Yesterday, I attended the Yom HaShoah service, and once again felt the agony and horror of what our people has been through, as well the sacred duty we have to remember and pay respectful and heart-felt tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. It brought home to me the real tragedy of how, in recent weeks, a few people have brought the Yom HaShoah service into the South African courts. They are insisting that the Cape Council of the Jewish Board of Deputies include a woman singing solo in the ceremony of the day. The Board has declined to do so because it would mean that they those who observe the halacha which does not allow this, would be excluded from Yom HaShoah.
What is most painful for me is that Yom HaShoah, with its trauma and national grief, is being used, by those who are taking this matter to court, as an opportunity to score political points, in the pursuit of personal and ideological agendas. At the ceremony yesterday, I felt the sadness of the situation even more deeply. The Holocaust, of all things, is being used as an attempt to divide our community. Such conduct is beyond the pale. The Holocaust taught us in a graphic and painful way that we are one people. The Nazis did not distinguish in their murderous intent between Jews of different levels of observance. They didn’t distinguish between Orthodox or Reform Jews, or unaffiliated Jews; they did not distinguish between Jews who observed the halacha and those who did not.
It is such a tragedy that it has come this. Surely, dialogue and communication, and not a court summons, is the best way to solve problems? Surely, we should reach out to each other in love and respect, even when we disagree? Most importantly, let us not forget that, after all is said and done, Yom HaShoah is not about us and our issues, it is about paying sincere and humble tribute and respect to the memory of the holy people, six million men, women and children, who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Those who have gone to court to force a change to the traditional format of the service, claim they are doing so in the name of women’s rights. But the facts suggest otherwise. The fact is that women play a very prominent role in the Yom HaShoah service. The fact is that two recent past chairpersons of the Cape Board of Deputies were women who presided over Yom HaShoah services. The fact is that women are often the keynote speakers and poetry readings are done by women of all ages. The fact is that women, together with men, play a major role in the Yom HaShoah service.
The fact is that the halachic injunction against a woman singing solo in the presence of men is not about discrimination against women. Torah Judaism does not tolerate discrimination against any person. In fact, one of the central values of Torah Judaism is that of the equality of all people. As the Talmud states: “Beloved is every human being created in the image of G-d.”
There is a religious and ethical duty in Jewish law to treat every human being with respect and dignity, irrespective of race or gender, or social and financial status. The equal worth and equal right to dignity of men and women is a central ethical value within the overarching structure of Judaism and the halacha. Discrimination against women is an anathema to Torah Judaism which reveres the prominent role of women, both in Jewish history, as well as in daily Jewish life. Many heroes of the Torah are women, most notably the four founding mothers of the Jewish people, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. When the Jewish people left Egypt and were in the desert for forty years, the leadership governing the people was a triumvirate of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The examples of the dynamic and important leadership roles that women play and have played within the context of Jewish religious life are too numerous to mention and span thousands of years from the prophet Devorah, one of the great heroes of the Book of Judges, to modern times.
The halacha against women singing in the presence of men is actually a reflection of Torah Judaism’s worldview and ethos concerning human sexuality. Unlike other certain religious philosophies which view human sexuality as an affront to holiness, Judaism takes the opposite view. It sees within human sexuality the potential for achieving holiness, provided that sexuality is expressed within the sacred privacy of marriage. The crucial words here are “private” and “holy”. In fact, the Talmudic word for marriage is “kedushin”, which means “holiness” and also means “specially designated”. And so, within the sanctity and privacy of marriage, the expression of sexuality becomes an important value. There are many laws within Judaism that aim to preserve and protect sexuality within the framework of a private and holy relationship between husband and wife. Thus there are many laws governing the sanctity of the sexuality of a woman, including that she should dress modestly (as should men!) and that a man ought not to look at a woman who is not his wife and who is immodestly dressed. These laws intend to empower women with proper command over their sexuality and dignity.
This has nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with holiness. A woman’s singing voice is regarded by the halacha as being private in the same category as her unclothed body, and therefore Jewish law requires that it be reserved only for private occasions with her husband or only in the presence of other women, where it does not constitute a threat to her holiness and dignity. Immersed as we are in modern Western culture, in which sexuality, and especially that of women, has been commercialised, and even degraded, we often become desensitised to Judaism’s philosophy of modesty and holiness in sexuality. The halacha operates as a legal system, with laws that apply in all circumstances, even if the context may change somewhat. And so the laws of sanctity and modesty apply even, and some would argue especially, in the context of a memorial service for the Holocaust.
