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Wednesday, February 06, 2013 

Ophir ben-Shetreet should be honored for singing

I wrote the other week about the case of Ophir ben-Shetreet, the religious student who was suspended from her religious girls' school for singing on The Voice music program on Israeli TV. The Forward has since written some more about this subject, and interviewed Jerusalem city council member Rachel Azaria, who came out in support of ben-Shetreet:
THE SISTERHOOD: You are an incredibly busy politician and mother. What prompted you to take time out of your packed schedule to write an opinion piece on Ophir Ben-Shetreet’s competing on “The Voice”?

RACHEL AZARIA: I wrote it because I used to sing, just like Ophir. For me, music is the road not taken. I immediately saw myself in her.… I and my friends from the religious Zionist schools and youth groups used to wear dresses like the one she wore on TV; we wore our hair in a braid like she did. She just seemed so familiar to me, like who I was at 17.

What is your response to those who say that the school was justified in suspending Ophir, since she knew ahead of time what its religious rules were?

Those who are saying this are missing the point. Maybe the school had the right to punish her, and maybe it didn’t. Who cares? We need to look at the bigger picture. Something wonderful is happening here with her singing on the show. Look at how much good is coming out of her presenting herself with charm and grace and talking about her love for traditional Judaism… Shouldn’t we be proud of and celebrating — not punishing — her?
Of course we should be proud of her, for doing what the ancient Jewesses who made their way out of Egypt did too after crossing the Red Sea. The song was led by Miriam:
After the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, a song led by Miriam appears in Exodus 15:20-21:
"And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel (tambourine) in her hand, and all of the women followed her, with timbrels and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
Sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea."
Do today's Orthodox Judaists who go by the notion of "kol isha" being impure consider Miriam's tune an abomination? By the logic of today's advocates for stifling women's song, even a wonderful Biblical woman like Miriam would be considered foul, which is disturbing when you think about it.

Azaria went on to say:
What do you think is really behind the suspension?

People want ulpana [religious public girls’ high school] girls not to be out there. They want them to be segregated and to stay within their own tribe, so to speak. Someone who wants to cross boundaries and share and collaborate with another tribe can be considered a threat. People get scared and punish this person to try to bring things back to the way they were.

Ophir is crossing boundaries and trying to be part of something larger, more pluralistic and collaborative. Young people like her don’t want to live with these fences anymore.

Are religious schools putting pressure on students and their families to be more observant?

Definitely. There has been a rightward shift. I wrote in my piece about how when I was in ulpana, I sang in front and with boys all the time. Ophir has said that in her family it was never considered a sin to sing in front of men.

This strictness is an issue we are dealing with in other aspects, not just the singing. Kids are coming home from school and questioning their parents’ level of observance. How do you raise children when they are getting two different messages — one from home and one from school?
The part about "rightward shift" is unclear, because assuming she's referring to the taboo standing on singing, it is anything but that. And if they think they're helping the cause of Judaism, they'd do well to think again, and of Miriam. I hope this doesn't mean Azaria thinks right-wing is bad just because many observants in Israel do indeed vote that way.
You wrote that music is perfect medium for bringing Jews of different streams together. Do you think that the arts in general can be a means to that end?

Definitely. Nowadays, there is so much art all along the secular-religious spectrum. But I think that the possibility with music is the strongest, simply because there is so much to work with. With music, it’s just happening all over the place, like with popular musicians such as Kobi Oz singing traditional piyutim (liturgical poems).

What do you think of Ophir’s choosing Aviv Geffen as her mentor on “The Voice?”

