The Bible Says What? ‘Men must not hear women sing’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Men must not hear women sing’

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks a Liberal Jewish response

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash
Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

On that day, Devorah sang and Barak son of Avinoam…” (Judges 5:1)

I’ve visited a number of primary schools this month and a recurrent question is the separation of women and men in Orthodox shuls and what we might called “gendered roles”.

One of the most bizarre prohibitions discussed regards women not being heard singing by men.

As described on an Orthodox website: “The singing voice of a woman is considered sensual and possibly stimulating to males. It is therefore forbidden for a man to hear a woman other than his immediate family sing and it is prohibited to pray or study Torah in that environment.”

In our Bible, Devorah the prophet is an inspiration to women. She is a courageous leader. A judge of Israel, she bound her community through struggles for a symbolically vital 40 years. Through it all, she has a reputation for fairness and justice (Judges 4:1 – 5:31).

When the people of Israel are being oppressed by the king of Canaan, Devorah “summons” Barak, the army commander, and tells him God has commanded him to muster 10,000 troops and go into battle. He only agrees if she will go with him.

When introducing Devorah’s subsequent song of victory, it seems clear a (male) addition has been made, Barak’s name being added. Why, added? Because the verb in Hebrew is feminine singular – she, Devorah sang.

From ancient times through millennia, men have sought to silence and hide women. But Devorah’s presence and voice in the Tanach cuts through the halachic apologetics that men cannot control themselves, so women should be silenced, hidden behind a mechitza and barred from Torah.

  • Rabbi Aaron Goldstein is senior rabbi at Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue
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