Siren Songs

By Shlomo Zuckier
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"For your voice is sweet and your appearance pleasant" (Song of Songs 2:14).  On the basis of this verse, Jewish law prohibits a man's listening to kol ishah, a woman's voice in song.  Unlikely as it may seem, this prohibition has sparked a controversy that could shake the foundations of Israel's self-defense and self-definition.

On September 5, nine religious soldiers walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces event, part of an officers' training course, that included women's singing.  They said they had done so in obedience to the kol ishah prohibition.  The IDF dismissed four of the soldiers from the course, and the Israeli Supreme Court declined to intervene.  Several rabbis said the IDF had handled the incident badly.  A committee was established to study the issue.  The matter seemed to blow over.

Two months later the committee released its report, which recommended against excusing soldiers from events that included women's singing.  Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, whose yeshiva, Elon Moreh Hesder, sends its students to the IDF, responded that if the IDF adopted the recommendation, he would advise soldiers to "choose death" rather than comply and that he would counsel young men "not to enlist in an army that gives coercive orders against Judaism."  Indeed, he warned, "the entire military rabbinate would have to resign."  The issue continues to simmer.  Just recently there was a reportinaccurate, it turned out—that Rabbi Levanon had resigned over the issue.

By telling soldiers to "choose death," Rabbi Levanon was saying that the controversy involved a type of law for which Jews must be willing to give up their lives.  These categories include laws concerning the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry, and illicit sexual relations; but they also include cases in which a tyrannical government threatens Jewish observance.  Rabbi Levanon's reference to the army's "coercive orders" makes it likely that he saw the kol ishah controversy as belonging to this last category, government coercion.

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, head of the more centrist Yeshivat Har Etzion, begged to differ.  In published remarks, he pointed to the importance of a cooperative relationship between Jewish law and the IDF and the need to avoid splintering the army into sects.  In his view, these exigencies had both procedural and substantive consequences.

The procedural implication was that authority to decide such questions in military settings should lie with IDF rabbis, not the rabbis of individual soldiers.  The substantive implication was that in such settings, it was proper, in interpreting the law, to rely on "any legitimate leniency." Thus, even where the law of kol ishah would generally apply, if a man has not chosen to listen to a woman's singing but has merely obeyed a military command, the law should be taken to prohibit listening only if the singing is of a sexual nature or gives the listener sexual pleasure.

Finally, in military settings, even if one granted that the kol ishah prohibition applied, it should not be seen as requiring death over disobedience: It was unfair to require soldiers to die rather than rely on legitimately issued opinions of IDF rabbis, and it was disproportionate to place this controversy in the same "tyrannical government coercion" category as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

In light of the existence of such objections, how did the kol ishah controversy turn into such a portentous one?  The reasons lie in two larger recent phenomena among Israel's Religious Zionists.

First, there has been an increasing emphasis on gender roles and gender segregation.  Many chapters of the Religious Zionist youth organization, B'nei Akiva, have segregated themselves by gender.  Religious Zionist thinkers like Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in educational works and discourses, place increasing emphasis on modesty, or tsniut.  Rabbi Levanon has argued that under Jewish law women may not hold any political office.  While Rabbi Levanon and his camp advocate increased stringency, Rabbi Lichtenstein and the movement with which he is associated oppose such a shift.

Another issue is even more fundamental: the question of how Judaism should view the IDF and its impact on Jewish law.  Religious Zionism has traditionally placed great value on synchronizing Jewish law with the needs of national unity and running a state.  Indeed, the Religious Zionist movement is fundamentally based on the assumption that such synchronization is possible.  This approach requires that Jewish law be flexible enough to deal with national necessities. 

Rabbi Levanon's positions, on the other hand, are based on a view of the state not as a partner with Jewish law but as an enemy attacking Jewish law and tradition.  This dissociation from the state, a radical departure from Religious Zionism's traditional understanding, is in part a reaction to government policies, in Gaza and elsewhere, that many Religious Zionists see as betrayal: They have begun to see a frontal clash between their support of the State of Israel and their vision of settling the Land of Israel. 

Both the increased focus on gender roles and the dissociation from the state reflect a shift among a significant portion of the Religious Zionist community toward Haredi Judaism.  The shift has created a new category called "Hardal," or Haredi Religious Zionist.  But it may have more far-reaching consequences.  As Rabbi Lichtenstein notes, seeing the state not as a sponsor of Jewish life and practice but as a foreign body attacking the faith has the potential to tear the State of Israel apart.  Recent events like settler attacks on an army base in the West Bank demonstrate the danger that arises when certain sects see the army as an enemy rather than an ally. 

The Religious Zionist community has long been a major supporter of the IDF, in terms of both manpower and ideology.  If the movement withdraws significantly from this relationship, the results could be disastrous.  Whether or not the IDF does or should accommodate Religious Zionist "conscientious objectors" in individual cases like the kol ishah matter, there should be no mistake about the potential of such incidents to cause deep rifts between these two fundamental institutions.

Shlomo Zuckier is a Tikvah Fellow who has studied at Yeshivat Har EtzionHe is a rabbinical student and Wexner Fellow at Yeshiva University.

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