Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Israel's The Voice: When Religion Goes Too Far

I always try to be careful to not criticize other's religious convictions, the way in which they interpret and practice religious law, or the decisions they make about what they cannot do based on their religious practice. I did, however, find it upsetting that a 17-year-old young woman in Israel was suspended from her school for singing on a reality TV show.

At issue was the prohibition on women singing in public that some Jews follow. Kol isha, or "a woman's voice," is derived from the Talmud and is one of the laws that fits into the category of ervah (literally "nakedness"). But the issue of a man listening to a woman's singing voice isn't so clear cut. While some Jewish legal authorities claim that kol isha applies at all times, others say the prohibition doesn't apply to a recorded voice. That would be the case on the Israeli version of "The Voice," a reality TV competition show.

Ophir Ben-Shetreet Israel The Voice
Ophir Ben-Shetreet was being coached by Israeli singer Aviv Geffen

This young Israeli student, Ophir Ben-Shetreet, didn't seem to have an issue with singing on this TV show and any of the men who felt it posed a threat to their religious convictions had every opportunity to not watch the episode. However, rather than tuning out the rabbis of her religious girls’ high school in Ashdod, Israel, suspended the 12th grader from school for two weeks. Just for singing in public.

An interesting side note in this controversy is that the Israeli Ministry of Education could not allow Ben-Shetreet to officially be punished because there is a rule that says students cannot be punished for performing on a television show. In light of that rule, Ben-Shetreet's parents had to be the ones initiating the punishment, despite their position that she didn't do anything wrong.

Again, I do not condone criticizing other's religious views unless they pose a human rights violation. Certain laws that make women second-class citizens I believe fall into that category. This young woman singing on a television show is her right. The men who feel it is undignified, immodest, or immoral to listen to her beautiful voice have a right to feel that way. And they also have a right to avoid watching or listening to the show. Punishing the young woman for her participation, however, seems wrong and unfair.

The laws of ervah (which include various interpretations of the need for a woman to cover her hair) are not clear cut. There are some religious Jewish communities that would never allow a woman to lead religious services, but wouldn't object to a woman singing the national anthem or a secular song. In this case, Ben-Shetreet's participation in the Israeli version of "The Voice" had no effect on her religious day school.

I understand the need for modesty laws in religion and I appreciate any interpretation of any religion that strives for modesty. However, these modesty laws must be kept in check. In Judaism we run the risk of taking these laws too far and then in an effort to be modest, the misinterpretation of the laws cause immoral acts. Banning a female high school student from singing on a reality TV show is certainly an example of this. Ben-Shetreet is a talented young girl with a beautiful voice. Suspending her from school for two weeks in the name of her religion for doing nothing wrong will have negative effects for her and countless other young woman who want to embrace Judaism; not be shunned because of it.

I really liked something that Ben-Shetreet said during an interview on the show. "The Torah wants music to make people happy, and I think it’s possible to do both, which is why I came to the show."

I couldn't imagine silencing my daughter from singing in public. I would of course celebrate her solo singing opportunities on stage rather than denigrate her for them. There are many religious laws -- not only in Judaism but in other religions as well -- that should be respected even if many of us find them problematic. It is when religious laws, like in this case, are used illogically to keep people from attaining their full potential and achieving their goals. No one was going to get hurt by Ophir Ben-Shetreet performing on this reality TV show. But I'm afraid the Jewish religion took a hit because of the decision to punish her.


Michael said...

Rabbi Jason,

In the USA, where religious schools are private institutions, they have the right to have codes or regulations that require students to adhere to certain standards, even in their personal life outside of school hours, and those who do not adhere to those codes are subject to consequences, which may or may not include suspension. This is the prerogative of each school, and anyone who does not like what it says in the school handbook has the option of sending their children elsewhere. I think we should all agree that this is OK. Everyone maintains their rights.

In Israel, it is different, as it seems from your blog post that this school is run by the state, and there are certain regulations. This leaves open many questions, which are left unanswered due to my lack of familiarity with the Israeli educational system, and a lack of detail in your posting. First, why would the parents initiate a punishment if they feel she did nothing wrong? Why couldn’t they refuse? What reasoning did they give for agreeing to the suspension? Please provide some more details, as this seems very important to fully understanding this particular issue. More generally, if Israel has both dati and chiloni schools, and parents can choose to which school their children will go, then if I am religious and want a dati school, shouldn’t I expect certain standards of the student and parent body? What are those standards? Are there any “student handbooks” or something similar? If so, what do they say? I assume that (for the dati schools), the chief rabbinate decides halachic issues. What does the chief rabbinate say regarding the various leniencies of kol isha? Also, you say that the ministry has a rule that no one can be punished for performing on a television show. That is interesting to me. Why is there such a law? Are there other rules regarding what is and is not an acceptable reason for punishing a student?

Finally, it should also be noted that, if you ask an orthodox person, they will NOT tell you that women are 2nd class citizens, but that they are held in very high regard, and any differences in laws or roles for women are an expression of that, not in order to oppress. Many women are happily a part of Orthodox communities, despite (or even because of) the way women are treated. Accusing the Orthodox of saying that women are treated as 2nd class citizens is not just critical, but inflammatory. If you are not here to criticize, don’t criticize.

Amber said...

Most people who treat women like 2nd class citizens claim they're actually honoring them. And just because women in these cultures are okay with the setup doesn't make it any less true.