Sisterhood Blog

Bnei Akiva, and the Efforts To Silence Women

By Elana Sztokman

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Women can solve the world’s problems by just being a little quieter. That is the message emerging from the resolution of a little fracas in the Religious Zionist world recently. The conflict revolved around the traditional IDF event memorializing the “Lamed-Heh,” the 35 men from the Haganah convoy who gave their lives to protect Gush Etzion in 1948. Bnei Akiva announced their withdrawal from the event because there are to be women singing in the choir. After some hemming and hawing and a few angry responses even from within the Bnei Akiva constituency — including condemnation of the boycott from Bnei Akiva World head Daniel Goldman, as well as Kibbutz Hadati youth, Kolech, and others —the groups reached a “compromise” in which women would not sing at the event, but would sing after the event (once all of the Bnei Akiva kids have left).

Actually, this event is just the latest in a series of national religious boycotts of women’s artistic expression — boycotts that, for the most part, have resulted in public capitulation to demands of religious men, amounting to victories for anti-woman rabbis at the expense of women’s well-being.

In 2008, for example, a leading dance troupe set to perform at the gala opening of the Jerusalem Bridge of Strings was forced cover up “Taliban-style” in order to placate haredi men (some of whom are on the city council). Similarly, a group of religious paratroopers walked out of an IDF event in which a woman was singing. According to Haaretz, there have been several similar incidences over the past two years: One army brigade canceled a female singer’s performance at a program for commanders after two religious commanders refused to attend. A year earlier, a group of men walked out in the middle of a woman’s singing, and there have been similar tensions at several other events.

It is important to note that these events are taking place in public spaces. We are not talking about a private party run by some religious group. We are talking about the IDF, the Jerusalem Municipality, and programs aimed at the entire population of Israel. For these groups to capitulate to religious demands sets a frightening precedent — and I don’t think that the Taliban analogy is unwarranted. This is how it starts.

There are a few issues here. One is the effect on women. I cannot help but wonder how the women singers feel about this. Yesterday, they were equal members of a mixed choir; today, they are the ones that are not meant to be heard. Their “leaders” basically offered the women as sacrifices in the name of peace between brothers. I would feel completely betrayed, with nobody covering my back.

Moreover, the decision turns women’s singing into a sexual act. Men can sing freely without ever being accused of being provocative. Yet women, singing the same songs and with the same passions and motivations, are told that their voices are a turn-on to religious men. Let’s talk about this for a minute: I want to know which men, sitting in a memorial service for the Lamed Heh, are going to be getting an erection because women are singing. I would like to know who educated those men to be able to ignore all serious content and turn everything into sex. Frankly, I think these men should all be kicked out of the army. I mean, how are they supposed to fight a war if they can’t keep it in their pants for a five-minute choir performance?

But of course, there’s a less visceral and more symbolic reason for this fanaticism. (Let’s face it: I doubt they’re all Don Juan.) It’s an attempt to appear more “religious”. As Assaf Wohl writes in Ynet:

For the time being I’ll skip the question of why the Bnei Akiva director has to be a rabbi, and why the last female director of the youth movement dates back to 1952. The abovementioned case is in my view merely an example of a much wider phenomenon taking place within the national-religious camp; a process that is mistakenly being referred to as “going haredi.”

Indeed, religious men are systematically taught that to be more religious means to look more haredi. And to “look” more haredi ultimately means to cover women up. The more silent and invisible women are, the more men can congratulate themselves for being increasingly religious. That is the narrative playing out here.

One can only wonder what God thinks about this religious flock supposedly representing His will. Divinely inspired? Spiritually uplifting? Living out His words? I don’t think so. It’s just men proving their manhood by demeaning women. It has nothing to do with being a good Jew.

not doctor oz Sat. Jan 30, 2010

the haredi opposition to women singing is male bovine fecal matter.

As we note in this week's haftara, Deborah SANG with Barak, and the verb used is even in the feminine. So the Bible says it is fine.

The solution to the problem is easy thanks to modern medical technology: if the haredim do not wish to become "aroused", medicate the horndogs, ahead of time- give them whatever it is which is administered to sex offenders.

Lydia Sun. Jan 31, 2010

Any responsible man should learn to control himself when they see women who they find sexually attractive. Women not singing in front of men for the reasons mentioned in this article also demeans men because it makes them look like sexual animals who can't control themselves in front of women who sing, even if the women are only singing for 10 minutes.