In my day, it would have been unthinkable for a religious girl to choose Aviv Geffen as her mentor. I couldn’t have even imagined speaking to him. He was the antithesis of everything we identified with. But, as I said, Ophir is part of this new generation that wants to celebrate one another, and that gives me reason for optimism.
Geffen, back in my day, carried a very leftist viewpoint, wore ridiculous stage makeup and didn't set very good examples when he once called on people to leave the country. Today, he seems to have cleaned up his act and that might be one of the reasons why ben-Shetreet chose him. Another reason could be because she's aware of his questionable past and wanted to try and encourage him to embrace faith and traditions more than he does. He actually responded quite respectably to this. On Life in Israel, a commentor noted:
Secular pop icon panelist Aviv Geffen claimed to be somewhat inclined toward religious tradition. The singer sweetly told him, "En zman m'uchar lachazor bitshuvah," "There is no time when it is too late to return in repentence [to religious observance.]" He said that whenever he gets too close to observance, at the last moment he runs away; then the conversation continues. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? On a super popular reality Israeli TV show, a beautiful religious young woman tells the famous singer/songwriter/musician/producer twice her age that anytime is a good time to become observant! In a good humored pleasant conversation! He, the other panelists and the audience are all very happy with this! This is not how the religious and secular groups in Israeli are reported in the press as behaving toward each other, but maybe this is the reality. I think the Messiah is finally coming!
So it's quite an irony that here, a whole bunch of TV staffers who could be potentially to the left kept their manners and didn't try to belittle her, but rather, the parents of other girls at her religious school did, her impressive beliefs in her faith and trying to encourage it notwithstanding. I think we can all see here who the real scoundrels are.

While we're on the subject, another writer told something troubling about a school she'd gone to:
Now, I can’t say I’m personally a fan of the notion that schools demand certain behaviors of students outside of school hours and grounds, but this is a legitimate philosophy, whether I agree with it or not. The Bais Yaakov in my hometown had “spies” that would report to the school if a girl was spotted hanging out with boys. Do I agree with that practice, or that rule? No. But the school had a reputation for this behavior, and every student understood the repercussions of hanging out with boys in public. In the school’s view, and likely in the students’ view too, it had a right to punish any student who did so anyway. If the school in Ashdod was clear that it required Orthodox behavior of its students in the public domain — and I say if because I know nothing of this school’s rules — then it has every right to act on those rules.
Make of that what you will, but in my mind, that kind of spying could constitute an invasion of privacy, and it's quite honestly offensive to interfere with someone else's personal life. I don't know if any religious schools do that today, but if they do, it should be criticized for the poor example it sets.

A writer working for Machon Shecter has said:
I was shocked and disappointed to learn that Ophir Ben-Shetreet, a talented young woman contesting on The Voice, was suspended from her religious high school for the crime of singing in front of men. What saddened me even more is that, once again, two values so important to me - gender equality and the richness of Jewish tradition and law - are being treated as diametrically opposed.

Of course, "there is nothing new under the sun," as the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, and this case is no exception. In 2011, some religious cadets left an Israel Defense Forces ceremony over a female singer. In light of this incident, my teacher Rabbi David Golinkin surveyed the history of Jewish approaches to a woman's voice.

Rabbi Golinkin's research exposed a number of relevant points about the history of how Judaism has treated women’s singing. For one, he noticed that when the Talmud refers to a woman's voice (and the fact that hearing it prevents a man from performing certain commandments), it is not clear whether or not it refers to a woman singing or simply speaking. Furthermore, despite all of the less-than-flattering comments that the Talmud makes about a woman's voice, the early Middle Age commentators (most notably Rabbi Isaac Alfasi) treated these statements as homiletics, not as codified Jewish law.

In fact, despite all of the restrictions that later lawmakers would come to place on a man hearing a woman's voice, it was not until the 19th century that the Hatam Sofer forbade a man from listening to a singing woman. Indeed, for 1600 years of codified Jewish law, no previous authority had forbidden men from hearing a woman sing altogether.

Yet despite the convincing argument that a man is allowed to hear a woman sing in many, if not all, instances, I am troubled by more than just the fact that many rabbis choose to apply the modern stringency, forbidding women from singing in front of male audiences so as to prevent the men from sinning. The much more troubling phenomenon is that once again, male rabbis are exerting their control over women.
And one can only wonder what they'd do to Miriam if she were around today. Would she be punished for singing in joy of the Israelites' freedom from the Phaeroh?

And here's one more writer at The Forward, a Modern Orthodox man who believes God gave this young woman her voice so she could sing to please the world:
As a husband, father, feminist and Modern Orthodox rabbinical student, I am appalled. How can a religious school punish its students for their God given talents? How can its strict adherence to kol isha, the challenging prohibition of listening to a woman’s singing voice, blind the school leadership to the obvious kiddush haShem, the sanctification of God’s name, that took place in having a religious student talk openly about her faith to a largely secular Israeli audience and world?

