The hijacking of Judaism

One day, I would like to practice classical Judaism. You know, the true Judaism, the authentic Judaism, the one given to our ancestors while wandering the desert. The problem is I’m not sure what that is.

Recently, Ophir Ben Shetreet, an orthodox Jewish girl competed on the Israeli show, The Voice, and thoroughly engaged the audience with her angelic singing. Her decision to compete publicly caused a bit of a stir in her Orthodox circle, as she was accused of transgressing the halacha of Kol Isha – the law prohibiting women from singing in front of a male audience.

Ophir Ben-Shetreet (video)

ophir ben shetreet/The Voice-Israel/You tube

But is it halacha? Is it an actual law or rather an extreme restriction on women that hasn’t any fundamental basis in the Torah?

I mistakenly thought that this excessive measure stems from the biblical account of Miriam, the sister of Moses, singing praise to God for our redemption from Egypt. However, nowhere in the actual words of the Torah does it indicate that Miriam sang exclusively to women. And, since she did not sing exclusively to women, nowhere does the Torah indicate that she did anything “wrong” by singing in the presence of men.

I posted a congratulatory statement in honor of Ophir Ben Shetreet on my facebook wall which was met with some opposition. Yet, another facebook friend helpfully pointed out that the prohibition actually comes from “a specific circumstance — that during the Roman period, men would frequent Roman places – bath houses, that were in effect places of prostitution and the women that worked there sang songs as entertainment. That was the source of the ruling. It does not however apply in any way to hearing a woman sing in a moral atmosphere”.

Another friend offered an additional comment presenting the analysis of Harav David Bigman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa, translated by Yedidya Schwartz. In short, “There is no prohibition whatsoever of innocent singing; rather, only singing intended for sexual stimulation, or flirtatious singing, is forbidden. Although this distinction is not explicit in the early rabbinic sources, it closely fits the character of the prohibition as described in different contexts in the Talmud and the Rishonim, and it is supported by the language of the Rambam, the Tur, and the Shulchan Arukh.”

Over the years in the Diaspora, the extreme interpretations that wielded restrictive measures in numerous spheres of religious practice were adhered to by a small segment of Jewish society and yet, at least in my life time, I have observed it seep into the mainstream. Hence, the general prohibition of a woman singing in the presence of men.

I contend that over the 2 millenium, Judaism has been hijacked and distorted into something that even Moshe Rabeinu wouldn’t recognize had he popped in for a visit today. And at the risk of being accused as arrogant by those more knowledgeable than I, I further contend that the interpretations that view women as men’s property through various practices camouflaged as halachot must go.

While a number of these laws were adapted to safeguard women, those conditions of yesteryear that warranted specific rulings no longer apply. Since the Torah is likened to a tree of life, able to correspond to changing times, well….it’s high time that many extreme prohibitions and antiquated laws/rulings be revisited and subsequently altered to relate to the times in which we live or perhaps, entirely shelved.

It is long overdue to distinguish what is actual halacha from what is not. What is authentic and what was integrated long ago into the religion that took into consideration circumstances, environment, and norms which are no longer relevant. The regular people like me want to know what’s what.

For instance, there is much debate today surrounding the practice of married women covering their hair. Was this an interpretation influenced from the environment, a prevailing norm of the times in which the poskim (halachic arbiters) lived, or is it an actual halacha? With the abundance of conflicting views surrounding this topic, does anyone know for sure?

Or, with respect to Jewish marriage, is having a ketuba an actual halacha? I recall learning from a well respected Rav in Yeshiva University High School about a case he knew of where a boy jokingly put a ring on a girl’s finger and recited Harei at mekudeshet li (You are betrothed to me), and the two consequently had to undergo an actual divorce or annulment. Does this mean that the ketuba is not necessary? What is the actual halacha in what constitutes marriage? Is the answer to this merely a case of “aseh lecha rav,” find yourself a rabbi (of your liking)?

Furthermore, since the Get, a divorce document presented by the husband that essentially frees his wife from the marraige, is used more as a tool of blackmail in divorce negotiations usually to the detriment of the woman, couldn’t one argue that the Get loses religious value and significance when used as a tool of coercion and when in fact it does not serve to protect her? In line with that, if a woman is physically abused by her husband, shouldn’t the abused wife be allowed to determine that that last, one punch too many overrides a symbolic Get? Or, am I being too out of line with my questions?

It’s come to a point where there is much confusion not only among regular folk like me, but also among learned rabbis themselves when it comes to the question of what the actual halacha is. This is conveyed by the conflicting opinions on many of our religious practices as to what is excessive and what is indeed the authentic halacha.

Evidently, I’m not alone in my thoughts.

Enter Bayit Yehudi.

In our most recent elections, Bayit Yehudi ran on a platform that included a proposal to take the monopoly of religious law in Israel out of the hands of an extreme religious sect of Jewish society and place it into the hands of those who follow classical Judaism so that the Torah can ultimately be appreciated by all segments of Israeli society − without the severe and undue excessive interpretations that have accumulated over the centuries. It is a noble effort to get Judaism back on track, back to how it was meant to be practiced, back to actual halacha as opposed to fabricated halacha.

It is understood that much of the severity surrounding religious practice was purposely instituted by the rabbanim with the best of intentions, as a reaction to specific circumstances in the Diaspora. But that was then. Shouldn’t halachic interpretation today reflect our times?

I don’t claim to be a halachic mavin by any stretch of the imagination and I have no problem admitting my ignorance on a myriad of halachic issues. I certainly do not wish to sound like a heretic either. This post is not meant as a platform to rebel against the Torah. But finding a rabbi of my liking doesn’t seem to be the answer either since there is no general consensus. And, when dealing with religious practice such as marriage and divorce, which in Israel is institutionalized under a Rabbinate that adheres to the most extreme interpretation of Jewish law, it’s a bit problematic to say the least.

Like I said, in terms of what is authentic Judaism and what is not, the regular people like me just want to know what’s what.

About the Author
Author of THE GILBOA IRIS (Gefen Publishing House) and SETTLING FOR MORE: FROM JERSEY TO JUDEA (Urim Publications).