If not here, then where?

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh: men must not listen to women sing

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh: men must not listen to women sing

It’s getting harder and harder to insist that Israel is responsible for the conflict as Arab rhetoric and actions have become more and more aggressive. Mahmoud Abbas and others have admitted that they do not now and never will accept a Jewish state in the Middle East. It’s clear that the ‘two-state solution’ that they want is in fact two Arab states.

Hamas has been happily firing rockets at Israeli civilians in the south  — 32 so far this month — and Hizballah has also launched several rockets at northern Israel, as it prepares for war and tries to push out the practically useless UN peacekeeping force. At the same time, the threats come fast and furious from Syria and Iran.

Despite this, the Obama administration would like to tamp down popular support for Israel in order to justify its hard line against her. Following Jewish critics of Israel like Peter Beinart, Tom Friedman, etc., the administration and  the usual suspects in the media have been calling Israel ‘undemocratic’, to try to drive a wedge between Israel and democracy-loving Americans.

Hillary Clinton’s remarks a couple of weeks ago are an example. Comparing Israel to Iran, she mentioned the sex-segregated buses in Mea Shearim and the controversy about observant soldiers in the IDF walking out of a performance where women were singing.

It doesn’t improve matters when an institution like the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) provides ammunition for Israel’s political enemies in this country.

Here is part of an article by an American Reform Rabbi, Daniel Allen, the Executive Director of ARZA, the Reform Zionist association, which was distributed on the URJ’s “Ten Minutes of Torah” email list:

Israel is suffering from the role of religion in the state and in the lives of its people. Judaism, as administered by the official government rabbinate is coercive in the public domain.  The Israel Defense Forces is now under pressure to prohibit women from singing in the company of men. In the halachah this is known as Kol Isha which refers to an edict in Talmud from Rav Shmuel that states that it is forbidden for a man to hear the voice of a woman.

Leading Israeli Rabbis have recently said that if a male soldier is in a situation where a fellow soldier, a woman, is singing he must leave the setting even on pain of being court marshaled and executed. The basis of this judgment comes from several passages in the Talmud. In one such passage (Sotah 48a) Rav Joseph said “When men sing and a woman joins in, it is licentious, when a woman sings and men answer, it is like a raging fire.”

Can it be that the rabbis thought so poorly of men that they are viewed as incapable of controlling their own sexual urges? Must it be that in order for men to remain “pure” women must not be present in their public, civic, communal and religious lives lest men not be able to control themselves?

It is a demeaning view of men as well as women. It is a view that plays to the basest of human behavior rather than aspiring to the highest forms of human conduct.

One of the gifts of America to the world is the separation of religion and the state. We must share that gift with Israel.

Rabbi Allen’s  remarks are misleading in several ways. First, no one reasonably imagines that the IDF would “prohibit women from singing in the company of men.” The issue is whether highly observant soldiers will be permitted to leave a venue where there is such a performance. In the case that sparked the controversy, a soldier was dismissed from an officer’s course because he walked out of an event where a woman was singing, and Israel’s Supreme Court allowed the dismissal to stand.

Second, the rabbis who insisted that a soldier must leave regardless of the consequences (Rabbi Allen apparently refers to R. Elyakim Levanon, see previous link in Hebrew) did not speak in the name of the “official government rabbinate,” and even if they had, their words would have only moral force. Israel is not governed according to halacha [Jewish law] and the last time I looked, even a rabbi has the right to express his opinion on matters of conscience.

Finally — and I would like Rabbi Allen to think carefully about this, given his patronizing remark about sharing our gift — Israel is not America.

Israel is the one and only Jewish state. As I said before, this does not mean that it is governed according to halacha, but it does mean that it must be a place where Jews can express their Jewishness as fully as possible. Of course Israel is also a democratic and tolerant state, unlike the Iran to which Ms Clinton so inappropriately compared it. So sometimes, as in this case, it requires walking an exquisitely fine line in order to permit the highly observant Jew to follow his interpretation of the commandments without coercing others, even if a less observant one finds that interpretation objectionable.  It would be wrong to prohibit women from singing, but it would also be wrong to force someone to listen.

Yes, it’s difficult, and Israel has been struggling with these issues since its beginning. Recently, the Reform Movement’s arm in Israel has been pushing very hard against what it considers the unfair monopoly held by the Orthodox establishment in Israel on family law, against anything it regards as coercive — and also for government financial support of all forms of Judaism, including Reform.

Sometimes — as it did in the case of the Rotem conversion bill which it presented as an attempt to delegitimize Diaspora Jewry, and in the case of the soldiers, it has tried to apply pressure on Israel by stirring up American Jews with oversimplified and even disingenuous interpretations of complicated issues. Especially now, when the administration has picked up the “Israel isn’t democratic” line, this is unfortunate.

