As the gender wars heat up between Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of Israeli society, the Israeli Defense Forces has become the newest and most dangerous battle ground.
Traditional rabbinic law has a prohibition known as Kol Ishah (lit. “the woman’s voice”) based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14 (“For your voice is sweet – arev – and your appearance pleasant – naveh”). Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the male gender from the allure of a female voice and, Heaven forefend, the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.
I remember leading a funeral years back of a long time friend and synagogue member with my colleague, Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom (who was known in our congregation as our own “nightingale”). Sitting in the back of the chapel was a black-hat Orthodox Jew, and every time Aviva began to sing from the Psalms and finally the Eil Maleh Rachamim (the memorial prayer) he walked out of the chapel. In and out, in and out he went. We both shrugged. No big deal. In America, he can do as he pleased, as silly as both Aviva and I considered his adherence to this particular ancient prohibition.
However, for those living in the state of Israel today, the battle of the sexes does not abate. Indeed, it is getting worse and kol isha is the new point of contention.
Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the kol isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces training course because it included women’s singing. An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and bring back a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.
The official hareidi Orthodox reaction was swift. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a leader of Elon Moreh Hesder Yeshivah, which sends students to the IDF (more and more orthodox Jews are, at last, entering the Israeli military) advised soldiers to “choose death” because requiring them to listen to a woman’s voice is a “coercive order against Judaism.” Death! There are three mitzvot that tradition prohibits a person to transgress even if it means death: Idolatry, Adultery, and Murder. These extremist rabbis have extended listening to a woman sing to the category of adultery.
Clearly, the lack of an Israeli constitution with a separation clause is increasingly problematic for Israeli democracy and society as a whole (see http://hiddush.org/ – an Israeli organization fighting for religious freedom and equality – led by Reform Rabbi Uri Regev). The tension between the most conservative and reactionary interpretation of halachah (traditional Jewish law, which is an historically liberal and dynamic process of decision-making) versus the laws of the state of Israel, is now threatening the rule of law and Israeli democracy itself.
The following article posted this week on “Jewish Ideas Daily” is worth reading. I recommend subscribing to this site as well (http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/module/2012/1/24/main-feature/1/siren-songs/e).