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October 24, 2014 | 30th Tishrei 5775

Pluralism, Provocation, and Power

Galilee Diary #555, November 9, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

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 24a

The latest in the ongoing 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 theater 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 a halachic 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' behavior, 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 center 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, 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?

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