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No, a woman's voice is not "pubic" - the song must go on

A recent protest from within the IDF against the sound of women singing made it all the way to the High Court. But the event is only one in a string of state-sanctioned assaults against women’s rights, led by Israel’s religious establishment, which likens women to their genitalia

By Hila Benyovits-Hoffman | Translation: Dena Shunra

Some six weeks ago, during a formal IDF officers’ training course event celebrating military heritage, nine cadets stood up and left the performance hall. The reason for their pointed exit was the participation of women among the military singers. The cadets felt they were prohibited from listening to them sing, under the principle of Jewish law known as “a woman’s voice is ervah,” the Hebrew word for “pubis.” (Though the expression is often inaccurately translated into English as “a woman’s voice is nakedness.”) This phrase, commonly used by religious authorities in Israel, implies that very essence of women is lustful and indecent. Four of the cadets were kicked out of the course, and the State Attorney backed up the commanders who removed them when the matter became the subject of an appeal to the High Court of Justice. Among other issues mentioned by the State Attorney, it discussed the requirement to take into account the feelings of the Orthodox soldiers, and to be appropriately inclusive. This, despite the problem of “a most extreme violation of the principle of commanding authority and the obligation in Israel’s army to obey orders.” The very grievous violation of the women singing was not mentioned at all, nor was any need to take their feelings into account.

The case of the deposed cadets made it to the highest echelons of power. Even Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger gave the matter time and attention. His Excellency Rabbi Metzger writes the following: “It is made clear in the Gmara that the voice of a woman is ervah [pubis]. And the reason it is considered to be like her ervah is that the sound of a singing woman is pleasant, and leads to desire and rumination… In order to prevent such friction in the future, I suggest that in events such as these, where many of the soldiers adhere to the Torah and follow the dictates of Mitzvahs, only males should sing.” In other words, the pubis should not sing. Because females are not males, but rather, a mound of flesh growing some fine hairs.

Now you might ask me why I even give this a second thought. So some hormone-stricken youngsters flout orders without a second thought; so some rabbi wrote a particularly ludicrous decision under Halachic law; so some Orthodox woman named Tali Farkash published a really stupid column, where she uses her freedom of expression to silence women and advocate for their rights to be curtailed [Hebrew]. (WTF, Ms. Farkash? Have you any idea the pain and anguish that went into obtaining your right to speak freely? Are you in such a hurry to scorn the Israeli army’s “failed feminists”?). You might say – you’re not Orthodox, you’re secular, so this has no effect on you; let the Orthodox do whatever they like! Let them refrain from listening to singing pubes, caroling cunts, or vocalizing vaginas – who cares? They’re all crazy. They don’t change things for us, not really.

Don’t they?

I’m sorry to have to break the bad news, but the military being caught with its pubes showing is merely the tip of the jagged iceberg that threatens to drown the ship of what we fondly consider to be Israeli culture. There is a terrifying, nauseating wave of silencing, sidelining and terror that has been washing over the country for several years. The prohibition on women’s singing in the army is only one head of the hydra that is evicting women from public spaces. Another head of the same monster is visible in the shivering testicles of the ad men, who are scared to display even the scent of a woman on billboards, and not only in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, either [Hebrew]. Another loud and violent head of the same monster is the despicable religious “Mehadrin” bus lines, in which women sit in the back of the bus, which even the Supreme Court of Justice has seen fit to stamp its approval upon, using the wan, pale excuse of it being “a voluntary separation.” The Supreme Court of Justice still waves its dulled sword of justice at the “separation sidewalks”, and states in a tone that sounds at least somewhat firm that separation of men and women on public sidewalks is unlawful. The problem is that a year ago the very same Supreme Court of the very same Justice handed down the very same decision, and the police handled the problem roughly the same way as it handles the problems of sexual harassment and sexual attacks in public spaces. In other words, with all the vim and vigor of a silkworm that has been dead for, oh, a decade.

Want some more examples? Here you go: remember the Jerusalem Chords Bridge fiasco? Young girls were required to wear sacks while performing a dance at the inauguration of the bridge, lest some ultra-Orthodox man find himself in the audience and became, heaven forbid, aroused. Remember the Beit Shemesh girls’ school, which is repeatedly attacked because the Orthodox neighbors are horrified to see little girls through their window – perhaps objecting under some halachic principle that prohibits the study of girls aged 6-12 at school, since they may be naked, as well?

You know what? We can even venture outside of our own shire and see that separation lines appear even in the bus lines serving the Hassidic public in New York, as well. And what does the City of New York do? Oh, no problem. They can keep going on as long as the riders all agree, right. NOT! They still care about civil rights there. They threatened to close down those bus lines immediately, unless the illegal practice of gender segregation is immediately stopped.