Israel is not America. Israel must be a place where every Jew can feel comfortable — secular Jews, Haredim, and yes, even Reform Jews. If not here, then where?

Rabbi Daniel Allen responds:

The final paragraph of my remarks are the heart of the matter;

“Israel is truly extraordinary by its very existence. This is all the more reason for us to work every day for a more inclusive, democratic, Jewish pluralistic Israeli society. Kol Isha v’Kol Ish – the voices of all men and women are needed to protect Israel and to enable her to thrive.”

You draw a distinction between those who are more observant and those who are less observant. I assume your reference is to traditional halachic Jewish practice. I appreciate that you did not suggest that differences in observance correlates to “being religious” or superior in any way. Pluralism, which is historically common  within the Jewish people( see Hillel and Shammai, Mitnagdim and Hassidim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim for a start) is the essence of the issue. It is not an easy task to create and sustain a Jewish democratic state living in a tough neighborhood. Yet, that is the privilege with which we are blessed in our time.

We have no desire to change the private practices of other Jews, nor do wish them to change our private practices. However, there must be equality, parity, and acceptance of all Jews in the public square. If Israel chooses to fund Jewish religious life, which is certainly a different decision than America, it must do so for all Jews. Israeli Orthodox Rabbis are paid by the State, congregational buildings are built by the state, schools are funded by the state – we  demand  the same funding based on our growing numbers.  Gender separation in the public domain is antithetical to the very essence of democracy. It must not be allowed.

Ours is a movement open to all, a big tent like that of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah. Israel must be more than a place where all Jew can feel comfortable. Israel must be a place where all Jews can thrive, where issues of personal religious status are not determined by only one segment of society, in this case Orthodoxy, and where equal funding based on levels of participation are normative. I agree that Israel is the one and only Jewish state. However there is not just one way to be Jewish, or to do Jewish, or to embrace and be embraced by our God.

— Rabbi Daniel Allen

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5 Responses to “If not here, then where?”

  1. juvanya says:

    Kol Ishah isnt a commandment. Its some garbage created by a sexist powertripping rabbi centuries after the Torah received its last book.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:

    I agree with you. I said “his interpretation of the commandments.” But the point is that Israel has to be ‘friendly’ to all kinds of Judaism. Anyway I’m not qualified to be a posek! I’m sure r. Levanon has reasons for what he said.

  3. Shalom Freedman says:

    Many may regard me here as not religious enough to be religious, but I do not think asking a soldier to be present when a woman sings is depriving that soldier of his religious way of life. Earplugs, or cotton wool might help him if he does not want to hear the voice. But on another level completely I just do not see this prohibition as making any kind of sense.
    But this today is not the major issue. We see actions by a group of Jews against soldiers. We see the writing of curses and insults on a mosque, and even the burning of a mosque.
    It seems to me it is precisely those people who are the strongest supporters of Israel who should be most outraged by this stupid, ugly, and self- defeating behavior. It is not enough here to say the Arabs are worse, the Islamists are worse , the Palestinians are worse etc. It is what we are and the way we conduct our life in Israel which counts the most. Our whole being here is connected with the idea of our striving to create a moral and just society.

  4. Stevetan says:

    I think the previous commenters are missing the point. The issue here is that the Reform Rabbi, like so many other leftists, wants his way to be the only way. He claims that his way is true freedom, but it’s anything but. The only freedom he grants is for others to do what he says.

    The religious soldier is not asking the IDF to stop women from singing. He is merely asking to be allowed to excuse himself from listening to them. Surely he should have the freedom to do that? After all, he’s the only one who’s affected by this. The women still get to sing and everyone else still gets to listen to them. The religious soldier is the only one who misses out, but he does because he chooses to do so. There’s no coercion on anyone else whatsoever.

    Isn’t that true democracy? And isn’t it ironic that in the “only democracy in the Middle East”, religious Jews are the victims of some incredibly anti-democratic feelings and actions, even at the hands of the country’s Supreme Court.

  5. Vic Rosenthal says:

    Shalom: Incidentally, Rabbi Levanon said that earplugs were an acceptable solution. I agree with you that the kol isha prohibition is repugnant and doesn’t make sense to me. But I think that if there are enough Jews that feel that way, the state and the army need to take them seriously, although clearly they can’t be allowed to interfere with others’ rights.

    Regarding the extreme right-wing vandals — I don’t know what to say about them, I’m struck dumb by the damage they are doing. They are doing a better job than the Left ever did at delegitimizing the ‘settlers’ and even Zionism in general. They are morally as bad as Neturei Karta and in practice more dangerous.