A nationwide argument erupted in Israel over the limits of religious freedom and practice in the public sphere, particularly when involving state-funded or municipal venues.
(November 5, 2019 / JNS) Leave it to Israelis to create and engage in a heated controversy where it need not exist.
The brouhaha surrounding a benefit concert whose proceeds were earmarked for the health-care NGO, Ezra Lemarpe—founded and directed by genius medical autodidact Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer—is a perfect example.
The concert, a tribute to the 50-year career of Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi ahead of his 70th birthday, was supposed to take place on Nov. 20. It was canceled on Monday by Firer, who was fed up and clearly hurt by the commotion that his religious beliefs were causing.
The carry-on began when it emerged that certain female singers would be on the program, along with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and other prominent performers. But the rabbi is a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew who adheres to the modesty directive that men may not hear women singing, as their voices can be seductive.
This tenet of kol b’isha erva (“a woman’s voice is nakedness”) has been the subject of much controversy among Israelis who consider it a sexist affront. Two recent gender-segregated music festivals that were held in public spaces catapulted this issue back into the headlines. A nationwide argument erupted over the limits of religious freedom and practice in the public sphere, particularly when involving state-funded or municipal venues. One slogan that was slung around during the battle against those events was: “We’re not Saudi Arabia.”
It is thus that when the organizers of the gala honoring Artzi discovered and revealed that no female vocalists would be able to perform, incensed women artists made a stink, and their male counterparts began to announce that they couldn’t possibly appear on stage under such circumstances. You know, out of “solidarity” and in “principle.”
Which actually meant that they feared being accused of chauvinism.
Thankfully, a handful of stars, including women, came out on Firer’s side. They argued that fulfilling the rabbi’s wish would be a negligible price to pay for the millions of people, including women, whom he has served and whose lives he has saved.
The iconic Artzi, dubbed by some as “Israel’s Bruce Springsteen,” was not one of them. Instead, he said that he would “do everything he could” to persuade the rabbi to suspend kol isha just this once. It was both silly and an expression of utter ignorance. Indeed, he might as well have suggested that Firer dine on pork during the concert in order to smooth ruffled feathers.
If anything illustrates the danger of viewing individual issues through an inflexible ideological prism, this is it. Firer has proven himself to be a selfless and heroic figure, who has done nothing but use his eerie gift to help comfort and heal millions of people, without regard to their ethnic, religious or gender identities.
His almost mystical talent is a self-taught encyclopedic knowledge of diseases and cures; the ability to read and swiftly decipher complicated medical charts and scans; and the skill to diagnose rare conditions. He uses the above to refer each of the dozens of patients he sees daily—at no charge—to the appropriate doctors.
For his tireless efforts and the running of Ezra Lemarpe, he was awarded the Israel Prize in 1997, as well as honorary doctorates from the Weizmann Institute of Science and the University of Haifa in 2002 and 2008, respectively. Israelis from all walks of life have sought and received his advice and expertise. So well-known has his miraculous medical “matchmaking” become that he is as big a star as Artzi, but for a far more important reason.
The sanctity of life is but one of Firer’s religious principles. Another is refraining from listening to women sing. Allowing the latter to cancel out the former not only is intolerant and unjust, but exposes the kind of narrow-mindedness that feminists and fanatical secularists accuse the haredim of possessing. In this case, it also turned what would have been a blessed happening into an empty auditorium.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”