Showing posts with label Conservative Movement in Israel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Conservative Movement in Israel. Show all posts

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Israeli President Shimon Peres Speaks at Conservative Conference in Israel

(Photo from

The Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism) celeberated 35 years of activity in Israel tonight at a gala evening in Shefayim, Israel. More than 600 people attended from Conservative Synagogues and communities all over Israel. Various Rabbis and lay people were honoured at this festive evening.

Israeli President Shimon Peres accepted an invitation to deliver the keynote address at the conference. Immediately before he spoke, the choir "Shirat Machar" ("Song of Tomorrow") performed. Shirat Machar is a professionally coached choir made up of members of Noam (the Conservative youth movement in Israel). The choir is made up of young men and women from all over Israel. They perform a variety of music including Israeli popular music and some religious music. This type of performance has been attracting a great deal of publicity in the Israeli media lately, since there have been growing efforts by ultra-religious Jews in Israel to exclude women from singing in public.

Peres opened his comments, right after Shirat Machar finished, with a big smile and by noting that he had come to the conference expressly so that he could hear women singing. This was a direct shot at those ultra-religious fanatics who view this type of performance as a violation of Jewish law. Peres clearly set out a vision of gender equality that has no place for the exclusion of women or anyone else, in public, during army ceremonies or at any other time.

Peres went on to call for tolerance in a variety of other areas. He called on Israel to redouble its efforts to sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate a peace agreement. He emphasized the importance of minority religious rights, equality and democracy in Israel in every respect. He called on people of divergent religious views to find ways to live together, as they have for so many years, and to fight back against the militant minority that would create barriers between people of different views.

Peres has sometimes been called a dreamer, but the vision that he dreams is one of human dignity, peace, justice, tolerance and freedom. Commenting on the importance of Conservative Judaism and its roots, Peres described how Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the visionaries of Conservative Judaism, had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight against discrimination just days before King Jr. was murdered. He brought that history forward in describing the contributions that Conservative Judaism continues to make in Israel by pushing for tolerance, respect for the law, justice and genuine devotion to the State of Israel.

President Peres had to leave shortly after his speech. But he paused to take some photographs with Shirat Machar and to speak to its members briefly. Just after his speech, the choir performed a second, longer set, much to the delight of the gala guests. Shirat Machar came back after various awards were presented and after dinner to perform a third set, this time including a chain of Shlomo Artzi songs which was enthusiastically received.

The combination of President Peres and Shirat Machar at the conference emphasized some of the key values of the Conservative Movement. Justice, tolerance, religious pluralism and dignity as reflected in Peres' vision, set out in his speech; and the exuberant, energetic sound of youth, male and female, working together to build a better future as represented by Shirat Machar.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jerusalem Not Tehran: Another Rally to Oppose the Silencing of Women's Voices

According to Israeli on-line news site, in a recent poll, some 49% of Israelis agreed with the statement that religiously observant soldiers should not be forced to remain at ceremonies at which women are singing. As I discussed in my previous blog post on November 17, 2011, this issue has been getting increased publicity over the past few months as a result of a number of incidents in which women were publicly shunned by Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox groups.

Last night, hundreds of women and men attended a performance and demonstration in the centre of Jerusalem in support of the right of women to sing publicly and, more broadly, the need for Israel to continue as a society of equality, democracy and freedom rather than creeping towards a society with greater theocratic influence and control.

A number of well-known Israeli singers performed at the concert including international recording artist Achinoam Nini. One of the musical groups, Tarentina, began its set wearing full black, mock burkas. After playing a song in these outfits, they peeled off the head coverings and commented on the oppressive requirement of having to wear such cumbersome clothing in some societies. Echoing the sentiments of other speakers at the rally, they noted that “Israel is not Iran and Jerusalem is not and should not become Tehran.”

The rally was organized by Micki Gitzin, chair of “Free Israel,” an organization that has planned a number of these rallies over past number of months. Gitzin told the audience that “we will continue to sing anywhere and anytime until there is an end to the movement to shun women.”

Ultra-Orthdox Jews and many other observant Orthodox Jews maintain that it is improper to listen to a woman singing in public. In Orthodox synagogues, only men are involved in leading prayer services and reading from the Torah and women are generally seated in a different section of the synagogue, behind a wall (a mechitza). It is therefore not surprising that these communities would apply or attempt to apply that separation and view of equality more broadly. It is more disturbing that so many other Israelis, even many secular Israelis, would agree that it should be their “right” as observant Orthodox Jews to implement such rules in public arenas outside of the synagogue environment.

Conservative Judaism has recognized the connection between what occurs in the synagogue and its effect on equality more generally. In a recent responsa for the Schechter Institute, Rabbi David Golinkin traces the development of this ultra-Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice publicly by examining Jewish law. He concludes that the first real authority to require a general legal prohibition against hearing women sing publicly was Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the “Hatam Sofer”) in the early 19th Century. (Volume 6, Issue No. 2, November 2011). Citing author Emily Teitz, Rabbi Golinkin notes that this relatively recent prohibition was not consistent with Jewish religious practice throughout earlier periods during which women often sang publicly, including at synagogues throughout the middle ages. Moreover, he notes that there is also authority for the proposition that it would be a greater halachic (Jewish legal) problem for observant men to walk out while women were singing (and thereby insult them) than it would for such observant men to actually sit and listen to the women singing respectfully.

In Israel, Conservative Jews have played an active role in the struggle to ensure equality in the synagogue and in society, generally. At last night’s rally, a co-ed choir, “Shirat Machar” – “The Songs of Tomorrow” performed as one of the opening musical acts. Shirat Machar is a musical ensemble comprised of teenagers affiliated and supported by Noam, the Conservative youth movement in Israel. Most if not all of the Conservative synagogues in Israel are egalitarian which means full participation by men and women in leading services, reading from the Torah and participating in other ways in the religious services. This egalitarian outlook, which begins in the synagogue, affects attitudes of congregants in many other ways.

Sadly, in some circles, the flip side is true. Attitudes towards women and towards gender equality that begin in Orthodox synagogues are often carried forward to other areas of life including family law, the law of estates and inheritance and even views of appropriate conduct between men and women.

The difficulty in Israeli society is the historic “compromise” under which earlier Israeli governments ceded much of the authority over religious affairs to the monopolistic control of the Orthodox establishment. As this authority has expanded recently with the growth of religiously observant communities in Israel, issues of gender equality have begun to face new and greater challenges. Rallies of the type held last night are aimed not just at ensuring that women’s voices continue to be heard in public in Israel but that democracy and equality for all, regardless of gender, continue to be among the most significant values in Israel.