Rabbi Elimelech Firer never saw the big, honking truck of righteous rage which drove over him and his acclaimed children’s medical organization, Ezra Lemarpe. He didn’t notice the minefield he was walking into until it was too late, and he was hoisted by his own petard.
All he wanted was to arrange a gala evening for Ezra in Tel Aviv’s crown jewel of culture, the Charles Bronfman auditorium (or Heichal Ha’Tarbut), with superstar Shlomo Arzi, a lot of other famous singers, the storied Philharmonic Orchestra, and in the presence of President Reuven Rivlin. All proceedings to go to Ezra, which aids needy sick people. Two years ago, there would have been no problems whatsoever. But this time, it was hard to notice there were no female singers. Asked about it, Firer stated simply that, as an ultra-Orthodox, he could not hear women sing.
The issue of women singing in public has become a flashpoint in the past few years between the loosely-organized so-called Jewish Brotherhood, a coalition of Orthodox ranging from the Jewish Home Party through Shas and Torah Judaism. There is an old Talmudic ruling saying kol be’isha erva: “the sound of a woman is a vulva/incest/forbidden sexual relations.” Yes, the word “erva” can mean all three things. In recent decades, rabbis used this saying to rule that women cannot sing before men, that men cannot be in the same space where women are singing, and – in extreme cases – that women cannot speak to a crowd that contains men.
Time and again, Israeli municipalities have allowed Orthodox to use public venues for events which prohibit women from speaking. Liberal women (and their allies) didn’t take this lying down: They noted that such events basically boycott women singers, and, worse, they legitimize the view that women are nothing more than erva – a vulva, an endless temptation to men, an uncleanness.
Much of this movement is political. Orthodox soldiers, particularly Hesder troops – Orthodox militias, which serve less than half the time secular soldiers serve — have demanded time and again to be excused from military events where women sing; the IDF’s legacy in protecting its female soldiers has been less than glorious, to put it mildly. In some cases, Orthodox soldiers refused to have a woman command them, claiming they’re forbidden to hear women’s voices; in one notorious case, a whole platoon of Hesder troops turned their backs simultaneously on a female instructor who was supposed to teach them how to use parachutes.
Now, any sensible commander would have sent any such would-be mutineers for a brisk few weeks in the brig for humiliating their comrades and breaking down unit morale. The rabbis who gave such instructions – and the troops always have a rabbi backing them – would be drummed out of the military and denied their pension; with the sentencing judge careful to quote the Talmud saying that “he who has made another’s face whiten in public [i.e., humiliated him or her] is to be considered as if he shed blood” (not to mention other Talmudic rabbis noting that anyone doing so will have no part in the life to come).
But the act is political, and the mutineers have significant political power behind them; so the army generally backs down. And what happens in the IDF soon trickles down to the rest of Israeli society. The Netanyahu government of 2015-2019 decided it needs the Ultra-Orthodox to start having a real education in universities; in itself, laudable, as historically governments have consigned the Ultra-Orthodox to ignorance, which means they can’t find a job, which means they have to rely on their rabbis for their livelihoods, which allow the rabbis to gather significant political power. For starters, they have legions of campaign workers who don’t have to take leave of their work, since they don’t have any.
So, in general, sending the Ultra-Orthodox to university is an excellent idea. It allows them to learn actual knowledge, it allows them to get a job, which lessens their reliance on the rabbis, and delivers them from the hollows of depression and self-doubt which inflict the unemployed. But.
But the rabbis, who have been fighting this tooth and nail – money and power are involved – came up with a demand: If we are to send our young men to your universities, then they must not be corrupted by the presence of erva. They must have only male lecturers. And the government, which is underpinned by the Jewish Brotherhood, gave way.
This means a very basic thing: Universities are now disincentivized to educate female lecturers and hire them. After all, male lecturers can teach both secular students and Ultra-Orthodox ones (and the latter come with heavy government subsidies); female lecturers can only teach the regular students. The government basically told female academics they’d better look for a career abroad, because the government needs the Ultra-Orthodox students and is unwilling to stand up to them.
The issue is very much a live one. There have been several protests by women, which consisted of simply singing in publics. Yours truly has participated in some. They were uplifting events. But they drew mostly activists.
And into this minefield waltzed Rabbi Firer, who is widely considered to be a philanthropist, who never turns a sick man (or woman!) down, and is a macher (fixer) of stupendous ability. Can’t get an urgent cancer treatment? Rabbi Elimelech will see that you get it. You have something that the overworked doctors in your clinic cannot diagnose? He’ll see to it that a well-known expert will have a look at you. He is extremely well-connected. Hundreds and thousands of people swear by him: He saved me. He made certain my mother got that operation, without having to wait for months.
To justly-enraged feminists (female and male alike), a male-only event in the heart of liberal Tel Aviv, with the President in attendance, was simply too much. The anger was explosive, and the social networks did their job. One after another, the artists involved in the gala announced they will not perform unless there are women singers. After two weeks of debate, Firer called the gala off a few days ago.
The supporters of the Jewish Brotherhood quickly lamented the terrible state we’re in, where an Ultra-Orthodox man cannot organize a gala without having to act against his own conscience. That was to be expected. What amazed and angered many people was the fact that Good White Liberals, male and female, quickly rushed to Firer’s defense. Yes, they said, the protesters were right in principle, but Firer should be given a one-time pass, since he helped so many.
Yours truly, having read MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, was not much surprised: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'”. Or, to put it more sharply, “do as they say, not as they do.”
My position on the whole issue was simple. There is a Talmudic concept of Shmad times. Normally, a Jew is required to forfeit his life on only three issues: He must refuse to worship foreign gods, even on pain of death; he must refrain from killing the innocent, even if he dies himself; and he must avoid incest, even if he is forced to. That’s in normal times. However, when the government declares war on Jewish law, a persecution (Shmad), a Jew must die over the possible loss of any single mitzvah. For instance, if the government demands you will not put tefillin on, you must put them on – even if this leads to an execution.
Times now are Shmad times for women. Assault kept piling on assault. So women and their allies must make anything and everything a battleground; not an inch is to be surrendered. Even if, in normal times, one could give Firer a pass, these aren’t normal times.
But should he be given a pass, even in normal times? As the debate raged on, people started wondering. Hold on, they said. Why should we be thankful to a macher, instead of improving our health system? Hold on: All those people for whom Firer arranged all those operations and treatments – what happened to the people who were supposed to have them in the first place? After all, surgeons’ time is finite: If someone jumps the queue because he is well-connected, someone’s turn is moved down. And people started wondering: That operation I was supposed to have, and was suddenly delayed by months – was it because Firer managed to get someone ahead of me?
It is Firer’s misfortune that his gala was announced just as people were getting fed up with the health system – and a few months after the acting Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, managed to get embroiled in two scandals. The first one was getting his highly controversial rabbi unusual treatment (a whole hospital wing was evacuated for him); the second was to put pressure on psychiatrists to announce a fugitive Ultra-Orthodox woman, alleged multiple pedophile Malka Leifer, declared unfit for trial (so that she won’t be extradicted to Australia). Litzman is facing criminal indictment in the Leifer affair. In short, it was not a good time to be an Ultra-Orthodox health macher.
But a victory is a victory, and the hard-pressed liberal camp in Israel must take what it can. For now, municipalities are liable to be leery of allowing male-only events on public property. And we’ve had a new and vigorous debate about health priorities.