Joe Sun. Jan 31, 2010

I know male opinions are not welcome here, but I would just note that the prohibition of Kol Isha gos back several thousand years. It wasn't invented yesterday. The best solution is to have a short break after the main event, allowing men who object to discreetly leave. There is a longstanding Anglo-Jewish wedding custom to complete the meal and Grace, allowing the Rabbis and other devout men to leave before the mixed dancing begins. These days, of course, mixed dancing is not universal, so the pause is not always necessary.

esthermiriam Sun. Jan 31, 2010

Joe -- Weddings are a private matter: those involved are free to do as they wish for whatever reasons they wish; The IDF represents the State of Israel, and its ceremonies are public events at which the presence and voices of women should not be a problem: surely you can see the difference, or at the very least, why others might.

Mordechai Sun. Jan 31, 2010

Why should secular values be the ones endorsed in public by the State of Israel which was established as a Jewish state?

Why should religious Jews be marginalized and forced to violate their principals?

What you are seeing is a reflection in the change in the makeup of Israeli society which was overwhelmingly secular in 48 and becoming more religious over time. Secular Jews are largely boycotting the army and combat units are becoming increasingly dominated by Religious Zionist Jews. The majority of children in Jerusalem's schools are Orthodox.

Even in the US we have moved from a shrinking Orthodoxy of the 50's to a world where 25% of affiliated Jews are now Orthodox.

The writers real objection is to the rise of Orthodoxy and the coming end of non halachic Judaisms. Secular/Reform Judaism has failed as a movement and clearly sees its death in the coming 20 years.

David Sun. Jan 31, 2010

Kol Isha has not been around for several thousand years. Miriam and the women sang in front of the whole nation. The Torah does not say that the men left in protest.

I have been affiliated with Bnei Akiva since I was 12 years old. I love the movent but this absurd obsession on womens voices is very troubling.

Jo Guy Sun. Jan 31, 2010

I just want to say that you keep saying responsible and educated men should keep it in their pants. I have news for you women out there, until you have a penis and know what it's like to control your yetzer harah, keep your mouths shut.

Jo Guy Sun. Jan 31, 2010

And as far as Miriam and Devora singing, they were singing with the women, in a separate event with a large mechitza no doubt.

Jo Guy Sun. Jan 31, 2010

Oh, and for those of you ragging on the Jewish state for finally taking an actual religious stand which is based on our thousands of year old values and hallachic tradition and responsibility, shame on you. The only reason the state even has an option to be secular is because of the religious history and tradition associated with it. Moshe Rabeinu would be turning in his grave if he saw the calamity that is secular/unaffiliated Judaism today.

Andy Levy-Stevenson Sun. Jan 31, 2010

My son is a BA madrich who was there with his group; he's gone each year for the last few years. A couple of clarifications:

1. It wasn't a mixed choir, it was an all-female singing group from the IDF entertainment corps. The IDF has all sorts of such groups - all girls, all boys, mixed, jazz, pop, classical, military band, etc etc.

2. Bnei Akiva sent roughly 3,000 participants to the march; they are the majority of the marchers, they're not a small bunch of religious fanatics trying to press their views on the majority.

3. It wasn't a performance of "Songs of Israel" type songs meant to bring solemnity to the commemoration ... they were simply providing some entertainment.

4. Many Bnei Akiva kids stayed to hear it, many didn't. Let's be realistic, this all took place in the middle of the night on a cold hillside ... the point of the evening is a reenactment of the march of the Lamed Hei, not a concert.

Neither our son nor we consider the event a violation of kol isha, since they were using microphones. We're pretty mainstream dati leumi, as are the majority of families whose kids are involved in BA. We've got no issue with hearing women performers ... but equally, we've got no bone to pick with those who prefer not to.

The whole kerfuffle was unnecessary. The organizers, the IDF, the Education Ministry, and whoever else was involved could just as easily have chosen a group of guys to sing ... it's not such an unusual occurrence here, there are plenty of such groups in the IDF.

From one angle, BA is made to look like religious fanatics, a characterization that's fair or unfair depending where you stand on the issue. It's equally fair or unfair to see the organizers of the event as thoughtless boors who stomped on the religious sensitivities of a substantial number of participants. Clearly, both characterizations are incomplete at best.

The lesson to take from this storm in a teacup is that this sort of planning and discussion needs to take place way in advance of such events, and not in the newspapers. Every confrontation doesn't have to have a winner and a loser, even here in Israel ... it's always possible to find a compromise that everyone can live with.

Michael Makovi Sun. Jan 31, 2010

I disagree with their interpretation of halakhah. BUT, I must concede, that they DO have a right to boycott whatever they want.

After all, if women want to sing, they have that right, and it is the duty of men to avoid this singing if they object. The burden lies on the men, not the women. It would appear Benei Akiva realizes this.

lydia Sun. Jan 31, 2010

Jo Guy, any responsible man would try to have self control when among women since they can't always avoid seeing women.

