I admit, for the first time in my life I am following a reality TV show. The unfolding story of Ophir Ben-Shetreet, a religious 17 year-old high school girl who chose to compete in “The Voice Israel”, has grabbed my attention, together with the attention of many others. This is much more than just another story about women singing; it is a tale of the core distinctions between observant and secular lifestyles.
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The defining moment was when Ben-Shetreet chose a mentor in rock star Aviv Geffen – a symbol of secularism whose music challenges all conventional assumptions on subjects from suicide to love. We will never know to what extent the producers played a hand in Geffen’s choice to offer Ben-Shetreet a spot in his team, but it must have been clear to the contestant that joining this mentor would make for an interesting script, and a unique opportunity to transform her musical gift into an art.
There is something familiar with this story. It is Little Red Riding Hood with a twist, where Geffen is both the wolf who seduces and the hunter who can redeem. The plot is rich with undertones of a teenage crush, the attraction of opposites, and the skirting of dangerous emotional territory. Ben-Shetreet is radiant with innocence and naiveté, and her light stands in stark contrast to Geffen’s irreverent and provocative personality. In the spoken parts of the program she speaks of affecting him, showing him that the Torah wants people to be happy and fully express themselves, and he challenges her with serious questions regarding the limitations of her life and the need for absolute freedom to truly create art. Each one comes with a hope to transform and redeem the other. In doing so, they have become our heroes, championing opposing world views, playing out the cutting edge of the Israeli cultural tension on screen.
It is my sincere belief that the dynamic between these opposing worldviews expresses an inner struggle that is familiar to us all. Like the proverbial devil and angel whispering in our ears, the human condition is one that strives for “harnessed desire”, harnessed less it destroy, and desirous less it be sterile. The Talmud speaks of a brief moment in history when the rabbis did away with the evil inclination only to restore it the next day because not a single egg was to be found. No procreation, no creativity, no life.
Of course Geffen is not the devil, nor is Ben-Shetreet as innocent as she seems. There is a mischievous streak in her that Geffen pointed out, and it is no secret that she broke the “rules” of her community by competing in the show. By publicly embracing her music and breaking societal ranks, while refusing to abandon her care for religion, she has found her voice and become a voice for many who seek an autonomous path to God and Torah.
The changes in her wardrobe (her choice or the producers’?) have already been interesting. There was a shortening in length of skirt from her first to second performance. Then there were her innocent baby doll shoes with pictures of skulls on top - talk about symbols. And where might Geffen surprise us? What new perspectives might he take from this unlikely partnership?
Tonight Ben-Shetreet will perform live for the first time, competing for a place in Geffen’s top five contestants. It will be quite interesting to find out how the two have developed since their last onscreen appearance together.
As an Orthodox rabbi committed to all the precepts of halakha, I find watching this process both challenging and fascinating. One thing is for sure: it is a sign of the times. To use a musical metaphor, we live in the age of the “remix”: young Jews are permitting themselves to choose their own way, challenging the classic definitions and traditions of Judaism. Is this the work of the devil? It may be. But, like the Talmudic tale, sometimes it takes a pinch of yetzer hara (evil inclination) to spark creativity and bring something new into the world. It seems to me that this show has hit the nail of our reality on the head, and offered up a voice for this generation of religious transformation.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.