Think about this: Last week in synagogue we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. The name comes from the Song of the Sea the Israelites chanted after they miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds. With joy and gratitude, they burst into song, and when the congregation as a whole finished, the women, led by Miriam, danced with their timbrels and sang the chorus again. Now, do you suppose the men turned their backs, so as not to see the women? Did they stuff their ears with sand, so as not to hear the women? Did they hurriedly build a wall of mud in the wilderness to block off all sound and sight of the dancing women with their musical instruments?
It’s not likely they did any of those things. In fact, we know from other biblical passages and archaeological evidence that one of women’s roles in ancient Israelite society was to greet warriors with song and dance as they returned from battle. So why is it that in 21st-century Israel growing numbers of young men are reverting to the strictest tenets of the Talmud and refusing to hear women’s voices or have women visible in a variety of domains?
I’m not speaking of those haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, men whose abuse of an Orthodox girl not dressed modestly enough for them made headlines. Those men represent the extremes of haredi society and are rejected even by many of their co-denominationalists. I’m speaking of Religious Zionists, a mainstream group that has been at the core of the country since pre-state times. The religious Zionist Mizrahi and Hapoel Hamizrahi were part of the coalition governments David Ben-Gurion formed from the earliest days, and for many years voted with the ruling, secular Labor party. Religious Zionists have always been central to the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. But in recent years, numbers of young people in this group have become ever more stringent in their religious practice. In the process, some of the men have also made demands aimed at separating and limiting women. Consider these examples:
Some religious male soldiers have refused to attend public IDF events that include female singers. Two years ago, Bnei Akiva, the Religious Zionist youth organization, pulled out of a ceremony memorializing 35 soldiers murdered in 1948 as they tried to protect the Gush Etzion bloc, because women would be singing in the chorus.
Last month, a religious soldier refused to parachute jump because he had a female instructor guiding him, and there seems to be growing opposition among religious male soldiers to receiving instruction from women.
A few weeks ago a Religious Zionist study center published a photo in its bulletin of the Fogel family that was murdered last March by Palestinian youths. The husband and three children could be seen clearly. The mother’s face was blurred, for “modesty” reasons. After an outcry, the center’s head apologized. It is the bulletin’s policy, he explained, not to include images of women.
In the Religious Zionist school system, which traditionally integrated classes of boys and girls, the tendency now is to separate the sexes even in the lower grades. Some schools have advised fathers not to attend Chanukah parties and other school celebrations, because they would have to see and mingle with women, the children’s mothers. That ostensibly makes these mother-only events.
To be sure, plenty of Religious Zionists in the army and elsewhere hold far more centrist views than these examples suggest, and many have taken strong stands against the segregation or exclusion of women. Religious Zionist women themselves, like Modern Orthodox women in America, have successfully entered every field of endeavor, becoming, among other things, outstanding Torah scholars. But the rightward religious tilt continues — numbers of the youth in this group have become known as “hardalim,” a combination of “haredi” and “dati-leumi,” religious nationalists. It is as though they want to show that they can be as religiously rigorous as the ultra-Orthodox, or more so. What a shame that they feel a need to prove their religiosity by trying to restrict women. And how ironic that when thousands of Egyptian women defied tradition to rally in Cairo recently, and when even Saudi Arabian women are gaining some rights, groups of religious men in Israel seek to narrow women’s roles and silence their voices.
The army and other state institutions might want to show these young Religious Zionists images of religious kibbutzim of the past. In them women — perhaps their grandmothers or great-grandmothers — worked alongside men and sang and danced together with them. Those generations of builders and those that followed disagreed with the secular in numerous ways, but they shared with them the vision of a free society in which women and men lived and worked as equals. For them religion enhanced that vision, not diminished it.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.