The sweetness of a woman’s voice can distract a man from his religious duties and should be avoided, the Talmud warns. Authorities since then have argued about the issue, with most deciding that only a woman’s singing voice is off limits. But many traditionalists take it as reinforcing a prohibition of women in any public religious role.
Enter Cantor Meeka Simerly, the latest in a long line of Jewish female clergy who have expanded the scope of women’s voices — and influence — in religious life.
Simerly is the cantor at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose and the co-editor of a new book, “Voices in the Wilderness: Emerging Roles of Israeli Clergywomen.” Cantor and music scholar Jonathan L. Friedmann of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles is the co-editor.
The cantors spent two years assembling the personal stories of nine female Reform rabbis and cantors, born in or currently living in Israel. This diverse collection of voices includes chapters from Maya Leibovich, the first Israeli-born woman to receive rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR in Jerusalem; American-born Miri Gold, who successfully petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to recognize her as a Reform rabbi; Rabbi Ilana Baird, who has worked with Russian communities in Silicon Valley; and Simerly herself.
Simerly, born in Haifa, grew up in an ultra-secular home. Since her move to the United States in 1995, she has immersed herself in spiritual study — including “the most powerful two years of my life” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur — and received her cantorial ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the school’s rabbinic program.
Of women’s evolving role in Jewish spirituality, Simerly says, “Most definitely, there is a movement of women who are just claiming different possibilities that were not considered or allowed for them as recently as 20 years ago. … There is a very clear movement of women wanting to give their own sound and voice to the spiritual hunger that exists everywhere, not just in Judaism.”
Women, says Simerly, “want to contribute their own gentle way to this world. … We talk with each other, we converse … It’s the way I really thrive myself.”
Her own spiritual development has taken interesting turns. “I’ve always had a very clear compass that directs me, and it’s only after I’ve reached a certain destination that I get to understand the ‘why.’ When I lived at Esalen, I had no idea what would happen with me. All I knew was that I wanted to be here in the U.S., the land of my dreams.”
After Esalen, she “applied for a student visa and one thing led to another.” Simerly studied music at Cabrillo College in Aptos, and learned from one of her teachers that Temple Beth El in Aptos “was looking for a music specialist.” Her experience there led to Simerly “falling in love with Reform Judaism” and “reclaiming [the Jewish spirituality] that was denied to me for so many years.”
She explains: “I had no idea what Reform Judaism was until then.”
Simerly, 49, also met her husband, Dave, a Jew by choice, at the congregation.
She later joined Emanu-El — at first as a congregant, then a cantorial intern, and now as cantor. She revels in her ability to blend her knowledge of music and Hebrew, and her people skills, to meet the needs of her community. “That’s what gives me the most satisfaction in my life: to teach and to serve.”
Also, she says, “I’m continuing our Jewish tradition by teaching Torah and bringing people of all ages to become bar and bat mitzvah.”
Of traditional authorities who resist women’s contributions to Jewish communal life, Simerly says, “I simply attribute this, and any kind of other desperate clinging onto tradition, to fear. Fear of change, fear of getting the ground shaky underneath a person’s foundation. … There are some women as well who are absolutely scared of this change.”
“Everything in our tradition is questionable,” she says. “That is why women are now questioning, why there is no stone unturned.”
“Voices in the Wilderness: Emerging Roles of Israeli Clergywomen” by Jonathan L. Friedmann and Meeka Simerly (188 pages, Gaon Books)
Cantor Meeka Simerly will read from the book as part of a community Havdallah service at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 28 at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose. Reception and book signing follow. www.templesanjose.org