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Sunday, 13 November 2011

“Pluralism, Provocation and Power”

Rabbi,Marc.RosensteinIf  they would – or could – be self-aware, Jewish and Islamist extremists may confess to having much in common.

There’s not  only the obvious similarities in life-cycle ritual observed throughout the Moslem and Jewish worlds.

There’s the despicable way  the extremists in both camps treat their women. Sadly, it would not happen so often if the women concerned did not aggravate matters by actively accepting, even encouraging what happens.

I am by no means expert about Islam but I am aware that many Orthodox Jewish women forcibly collaborate in their marginalisation.

Last year, for example, I attended a celebration at a private home where the hostess demanded a mechitza (screen) be erected, so dividing her women guests from their husbands.

Recently I learned that Moslem Sharia law has a similar rule to that of the Jewish law of kol isha (a woman’s voice). This prevents women singing – occasionally even speaking – while in mixed company.

So I was delighted to read the following blog  article  by US-born Conservative Masorti Rabbi Marc Rosenstein who lives near me in Moshav Shorashim, just outside Karmiel in the Northern Galilee.

The following piece appeared last week in his Galilee Diary on the American Union for Reform Judaism’s website (‘Ten Minutes of Torah’ panel).  

Thanks to modern technology, these entertaining and instructive pieces leave Shorashim, ‘travel’ virtually to the USA and return to Israel to hit my desktop barely three miles (about five kilometres) from where he lives!

*****

“Samuel said, "A woman's voice is sexually provocative, as it is written [Song of Songs 2:14] 'Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet…'" 

“         -Babylonian Talmud, Tractate B’rachot 24aJewish.Women

“The latest in the on-going series of dramas in Israel related to religion and state is the controversy over women soloists in army entertainment troupes.  We may have 400,000 people marching in the streets over economic distortions, and the whole world against us on the diplomatic front, but fortunately we have time and energy for really important things!  This topic has been front page news off and on for the past month or so.

“The above passage is part of a Talmudic discussion of those aspects of a woman's interaction with men that are liable to give rise to sinful thoughts (her hair, her skin).  The outcomes of this discussion are the rules of modesty in dress, and the practice of married women covering their hair in public.  In addition, Jewish law developed the prohibition of men hearing a women's voice in song.  This was attenuated by limiting it to solos – if the woman is part of a choir, the prohibition does not apply. 

“For most modern, western, egalitarian, liberal people, this prohibition feels patently absurd, standing on several assumptions about human nature and social convention that we would label silly at best and immoral at worst.  And indeed, there are Orthodox rabbis who are also uncomfortable with these assumptions, and have issued rulings further limiting the prohibition to situations where the suspicion of sexual provocation might be in some way relevant (concerts, pageants, etc. would thus be excluded from the prohibition).

“Over the years, the stricter interpretation has been observed in Ultra-Orthodox communities, while the more moderate, Zionist Orthodox mainstream has largely ignored it.  Concerts and musical theatre productions in the big cities are well-attended by people whose headgear identifies them as part of this population sector.  Army entertainment troupes have always had female vocalists, and no army rabbi ever intervened (why not?  Was it because the rabbis found  a halachic (Jewish law) way out, or because they knew they would lose the battle?).

“But times are changing, as, contrary to Ben Gurion's expectation, the power of Orthodoxy seems to be waxing.  Recently some Orthodox soldiers tried to walk out of an army concert featuring a female singer, and were disciplined by their commanding officer.  This made headlines, ultimately resulting in a ruling by the Chief Rabbi justifying the soldiers' behaviour, suggesting that the army doesn't need to stop producing such concerts – it just needs to allow Orthodox soldiers to be excused from them. 

“It is important to say in this context that recent years have seen a significant rise in the percentage of Orthodox soldiers in combat units and officers' training.

So, here we are again, struggling to mark the limits of pluralism.  We discussed this last week at our staff meeting (at the seminar centre I direct at Shorashim).  Tova, who lives in an Orthodox community, said that pluralism dictates that people should be free to follow their conscience on such matters, and soldiers should be allowed to leave the room.  Sigalit, who grew up in a liberal Orthodox community and sang plenty of solos herself, argued that the ultimate impact will be to discourage the army from putting women in its entertainment troupes.

“But as you can't run an army where soldiers get to make such decisions, so the "easy" solution will be to eliminate the dilemma.  Few would argue with the policy that all army food must be kosher; but here, the accommodation of religious scruples for some infringes on the opportunities of others – and undermines the social framework. 

On the other hand, how can the army of the Jewish state refuse to accommodate the religious needs of Jewish soldiers?

My reply to Rabbi Rosenstein ran thus:

“I wonder to which 'Samuel' the tractate above alludes?

Surely not Samuel The Judge and Prophet as he must have ante-dated The Song of Songs by many years because its authorship is ascribed to King Solomon, King David's son. Amy.Winehouse

“I much prefer the view of The Masorti Movement's Rabbi David Golinkin who explained during a magisterial lecture at this year's annual Women's Masorti Conference in Jerusalem that the kol isha ruling is barely 200 years old. ("The Participation of Jewish Women in Public Rituals and Torah Study 1845-2010").

“Funny, isn't it, that fundamentalist Islamic preachers have made the same ruling as our fanatical rabbis?

“And even funnier, in my view, is that these sex-obsessed men never think that women (like me, anyway!) often find male voices very attractive indeed.

“My favourites include the warm radio voice of the present UK Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks; that of the late great British actor John Gielgud (avowedly gay!), the U.K. former  poet laureate, Andrew Motion and his colleague,  novelist, Martin Amis.”

Meanwhile, there are many level-headed women who think like me. This is how some have responded to Rabbi Rosenstein:

The practice makes ‘Shirley’ feel angry and frightened; ‘Meredith’ believes that if “Israel wants to describe herself as a Jewish State, then she has to decide which 'stream' of Judaism is meant by that and then accept having to adhere to those parameters including how women are 'allowed' to behave”.

Finally, ‘Suzy’ demands: “ … is there no flexibility for reform? Is the human nature of men so weak? I really believe most Jewish men can handle the sound of beautiful singing by a woman without acting poorly … there has to be room for growth and sensibility. The original rule makes no sense, and don’t try to convince me otherwise.”

Indeed a friend in Karmiel who decided to try an Orthodox Sabbath morning service held by a new religious community here was appalled to find that the women present were pushed into the kitchen.

This is the policy of a man, who  like Rabbi Rosenstein is an immigrant to Israel from the USA. But unlike Rabbi Marc, this man left many problems back home. Maybe he should return there to resolve them.

msniw

 

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