An Orthodox rabbi whose life’s work is healing seriously ill patients for free on Monday canceled a planned fundraising concert after the exclusion of female singers from the roster caused a public uproar.
The November 20 concert at Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium was planned as a tribute concert for popular singer Shlomo Artzi and was supposed to be a show of unity in support of Ezra Lemarpe, a nonprofit medical support organization that has helped save thousands of lives, often at no cost to the patient, and its founder, Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer.
But instead, the event has been underscoring deep divisions in Israeli society. It was planned to feature performances by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and many top Israeli artists, but controversy erupted last week after it was revealed that Firer had requested that no female singers be included.
Orthodox Jewish law prohibits men from hearing women sing in certain contexts, considering the female voice immodest.
The concert had been fiercely debated in recent days in Israeli media and social media, and many public figures, singers and legal officials waded in to voice their opinions on the exclusion of women, Jewish law’s take on women singing, and the life work of Rabbi Firer.
At a time when many secular Israelis believe religion is increasingly encroaching on individual liberties, the news even prompted artists who typically shy away from such issues to pick a side.
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra subsequently said it would not perform at an event that “excludes women.” So did Artzi’s guitarist, Avi Singolda, and Orly Vilnai, a journalist who was to serve as host, as well as many more singers. Others voiced support for Firer’s event and even said they were willing to volunteer to perform at the event. Artzi himself wrote on Facebook that he plans to do “whatever is possible to change Rabbi Firer’s mind.”
On Monday, Hebrew-language media reported that Firer had written a letter to Efi Hershkowitz, who was in charge of organizing the event, saying: “I am asking that the charity concert not be held. I have never intervened and never dealt with organizing the charity events. The association has had the honor of serving more than a million people thus far, no matter their religion, ethnicity or gender. I draw my energy from Jewish law, am proud of my way of life and am sticking to my life’s mission — saving lives and loving the other.”
The Israel Women’s Network welcomed the cancellation in a statement, praising Firer for his life work, and adding: “We must not accept any case of exclusion in the public sphere since that affects the status of women in all fields of society — from academia and the military to workplaces. We praise the artists and the Philharmonic for not agreeing with the erasure and silencing of women. Even a good goal cannot come at the expense of women.”
The right-wing religious National Union party, headed by Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, reacted with outrage to the development, and called it “a low point in Israeli society.”
“The liberal lunacy has won,” it added. “Every man and woman who is an Israeli citizen should feel embarrassment and shame over the humiliation of a huge philanthropist.”
The issue of gender equality lies at the heart of friction in Israel between the Orthodox and other Israelis. Violent clashes have taken place at the Western Wall between ultra-Orthodox worshipers upset about women leading services there and reading from the Torah. Orthodox soldiers also have repeatedly walked out of Israel Defense Forces events where women perform.
In August, the High Court of Justice barred a gender-segregated concert at a public park in the northern city of Afula, but the ruling came too late to stop the event from going ahead.
That ruling sparked a widespread outcry from right-wing lawmakers, particularly ultra-Orthodox ones, who claimed that the court was preventing Haredi Israelis from maintaining religious modesty customs. Those opposing the concert argued that segregating women is a form of discrimination and therefore illegal in public places.
JTA contributed to this report.