I would like to commend the Board of Deputies for their courage in defending the traditional format of our Yom HaShoah memorial service. It is the right thing to do. It is right because it helps us create an all-inclusive Yom HaShoah service that every member of the Cape Jewish community feels comfortable to attend. It creates a safe space in which the community is held together in all its diversity, in a spirit of unity and tolerance.
It is the right thing to do because respecting the halacha is a precious Jewish value, which we uphold in our communal gatherings irrespective of our own personal level of observance. Some members of our community keep more aspects of the halacha than others and yet we all live together in unity and tolerance; but when it comes to official communal events it is only right that we as a Jewish community respect the halacha. Since the very inception of our people the halacha has been a vital part of Jewish life and identity. Halacha is Jewish law as it is found in the Written and Oral Torah, the Talmud, and later codified into the Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law. The injunction against the woman singing solo in public in front of men is one comes from the Talmud and is recorded in the Code of Jewish Law and is part of the halacha. For thousands of years Jews have lived by – and sometimes even died for – keeping the halacha.
From the horrors of the Holocaust, many stories of heroism have emerged of Jews who risked their lives in order to fulfil the halacha. We have just celebrated Pesach in a free democracy, but let us not forget what it was like to do so in the Holocaust. The devotion to observing halacha can be felt in the following account written by Holocaust survivor, Yona Emmanuel, about Pesach in Bergen-Belsen in 1944:
“A few days after Purim, the question arose: what should we eat during the eight days of Pesach? Could we refrain from eating the bread portions throughout Pesach and live only on the soup and unpeeled potatoes that were distributed at lunchtime? The rabbis of the camp ruled that the prohibition against eating bread on Pesach was suspended because of the mitzvah of ‘and you shall live by them’. The rabbis composed a special prayer to be recited before eating chametz:
‘Our Father in Heaven, it is clear and apparent to You that it is our desire to do Your will and to celebrate the festival of Pesach by eating matzah and by observing the prohibition of chametz, but our hearts grieve that our enslavement prevents this, as we are in mortal danger. We are hereby ready and prepared to fulfil Your mitzvah of “and you shall live by them” – “and not die by them” and to heed the warning of “guard yourself and guard your life carefully”. Therefore, it is our prayer to You that You keep us alive and enable us to exist and redeem us soon, in order that we may observe Your laws, do Your will and serve You with a full heart. Amen.’”
Emmanuel continues: “Without questioning the validity of this ruling, we decided that we would try, as much as possible, to refrain from eating chametz on Pesach… For about three weeks before Pesach, I set aside potatoes each Monday from the food we all received. I was able to set aside ten potatoes a day… It is obvious that the food we received was not ‘strictly’ kosher for Pesach, but we managed not to eat any chametz…
“Before Pesach, Baruch obtained a small amount of flour from Jews who had reached the camp from Benghazi in Libya. We prepared to bake enough matzah so that there would be a kezayit [an olive size] for each one [of us] for the Seder night … A few people joined us to bake the matzah. A young man named Yosef Adler, may G-d avenge his blood, supervised my mother as she kneaded the dough. Each person helped in his or her own way. We placed the dough that had been prepared carefully and according to all the laws onto a metal sheet in the oven …Suddenly the cry was here, ‘Achtung! (‘Attention!’). The door opened and – to the astonishment of all – an S.S. officer entered and asked what we were doing. My mother managed to hide some of the utensils while the others told the German that we were preparing a birthday cake. Luckily, the Nazi soldier was one of the oldest of the camp staff. He turned and left. The Seder night passed without any disturbances. We observed the mitzvah of the Four Cups by drinking four cups of tea. We read the Haggadah, and each of us ate a small amount of the matzah.”
Jewish history is filled with heroic examples such as that described by Yona Emmanuel, of the devotion to fulfilling halacha in all its glorious detail. Halachah has been intertwined with Jewish life and destiny for thousands of years. As a Jewish community, it is only right that we have a Yom HaShoah service which is conducted in such a way that is respectful of the halacha.
It is so sad that a very small group of people have dragged the South African Jewish community and, indeed, Yom HaShoah itself into court, and have attempted to tear apart our communal unity, nurtured lovingly and painstakingly over many decades. Let us defend the integrity and unity of our Yom HaShoah service. Let us defend the unity of our community. Most importantly, let us remember with dignity, humility and sincerity our brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust.
May their memory be blessed forever,
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein