to heal, and to bring light to the darkness. I was born to lend my voice
to those who suffer, who rise up, and who bring peace in this world. Will there be those who criticize me? Certainly. But singing is what I do, and I will continue to do my part to create goodness and positive change.

I pray that everyone will have clarity of mind and spirit in this way as well. I pray that each of us will be able to make the choice to hear the voice of our own soul and live in the way that we know is real and true. I have no doubt that at the end and beginning of all things, this gift was meant to be ours.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will. And may God hear our collective song.

Neshama Carlebach has performed in cities worldwide, sung on the Broadway stage, sold more than one million records, and was a six-time nominee in the 2011 Grammy Awards. Neshama is currently touring with a new band and gospel choir, releasing her ninth recording, Soul Daughter, and joyfully raising her two sons, Rafael and Micah.

1 http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/36751/jewish/The-Dancing-Jews.htm

2 Orot Hateshuvah, p. 42. 


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