It turns out something must be done against this insanity – if there is a will, and if action is taken resolutely. What scares me more than anything else is the relative silence, the equanimity with which this sort of thing is met here. It is as if this were a natural disaster, an unimpeachable dictate of fate. Something that can be understood, taken for granted: because Orthodox people’s feelings must constantly be contended with, and secular people – well, they are probably tough enough to withstand such things. As for women’s feelings – well, since when does the pubis have feelings? And the humiliation goes on for longer, becomes more entrenched and more complex, becomes encoded in rules and regulations and laws, and we have been abandoned. Remember: in societies that experience an ongoing degrading of human rights, women are always the first to pay the price. Unfortunately, beyond a few good people who remember that this is not a feminist problem but a humanist one, which is a threat to us all, human rights are not vigorously adhered to when it’s only about women, as Yossi Gurvitz put it so beautifully in his wonderful column.

The time has come to say it loud and clear: when people say that “a woman’s voice is pubic,” they are likening a person to a sex organ. When people make a show of leaving the room when another person is singing, they are expressing disgust and rejection, as though the singer were leprous, unclean, not legitimate. When a man advocates for “the singing of males” only, he is disgracefully dehumanizing 51% of the population and saying that women are not human. He determines, in effect, that women are the sum of their sex organs, and denies us a basic form of self-expression. Worse yet, as an influential leader, courted by the greatest military generals wearing (temporary) religious attire, he directs others to think and act just as he does. And that founding principle, where women can always and forever step aside, because their role is sidelined – is not acceptable to me.

I am here to say that anyone who does not respect me – will get no respect from me. Anyone who does not see me as a fully equal person, for all intents and purposes, will receive no courtesy consideration for what he purports are “his feelings.” I don’t care if he believes in Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, Buddha, televangelists, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its noodly appendages: anyone who wishes to silence me due to something he believes in had better put his fingers in his ears, cut off his own testicles, and do any other thing he needs to do in order to live up to the principles of his own faith – so long as this faith is not expressed by limiting me, and certainly not if it is expressed by declaring that I am not a full person, with rights just like his, and therefore not worthy of consideration.

So why am I telling you all this? It’s an invitation. I’d be glad if you joined me, on Friday, November 11th, at 11 a.m. I’m not sure where we’ll meet, and the date may change – but what we’ll do, myself and some friends, is meet in Tel Aviv to sing in public. We’ll print out some songs and make a flyer to explain what we’re doing to passers-by, and I’ll even brave my resounding technology issues and open a Facebook event for this. Check the facebook page here for final updates about the location, and the occasional threat from people who want to make sure we’re silenced.

And if anyone asks you what that crazy event is that you’re attending, please remind them that the craziness is the current situation – not in protesting against it. We’re not going to stage a provocation, but rather to maintain sanity. We are here to remind people that granting consideration to people who want to humiliate and hurt others is insanity, and we will no longer permit it. We are here to remind everyone that women are people. We are here, because the song must go on.

Hila Benyovits-Hoffman is a translator and blogger, MA in Gender Studies and Ceiling Cat worshiper.

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    1. In Tel Aviv? What’s the point in that? Gotta do it in Jerusalem.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Sinim

      Excellent piece. Hope you’re successful with you upcoming protest.
      Reading this, I can’t help but observe that this rising misogyny is at least partly the result of the occupation. Palestinian women are subject to sexist abuse all the time from soldiers manning checkpoints and the like, so it’s hardly surprising that these horrible attitudes and practices would start to seep into Israeli society and become accepted there. It doesn’t help that the most extreme elements (such as the Al Khalil/Hebron settlers and their ilk) are indulged and given more and more power.
      As anywhere else, there is an intersection of human/civil rights abuses in Israel. One can’t protest occupation while ignoring the injustices in Israel proper, and vice versa. The only way to succeed is in a comprehensive approach that understands how all of these issues are interrelated.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      Attempting to politicize everything that happens in Israel as being due to the “occupation” won’t work. The status of women in the Arab world is very problematic from a Western point of view, much more so than that status of women in Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Amir.BK

      So what are we going for here? do we want to reform judaism or just separate synagogue and state?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Abu Nuwas

      I share your feeling and sentiment.And as someone from Egypt I cannot help but see the almost identical views between the Orthodox Jews and the Salafiya movement regarding women and many other things.

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      There is a significant difference. In most Muslim societies, as part of a tradition that pre-dates Islam, women are seen as a man’s property, and sequestering women is key to the preservation of a man’s honor. For another man to see, touch or speak to a woman is a property offense against the man who owns her.

      In Haredi society, the concern is solely for the “purity” of the men NOT related to the woman, lest the sight or sound of her arouse the lust of the men. No one really cares about the women themselves, who are of no value.

      Islamic cultures will put a woman into a burkah to preserve the purity of the woman. Haredim are putting women into burkahs to preserve the purity of the men.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Carl

      Aristeides, though I’m admittedly not female, I’m willing to bet not many women would regard that as a ‘significant’ difference; it’s still men making decisions about women, no matter how they dress it up.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      “The status of women in the Arab world is very problematic from a Western point of view, much more so than that status of women in Israel.”

      Clearly, much works remains to be done.

      When I was a wee lad, I recall singing on a bus when we were traveling as a group of scouts (and not, we were not separated into boy scouts and girl scouts). Perhaps women could try to assert their place by boarding as a little group a bus, sitting meekly in the back and singing.

