“Naamah’s Voice”: Cantor Erin Frankel’s sermon from Friday, October 12
I went to the movies recently. I went to see A Star is Born, because I felt an overwhelming compulsion to see it. I last saw a movie, two actually, over the summer, while my children were at overnight camp and I had time to do things like see adult movies. I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a beautiful tribute to Fred Rogers that, while honoring the beauty of his soul I must admit depressed me just a bit because it seems we don’t have too many souls of pure goodness leading us in this moment of history. I cried at the end of that one, tears of loss and of admiration. The other movie I saw was BlackkKlansman, the Spike Lee movie about the black man who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. What a brilliant movie that was, what powerful images, and in my opinion one of the best responses to the current administration that I have seen. Wow, did I cry at the end of that one, tears of bewilderment and of a new sense of understanding.
So why the compulsion to see A Star is Born? The reviews told me I would cry, and I felt an overwhelming need for that emotional release again. And this movie was a good cry. The story rides on deeply passionate feelings about love, the passage of time, personal demons, and loyalty. It’s easy to understand why this story has been remade three times, it still lands. But this current remake arrives at a moment in our society when one aspect of the story lands more powerfully than all the others. For this is a movie about a woman finding her voice.
Yes, the men around her guide her, lead her, make things possible for her, and manipulate her, and that is part of the story. They do that because they see that she has the ability to say something in her music that people want to hear. The movie keeps returning to this message as the ultimate power of music making and the key to success: the power to make people stop and listen. Everyone around her believes this woman can do that and she should be propelled forward so she will do that.
She is hesitant at first to walk through the door opening for her, but then she grabs hold of the moment and decides to take control. I so respect the brilliant casting decision to feature Lady Gaga in this role. She is an artist who has taken her own individual path, embraced her unique sense of art and music, and presented herself in ways both novel and shocking. Here, as her character faces the series of decisions that allow her to seize her moment and create a successful career, Lady Gaga is able to portray the understanding of personal loss that comes with choice. She questions her moves at every turn, but you feel her choices are hers to make. She is fierce, she is a woman who will fight in a bar and injure her hand and smash glass in anger and grief when the world tumbles around her. She is a woman of this moment.
This week in Torah we find a woman who is not able to find her voice. This parsha is named Noach, Noah, it is clearly about Noah, who was righteous in his age, it’s about the ark, the animals, the flood, Noah’s drunkenness and the sexual misconduct that results…. And it’s about how we are descended from his line.
The midrash tells us the name of Noah’s wife, Naamah, a beautiful Hebrew name, meaning “pleasing”. But the Torah tells us nothing about her.
The Torah tells us about Naamah’s brothers. They are listed in the genealogy that ends last week’s Torah portion as we finished the story of creation and trace the descendants of Eve, Adam, and Cain. Naamah’s brothers are each given specific jobs or areas of expertise. We read in the text:
“Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.”[Genesis 4:19-22]
Jabal’s expertise was agriculture, Jubal’s was instrumental music, and Tubal-cain’s was metal smithing. Naamah is given no area of expertise in Torah, so the midrash gives her one, and it’s song, melody, and singing. Her voice is pleasant.
In the rabbinic literature there are two very different opinions of how Naamah used her voice. Some say her conduct, her voice, was pleasing to God and used to comfort her sons and future generations after the flood. [Abba Bar Kahana, 3rd century] Others say she was idolatrous, using her voice to sing to idols and seduce men [Genesis Rabbah 23]. Others, that she harmed infants and other people in their sleep [Zohar, B’reishit 4].
There is a long standing tension in our tradition with how to deal with the voice of a woman, especially one that sings well. It’s why in Orthodox synagogues men and women are separated, why women are not allowed to lead worship, certainly not to serve as cantors. Our voices are too seductive to men, who apparently are not required to make themselves focus no matter what they hear.
Naamah is the first of all of us women with lovely voices, the lovely singing voices and the lovely speaking voices that share opinions and perspectives that are different from men’s. Our country and culture is focused right now again on raising up those women’s voices. How do we do that within a Jewish context?
We consider the tension in our tradition around the voice of a woman. The organization Women of the Wall, which is fighting to allow women’s voices to be heard at the Kotel, the western wall in Jerusalem, points out the contrast between the Talmudic prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice, called “kol isha, the voice of a woman,” and the passages in Torah (a much older text than the Talmudic writings) that value a woman’s voice, such as when God commands Abraham to listen to Sarah’s voice [Genesis 21:12], and the admission of Judah that Tamar, who told her story of being wronged by Judah, that she is more right than he [Genesis 38:26]. And the tension surrounding Naamah’s voice. What can that tension teach us?
We explore with new curiosity the stories of the women in our sacred texts, fleshed out or, in contrast, only mentioned in passing, and we write new midrashim to fill in the blanks of women’s experiences that the texts leave unwritten. We honor the women in our tradition who show anger, who fight, who upset men in the process of revealing truth. They are there.
In our sanctuary we embrace the power of emotional release to move us forward cleansed and focused, we foster a good cry. Whether through music or liturgy or the combination of the two we open ourselves up to the emotional power of song and good storytelling each week to allow us to deal with the world we have and change the world to become as we wish it to be.
It’s time for us to claim Naamah’s voice from tradition and to use it, perhaps pleasingly and perhaps not so pleasingly. The important part is that she resembles the character from A Star is Born and has her moment standing alone on the stage, with a huge crowd listening, because she has something to say that we all want to hear.