Subjects

Op-ED: The Voice of a Woman

Published נוב 24, 2011
Shmuel Rosner

Originally posted in The Herald Tribune, by Shmuel Rosner 11/18/2011

On Sept. 5th, nine military cadets of the Israel Defense Force officer training school, all Orthodox Jews, walked out of an official event marking operation Cast Lead. A group of soldier-singers had taken the stage, but when a woman started her solo, the nine cadets stormed out. Four of them refused to come back to the hall, despite being warned that they were breaching an order, and two days later were expelled from the school.

Their objection? That Orthodox Judaism forbids a man from hearing a woman sing. These soldiers adhere to the strict interpretation of the expression “Kol B’Isha Erva.” This might translate as, “the voice of a woman is like nakedness.” Or as, “the voice of a woman is like her vagina.”

The rabbinical debate over the meaning of this Talmudic expression is old and complex, and the variations in its interpretation are many. For some Orthodox Jews, though, it is a clear command: thou shalt not hear a woman sing.

What’s less clear is how far the Israeli military should go to help them obey it. Israel’s draft is mandatory. Every 18-year-old boy and girl is obliged to serve (barring exceptions too complicated to explain here). Eager to make military service possible for both the religious and the secular, the Israeli military has tried to accommodate the sometimes quirky demands of Jewish religiosity. It adheres to all Jewish dietary laws of kashrut. Commanders have to make time for observant soldiers to pray. And the Jewish Shabbat is a day of rest: security-related operations continue but all military exercises and maneuvers come to a halt.

These measures seemed sufficient for a while, but three recent trends are now calling the system into question.

The first is a shift among the Orthodox. Orthodox Israelis have traditionally been divided into two main groups: the so-called ultra-Orthodox, who are more pious and want little to do with Zionism or the state, and the Orthodox-Zionists, zealot Zionists who try to balance religion and modern life by mixing with the general public while still adhering to religious rules. But in recent years, the religious Zionists have become less amenable to compromising for the sake of keeping the peace with secular society. They have become much more like the ultra-Orthodox, except that they retain their Zionist zeal.

The military, meanwhile, has grown more dependent on religious soldiers. According to one report, the number of observant infantry officers has risen from 2.5 percent in 1990 to more than 31 percent in 2007. The figure is probably even higher today. According to another report, the percentage of graduates from religious schools who serve as majors in combat units has risen from 6.9 percent to 20 percent between 1994 and 2009. For both political and religious reasons, the Orthodox-Zionists are more motivated to serve on the frontlines than any other group. The military needs them, and so it needs them to feel wanted, accommodated and appreciated.

Then add to that the uncompromising (and, of course, justified) demand of women to be treated equally. Since 1995, after Israel’s Supreme Court found that the 23-year-old officer Alice Miller should be allowed to take entry tests to join the air force flight-training course, women’s participation in all branches of the Israeli military has increased.

Hence “the problem” of shirat nashim: of orthodox men being forced to endure the singing of women. And it’s a problem that many reporters and opinion writers here have been quick to describe by way of a villain. Some have denounced as uncompromising the Orthodox men who squirm at a woman’s singing — or, for that matter, at the idea of serving with one in a crowded tank. Some have denounced the liberals for putting the right to sing over the strength of the military. Some have denounced the rigid rabbis for failing to accommodate the rest of society. Some have denounced the military for not putting the Orthodox soldiers in their place. Some have denounced the ever-denounceable politicians for letting the Orthodox gain too much power in Israeli life overall.

The truth, though, is that there is no simple way to balance these competing rights. Religious soldiers can’t be made to violate their faith. The military can’t be made to alienate its most motivated group of soldiers. And I can’t educate my daughter to serve in a military that would excise women from the public sphere to accommodate the radical demands of the super pious.

And so for now, the only compromise that seems possible is one that would require abandoning a principle all Israelis grew up to appreciate: the value of togetherness.