Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.Exodus 15: 20-21
Miriam sang to them: Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.
Caring for my dad in hospital is a labor of love, dedication, optimism, in the face of fear, grief, and shock. It’s been quite the thing to be here, spend every day at the hospital, and keep up my spirits and my mom’s as much as possible. This has not been made easy given the surrounding political context. The volatile cocktail of religious, ethnic, and national differences here is so close to blowing up that everyone is on edge. Among the many loathsome trends all around us is a religious push to marginalize and silence women, which my friend and colleague Yofi Tirosh is fighting with everything she’s got.
A few days ago, I was horrified to learn that the mom of 13-year old Eliana, who was invited to sing at an event in her community and practiced long hours for her performance, was told at the last minute that she would not be allowed on stage because an Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi was in attendance. Her mom, Abigail, recounted that she couldn’t even begin to explain to her daughter that women’s singing was disallowed. Eliana is now invited to sing the national anthem at each anti-government protest, and may her voice ring loud and clear. But the problem runs much deeper. The prohibition on women’s voices has reached pathological levels: rabbis are opining on the age that girls are not allowed to sing in the presence of their brothers. I was under the impression that much of the recent craziness goes far beyond what was regarded reasonable in religious communities until not long ago; my dad vividly remembers going to his religious youth movement, B’nei Akivah, and singing and dancing with girls. But it turns out that the nutty silencing of women from song has deep historical roots, and beyond the famous “kol ba’ishah ervah” (hearing the voice of a woman is akin to watching her display her genitals) from Tractate Brakhot, there’s a whole discussion in Tractate Sotah page 48 about the practices of liturgical singing during the days of the Second Temple. On that page, Rav Yosef Bar Hiah, a chap I would have probably enjoyed ferociously debating on this, opines that “men singing and women answering invites promiscuity; women singing and men answering is like setting fire to bramble.” Essentially, allowing women to open their mouths at all is horrendous, but having women initiate, rather than follow, is by far the worse transgression.
So how does this learned group of pious men (duh) explain away Miriam, Moses’ sister, who, per Exodus, vocally and musically participated in perhaps the most memorable victory song in the Tanakh? Here the Talmud does what it does best, which is engage in breathtaking interpretive gymnastics so that there’s no contradiction. The less impressive commenters argue that Miriam’s singing was only audible to the women. The more sophisticated commenters say that the moments immediately following the marvelous miracle of parting the Red Sea (evocatively visible in Judy Chicago’s feminist illustration for the Haggadah, see above) were of such unique spiritual quality–the rapture before such an otherworldly occurrence, the release from bondage, the vivid connection with, literally, Deus-ex-Machina coming to the aid of his people–that they merited an exception to the prohibition on women’s singing. If you read Hebrew, here’s a lecture by Admiel Kosman that walks you through the whole thing.
I got thinking about Miriam and her singing, and Eliana and the small-minded men who wanted to keep her from singing, because I came across an interesting study. Starting in the 1970s, many symphony orchestras hold “blind” auditions: musicians play behind a screen and are thus judged on the quality of their music, not who they are. A Harvard study showed that the “blind” auditions were successful: after their introduction–between 1970 and 1993–the percentage of women in the five highest-ranked U.S. orchestras increased from 6 to 21 percent. Now, however–in the name of representation/diversity initiatives–there are calls to remove the screen so as to increase diversity, primarily along racial lines.
Pretty much every classical musician I know, of all genders and ethnicities, thinks that removing the screen is a profoundly idiotic and unfair idea, which will stymie true integration and inclusion of folks from disadvantaged backgrounds in classical music–because, if the idea is that diversity increases quality, wouldn’t you assume that the behind-the-screen musicians the orchestra hired would be diverse? Wouldn’t you immediately hire Jessye Norman, Reggie Mobley, Wynton Marsalis, and countless amazing others, whether or not they sang or played behind a screen? And if we removed the screen, what would that say about the qualities of the people we hired, and how would it feel to have been hired under those circumstances?
What we need is to strongly enhance and enrich and provide opportunities for musical education and musical education for kids–even very young kids–of all backgrounds, so that class/race/gender will not be a hindrance to anyone who wants a classical music career at its inception. If we invest our effort in fostering, supporting, and nurturing musical excellence from infancy, then of course we can keep the screen up to prevent the Yosef Bar Hiahs of the world from sabotaging people they disdain out of bias and bigotry, and we can ensure that everyone has a fair shake from the start, resulting in their excellence sparkling through the screen. But investing in early-age education and artistic development in disadvantaged neighborhoods is challenging, expensive work, whereas posturing and bloviating about diversity is lazy and cheap. I really hope we invest in raising generations of musical Miriams who don’t need any special favors for their beautiful voices to ring even from behind a screen; when their prodigious talents and hard work get them to the finish line, appreciate their voices; and then remove the screen, so we can amplify their music a thousandfold.