      Syng a song of Saxons
      In the Wapentake of Rye
      Four and twenty eaoldormen
      Too eaold to die….

      Reply to Comment
    9. ophira gamliel

      Such a coincidence! We started a popular university in Rehovot tent camp on October 18. We were fortunate and blessed to have Dr. Yehoshua Granat from the Hebrew University, an expert on Medieval Hebrew poetry, to question the validity of “a woman’s voice is erva” with his vast knowledge of Hebrew sources. He picked up the subject because he was upset by the cadets incident. We hope to have a video summary of the lecture. Everybody, including the tent dwellers, were elated and inspired by it.
      A singer of piyyut, Rakefet Amsellem, came all the way from Tivon to take part, and she also sang beautiful piyutim in Persian and Moroccan tunes.
      And two three days later, your event comes up, and now your excellent article. Is it possible to have it translated into Hebrew?
      All the best,

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben Israel

      Could you elaborate on what you meant that “women have no value” in Haredi society?

      Reply to Comment
    11. Dena Shunra

      Nice coverage of this initiative appeared this morning in Haaretz.


      Personally, this caught my fancy because of the very strong memory of being silenced as a young woman, just as I was coming out of childhood. The silencing was clear, immediate, and brooked no appeal.

      It is so good to know that women are saying “I am woman, watch me roar!”

      Reply to Comment
    12. sh

      Dena, snap! Same memory.
      Blamethewoman’s as old as Adam and Eve. And if Muslims and Christians are honest with themselves, it’s not unique to Jews either. What’s new is that it’s no longer politically correct to say it and politically expedient – at least here in Israel – to turn a blind eye.
      Remember the Lorelei?
      “….The comb she holds is golden,
      She sings a song as well
      Whose melody binds an enthralling
      And overpowering spell.

      In his little boat, the boatman
      Is seized with a savage woe,
      He’d rather look up at the mountain
      Than down at the rocks below.

      I think that the waves will devour
      The boatman and boat as one;
      And this by her song’s sheer power
      Fair Lorelei has done.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Mitchell Cohen

      Am I missing something here? Are woman forbidden from singing in the public streets of Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem? Not that I know of. When I read about this incident, the way I see it, it isn’t about women’s rights, but about this particular woman having the attitude “you are going to hear me sing whether you like it or not”. Agree or disagree with observant Jews beliefs and lifestyle, these soldiers (who put their lives on the line for this country) had their religious sensitivities violated unnecessarily and, with good will from both sides (i.e. the religious soldiers and the organizers of the ceremony), an arrangement could have been made in advance, where nobody’s sensitivities would have been offended. However, it was more important to stick it to the religious soldiers (who are amongst the most motivated to serve in combat units) and to hell with them. And then, the anti-religious left complains that the Haredim are not serving?!?!

      Reply to Comment
    14. GONZU

      @Mitchell: You are indeed missing something — the point. As pointed out in the article, public spaces for women in Israel are shrinking, while law enforcement bodies — though commanded to do so by the judicial system — refuse to defend the rights of women to move freely, to see, and to be seen.
      Regarding the delicate sensibilities of Haredi men: I could not be less concerned, and why should I be? What law absolves them of their responsibilities to conduct themselves appropriately without causing harm to others? It is well known that Golda Meir, in response to the proposal that a curfew on women be imposed to protect them from a rape epidemic, declared “But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.” This incident, which occurred some 40-50 years ago, reveals a history that does speak to Aristides’ point about the value of women by Haredi society. I humbly suggest that religious men return to the books and begin to develop strategies for maintaining control over themselves (if that is indeed what is at stake here), as some women will not acquiesce to their erasure from public space.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Piotr Berman

      Like most of the ignorants, I just know what Wikipedia says: This [prohibition to listen to female singing voice] is derived from Song of Solomon 2:14: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet (“arev”) and your face is beautiful.” The Talmud classifies this as ervah (literally “nakedness”).

      Quick perusal of links allows to check that Song of Songs symbolizes the love between the Jewish People and God, so … I guess that the Sages figured that to symbolize spiritual love the Song has to have some relationship with the experience of physical love, so various acts described in the Song (like listening to female voice, smelling expensive perfume and knocking at doors) may lead to sexual arousal.

      Rather strange way of deriving a prohibition from “Let me hear your voice” which is rather affirmative.

      Reply to Comment
    16. aristeides

      “Blessed art Thou, oh Lord our God, that I was not born a woman.”

      Reply to Comment
    17. Dena Shunra

      @Piotr – the words ערב (as in pleasant) and ערווה (as in pubis) are not spelled the same way. The v sound is made with a bet in one case, a vav in the other. My guess is that the similarity in sounds is just a flimsy excuse, made up by the rabbis for the sole purpose of evicting women from the public space.

      I think the same works for reversing the invitation for the beloved to sound her voice and turning it into “shut up, woman, that wasn’t YOU being invited”.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Excellent piece, well translated. I heard female soldiers were doing the same last week. Alas, my daughter, who is a singer, just finished her IDF service. I’ll remind her that wherever she is on Friday Nov. 11, to sing her heart (and pubes!) out.

      Reply to Comment
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