In Israel, Segregated Concerts Are the Very Least of It

Making sure women can sing on stages in Tel Aviv is important. But safeguarding their rights and those of their children in the rabbinical courts should concern us as well

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi
Israeli singer-songwriter Shlomo ArtziCredit: Moti Kimche
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how the organizers of the gala fundraiser concert for Rabbi Elimelech Firer’s non-profit Ezra L’marpeh, which was planned for November 20 in Tel Aviv, thought they could get away with it.

The program – songs of mega-popular crooner Shlomo Artzi; the musicians, some of the top names in Israel, including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; and the venue were selected to reflect the fact that Ezra L’marpeh gives medical assistance to hundreds of thousands of Israelis, without regard to their religious affiliation. 

There was just one stipulation. No women would be allowed to sing in the rabbi’s presence. Because “Kol be’isha erva.” I challenge any linguist out there to translate that term. The first two words are easy. Kol be’isha – the voice of a woman. But erva defies translation. Most Orthodox translations simply use the word “nakedness” – but of course that’s not it. An erva is not necessarily naked. It’s a body part, specifically the genital area (technically of a man or a woman, but the term is in the feminine) and in the Bible and Talmud it’s used to describe an abomination, a terrible and obscene sin, the worst thing you can do. And yes, also the voice of a woman. 

I’m not going to delve here into the halachic argument over whether when the Talmud writes “Kol be’isha erva” in two separate places, it actually means that women are not allowed to sing in the presence of men, as it is interpreted today by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. It’s a tawdry debate anyway which makes a woman responsible for a man’s forbidden sexual thoughts and urges. The point is that many people, including a large number of secular Israelis, thought that the good deeds of Firer and his organization made it legitimate to impose it on a mainstream audience at a mass event in Tel Aviv. 

The outcry in the media forced some of the singers to pull out and Firer to cancel the event. He obviously wants to do everything to help and heal people, but listening to women sing is too much. I’m not going to judge him for clinging on to his interpretation of halacha. But happily, the expectation that the wider Israeli public would allow him to impose it on them has been confounded. It’s a tiny victory that may have just slightly moved the needle in the struggle against attempts to segregate women in the public sphere in Israel. But it should be a reminder of far greater travesties.

The Firer farce made major headlines in Israel but ultimately it was a minor affair. Women should never have been barred from singing at a prominent event but many infinitely worse injustices are committed against women at the hand of ultra-Orthodox rabbis every day in rabbinical courts up and down the land.

Rabbi Elimelech Firer.
Rabbi Elimelech Firer.Credit: \ Daniel Tchetchik

Just two weeks ago, Haaretz’s Aaron Rabinowitz reported on the Haifa Rabbinical Court’s decision to take two small children away from their mother and award custody to her ex-husband, despite his past conviction for violence and two reports by social workers that detailed how the children have complained of his violence towards them.

The mother’s sin – she was living a secular lifestyle. This is far from an isolated case. 

Whether it’s custody cases decided on the basis of which parent is more devout, rather than their suitability as parents and the welfare of children, or women being forced by the rabbis to remain in abusive marriages, or being denied a divorce simply because the husband won’t grant them, or being forced into demeaning agreements just to be allowed an escape, the travesty of the rabbinical courts is ongoing and funded by taxpayers’ money. 

The current political deadlock in Israel may be resolved in a few weeks over months by the formation of a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties. It could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the outdated and stagnant “status quo” on matters of state and religion, which David Ben-Gurion negotiated with the ultra-Orthodox leadership before Israel’s establishment.

The focus so far has been mainly on finally passing the bill to draft yeshiva students and abolishing the law empowering local authorities to prevent shops opening on Shabbat. Other issues mentioned have been public transport on Shabbat and making some changes in the giyur (conversion) system. 

All these are matters which need to be addressed but for some reason the stranglehold of the rabbinical courts, made up entirely of Orthodox rabbis, on the lives of women is not mentioned. It doesn’t come up, either, when Jewish Diaspora leaders voice their concerns over the ultra-Orthodox hegemony in Israel. They are obsessed with the Western Wall prayer areas agreement and some unclear form of recognition they desire for the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. 

There’s a reason that the plight of women in rabbinical courts is never brought up in political forums. Most of them are traditional or Orthodox to some degree. While the younger generation of secular Israelis increasingly are not getting married under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate, and progressive Jews in the Diaspora have the option for civil marriage with a Reform or Conservative marriage ceremony on the side, most Israelis still take the Orthodox path as their default option. When their union ends in an abusive marriage, they are reliant on the rabbinical courts. 

Allowing the option of civil marriage in Israel would of course go some way towards alleviating the injustice. It would also force the rabbinate to carry out its own reforms in order to compete. But there isn’t time to allow them to evolve. The lives of women and children are at stake. No one is of course calling for abolishing the Orthodox system of marriage and divorce. Even when civil marriage is finally allowed in Israel, a significant proportion, perhaps a majority, will continue to choose the Orthodox way.

That doesn’t mean that the power of the rabbinical courts cannot be limited and that additional professional authorities cannot be given powers to intervene. 

The rabbinical courts’ authority on divorce settlements and custody arrangements must be transferred in full to civil family courts, which now only rule in cases where one of the sides has petitioned them before the other went to the rabbinical court, and where women, especially those married to Orthodox men, have a fairer chance. And while we won’t see in our lifetimes women being ordained as Orthodox judges, this doesn’t mean that the rabbinical rulings cannot be made conditional by law on the approval of outside experts, including female halachic advisers and social workers. 

Such moves are not against Orthodox law, but none of this will happen without a change in legislation, which at present isn’t even being proposed by the politicians. Making sure women can sing on stages in Tel Aviv is important. But safeguarding their rights and those of their children in the rabbinical courts should concern us as well.