Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kol Isha, the IDF, and Frumkeit

I am so tired of the conspiracy theory crowd. Especially when it comes to Israel. A few days ago there was an incident where some religious soldiers involved in an officer training program walked out of a performance in which female soldiers started singing. They were ordered to return but they disobeyed orders claiming that being forced to stay violated Halacha. Kol B’Isha Erva. One is not permitted to listen to a woman singing. It is considered Erva - ‘nakedness’ .

When ordered to apologize for standing up, walking out, and disobeying an order to return to the performance the soldiers refused. They were dismissed from the program.

There are those who applaud what these soldiers did. After all… who ya gonna listen to the ‘Kochi V’Otzem Yadi’ crowd or God? In a conflict between Halacha and an army order – of course you listen to God.

There are those who see this whole incident as a ‘set up’. They smugly assert that the army is an anti Frum ‘old boys club’ who in this case were intent on preventing religious soldiers from advancing in the ranks.

Mission accomplished!

I do not believe this even for a minute. Let us examine what happened from the army’s perspective and from the perspective of the performer.

A performance was held for the soldiers. Right in the middle of the performance some of them stood up and walked out - embarrassing the performers. Upon seeing this an officer tried to correct the situation via a direct order to return. They refused. They were subsequently dismissed from the program. From the perspective of the army there was no religious issue. They know little if anything about Kol Isha. And even if they heard of it, they certainly did not expect a reaction like this. Unless one is religious - why would anyone ever think that hearing a woman sing is forbidden by Jewish law?

The army does not have a sense of humor when it comes to disobeying orders. Soldiers disobeyed orders based on a religious claim that makes no sense to them. End of story!

When you’re in the army you don’t disobey orders. And you are certainly not rewarded for doing so by being promoted to a higher rank. I do not believe this was a deliberate attempt to undermine religious soldiers.

Embarrassing another Jew is not to be taken lightly either. The Gemarah tells us that ‘whitening’ the face of another person in public is tantamount to murder! It may have been more Halachicly correct for these soldiers to stay in their seats and try and distract themselves from hearing those voices – perhaps quietly reciting some Tehillim - with their eyes averted from the performer.

Is that a permissible way to avoid the Issur of Kol Isha? Ashkenaz Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger apparently thinks so. When he is involved in formal events requiring his presence and a woman starts singing - he pulls out a sefer and learns in order to distract himself.

That said - I agree with Rabbi Metzger that this is not a permanent solution for IDF soldiers who may often be forced into such a predicament. But in point if fact, he did not walk out on those rare occasions where it happened to him. He did not want to embarrass his government. And these soldiers should not have been so ‘Frum’ that they embarrassed a performer in the middle of her performance.

If one wants to promote conspiracy theories about the IDF’s nefarious intentions with respect to religious soldiers, they will have to explain how to reconcile that with the fact that army now bends over backwards to accommodate Charedi soldiers - as reported by a one such solider in a recent Cross-Currents article.

This event should have never happened. The army needs to become more educated and sensitized to the needs of the religious soldier. At the same time there has to be an understanding among religious soldiers that errors will sometimes be made and that there is no one conspiring against them.

The religious soldier needs to be trained to know in which situations they are Halachicly justified to disobey an order. This was not one of them. Kol Isha is a complicated subject with many differing opinions about what is considered a violation. There are probably leniencies they could have relied upon - even if did not involve embarrassing others. In situations where embarrassment is involved – certainly that should be avoided as does Rabbi Metzger when the same situation arises for him.

What seems to be missing a lot these days is common sense. It is being replaced with Frumkeit!

Of course in those instances where there is such discrimination and it can be proven - that is indeed grounds for dismissal from the IDF! Discrimination of any kind should never be tolerated in the army of any civilized country

Some of those religious soldiers have apologized and have been reinstated in the program. But others still refuse. One of them has taken this to the Israeli Supreme Court. If he wins his case it will set a bad precedent. The last thing the Israeli army needs now is a bunch of soldiers deciding for themselves when they will and when they will not obey orders.