A year ago, the Jewish community was discussing the attacks young Modern Orthodox girls faced as they walked to school in Ramat Beit Shemesh getting spit on by Haredi miscreants. Rabbi Dov Linzer, the dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, wrote then in The New York Times that: “The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.” A year later, the quest for religious tolerance lives on, as modesty patrol committees run rampant in Borough Park and Women of the Wall continue their uphill battle.

The Orthodox world is in the midst of an identity crisis and the question is: who will come out as the true bearer of its tradition? As of now, the extremists are making the headlines. The Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School, a Modern Orthodox co-ed yeshiva, whose students perform a co-ed musical annually isn’t making national news. Where then are the tolerant voices of Modern Orthodoxy discussing kol isha today? Surely, we are not like the Saudi Arabian Muslim fundamentalists who forbid their daughters to drive. Let our Modern Orthodox community come out and talk honestly about the prohibition of kol isha, with its women scholars and leaders, guiding the discussion.

The prohibition in Jewish law of listening to a woman’s voice comes from the Gemara. Brachot 24a states: “Shmuel says: the voice of a woman is ervah as the verse in Song of Song writes, “Let me hear your voice because your voice is pleasant and your appearance attractive.” And so the laws and stringencies follow with applicabilities varying depending on the rabbi. Some rabbis forbid hearing a woman’s singing voice at all times while others forbid it only during prayer. Some say the law doesn’t apply to mixed singing of men and women or religious music, and others hold one must get up and leave the room when a woman sings. The seemingly brave rabbis in the Modern Orthodox community say the prohibition applies to sexualized singing only. There are those who even say the law causes such emotional pain it alienates women from religiosity altogether. All of these positions are made by male rabbis and intended for male listeners. Where are women voices in this conversation today?

The mission of staying spiritually engaged, intellectually challenged and religiously committed to a tradition that can inspire and at times compete with modern sensibilities is our struggle as Jews striving to live an honest Judaism in the 21st century. It’s our role to hold these dissonances and talk about them openly, rather than shy away from them. I just can’t believe that the community that produced the first ever Orthodox woman rabbi and Shabbat friendly electric wheelchairs and hearing aids can’t find a way while maintaining their halachic integrity to say unequivocally to Ben-Shetrets’s school: “shame on you.”

The Gemara in Bava Metzia 59a teaches that “it’s better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than publicly put one’s fellow human being to shame.” The value of human dignity, kavod habriyot, is paramount in halacha. Couldn’t this color a new conversation about kol isha? As Blu Greenberg, the noted Orthodox thinker and feminist once said, “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachik way.” Critics might say this undermines the halachik process if Jewish law is merely dictated by the will of the rabbis, but they must also remember the Talmud’s dictum in Bava Matsia 59b, “Lo ba-shamayim hi.” The ultimate fate of the law is not in Heaven’s hands. Must it really be lost then to extremists in the court of public opinion?

There will always be the hard-liners among us who will shout we are caving into “Western culture” and insist there is no wiggle room within the halacha. However, even they listen to Miriam and Deborah’s song as it’s read in synagogues during Parashat B’Shalach, just two weeks ago. Certainly, those stories were chanted by men in most Orthodox settings. But they are about women, and men.

When the Israelites were freed from slavery, their instinctive communal response was to sing. How can we remain silent to their song?
My thoughts exactly, as I just stated. We find freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt and then we start stooping to ludicrous, backwards positions that are almost the same? Good grief.

From what I can tell, the position today on "kol isha" stems from Hatam Sofer's declarations. If so, then today's rabbinical leaders who advocate that belief have a lot of explaining to do on how and why they consider a 19th century ruling perfectly acceptable when it was never done in ancient times, and why they're ignoring the song of biblical Miriam.

And again, I wish ben-Shetreet a happy future, and if she has to leave that school, it may be for the best.

Update: also of interest, this article about Ahtaliyah Pierce, a Black Hebrew musician who encountered similar problems.

Update: here's some more from The Times of Israel (via Israel Seen) and Rabbi Jason Miller.

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