Joe Sun. Jan 31, 2010

David, the concept of Kol Isha Erva is discussed in the Talmud, so it is hardly new. Tradition says Moses and Bnai Yisrael sang, while Miriam and the women sang. Most halachists agree that if a social choir is mixed it might be OK if the male voices are predominant, but this would not apply to a synagogue choir. As someone mentions some say a microphone is not the real voice and use this leniency, but I don't think it would be useful if it is an all female choir.

At a 'private' affair like a wedding one can invite those who accept your opinion, but in a public IDF event one has more resposibility to take account of all those required to attend.

There is a famous story of the original Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was seen walking round and round the block. When asked what he was doing by a neighbour he replied that his housekeeper was singing and if he went inside she would feel she had to stop, so he avoided going in!

David Mon. Feb 1, 2010

Even though I am religious I have major problems with how our religion treats women. Kol Isha is a complicated issue but its basic idea is that women should be silent. This is very difficult for all people who think about it for a minute. Of course there are 'women only events' but this is just another way to keep women silent in society. How would we like it if we say Jews cant go to mixed universities but only Jewish universities or blacks cant become heads of state. We would all protest.

I find some of the responses to the article troubling as well. Look at some examples: "mens voices should be predominant" "avoid womens singing" "men cant avoid seeing women"

and of course "keep your mouths shut" I think that says it all!

Perhaps Kol Isha is an antiquated concept that may have served some sort of purpose 2000 years ago but should now be revised.

Danny Mon. Feb 1, 2010

David. 'Men's voices should be predominant' is meant to be a 'heter' for mixed choirs, as opposed to the stricter view that men should not listen to women singing at all. Believe it or not, many female singers actually want to sound sexy, it's not just a fantasy in frum men's minds! No one says women should be silent. Kol Isha doesn't apply within the family or women who are always around you; it applies more to a married man listening 'with intent' to another man's wife singing. Female concerts etc for female audiences are quite normal even in Haredi circles. The prohibition is NOT on women singing, it is on men listening to women sing. Similarly it is prohibited in frum circles for men to go swimming where there are scantily clad women, but not a problem for women. It's the men who must keep away! Judaism does not 'keep women silent in society', most of our social events involve speaking, not singing, and women tend to be more articulate than men.

Lydia Mon. Feb 1, 2010

"it applies more to a married man listening 'with intent' to another man's wife singing." There are plenty of cases where married men see women who they find attractive, a women does not have to be singing to be attractive. The man will have to learn to be a responsible adult and control himself. Part of being a responsible adult is learning self control.

Jo Guy Mon. Feb 1, 2010

Part of being a responsible Jewish female is not to lay stumbling blocks before the men. Women who sing, dress inappropriately, et cetera, are causing men to sin, or at least think of sin. If a woman still feels the need to sing or do whatever in order to appease her own lack of confidence and understanding of Judaism, let her eat pork.

Lydia Mon. Feb 1, 2010

"Women who sing, dress inappropriately, et cetera, are causing men to sin, or at least think of sin." If you use that logic I could say that I can steal from a friend or think of stealing from them if they wear expensive clothing, jewlery and have huge houses because they are causing me to sin and they should not tempt me by being so rich and having such a huge house that they invite me to. Just because there are temptations in this world does not mean people can excuse their actions and not take responsibility for their own behavior. Everyone has to learn to resist bad temptations.

esthermiriam Mon. Feb 1, 2010

Isn't the Men's Club study session down the hall?

Steve Mon. Feb 1, 2010

I have problems with Kol Isha also, but to me that is beside the point. It has a solid basis in Halacah, and many are careful about it. Fine. To me, this is a manifestation of a principle I discovered as a young baal tseuvah 35 years ago: If the goodwill is there, you can work out the logistics. Andy above is right... a compromise can often be found if everyone cares enough. The problem is when the goodwill really is not there. Perhaps a short break before the singing, so those who are uncomfortable could leave. I'd just like to also point out that those of us who are not into the Kol Isha thing (like myself) have no right to look down on those who are or to make fun of them. By the same token, those who are strict about this have to understand that many are not and should also not be vilified. When the goodwill is there, you can work out the logistics.

Motic Tue. Feb 2, 2010

Lydia, you raise a good point. In earlier times religious people avoided all ostentation and extravagance, in dress, in homes, in simchas. That was 'pre-Borough Park'! A few communities, often Yekkish, still have sumtuary laws, restricting simchas, standardising expectations so the less well off do not go into too much debt making weddings. Making Bar Mitzvahs traditionally involved a family dinner at which the Rabbi spoke to the boy about his new responsibilities. Some shuls have managed to resist the 'mini wedding' Bar Mitzvah fashion with music and dancing, where there is more 'bar' than mitzvah.

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