I read Renee Ghert-Zand’s post on the Sisterhood earlier this week, and then made the mistake of reading the comments under the article (51 of them as of this afternoon). I was disturbed for many reasons, but not, like everyone else, because a high school girl was suspended for singing in public
For starters, let’s clarify something: It simply can’t be that everyone hearing this story is actually upset that the school suspended Ophir Ben-Shetreet. From what I see, the real anger comes from those who view all Orthodox laws pertaining to women as automatically sexist, demeaning and backwards. But let’s get to that in a minute. First, if you believe that the school is in the wrong, take a moment to think about this situation as objectively as you can.
A private high school has the right to suspend its students for breaking the rules, whether that student disagrees with the rule or not. Of course, not every suspension is fair, but in an openly Orthodox institution that does not hide its affiliation with Orthodoxy, where parents are aware that they’re sending their children to a school that adheres by halacha, how can one argue with the school’s right to act in accordance with those very laws? It certainly seems as if the parents support the school’s decision, as Ghert-Zand states in her article: “The 12th grader has been suspended (with the agreement of her parents).” Unless the laws in Israel are wildly different, wherein a student can flout school rules and cannot be suspended — which I suspect is not the case — the school did nothing to warrant this uproar.
Now, I can’t say I’m personally a fan of the notion that schools demand certain behaviors of students outside of school hours and grounds, but this is a legitimate philosophy, whether I agree with it or not. The Bais Yaakov in my hometown had “spies” that would report to the school if a girl was spotted hanging out with boys. Do I agree with that practice, or that rule? No. But the school had a reputation for this behavior, and every student understood the repercussions of hanging out with boys in public. In the school’s view, and likely in the students’ view too, it had a right to punish any student who did so anyway. If the school in Ashdod was clear that it required Orthodox behavior of its students in the public domain — and I say if because I know nothing of this school’s rules — then it has every right to act on those rules.
Which brings us to the real reason readers are upset: Orthodoxy and its laws. It’s no surprise to anyone, least of all us Modern Orthodox Jews, that the practices of Orthodox Jews are deemed patriarchal and ridiculous. The very tone of Ghert-Zand’s article was sneering and dismissive. “Heaven forbid” a girl should want to sing in front of men, she mocks. Surely, to many sects of Judaism, singing in front of men is not a problem. But to most Orthodox Jews, this is seen as a violation of kol isha. Do all Orthodox Jews agree with this law in theory? No. But we try to keep it anyway, in whatever way we understand the law to mean.
Not every Orthodox Jew believes singing in front of men is even a problem, as long as certain restrictions are met: The woman sings with a microphone, or there are many women singing at once, or if the song is recorded in a studio and then played on the radio or digitally. In other words, Orthodox Jews are not opposed to “encourag[ing] young people to develop their natural talents and follow their dreams.” We just try to do it within certain boundaries. That, to Modern Orthodox Jews, is what Judaism means: living in the world within the guidelines of the Torah.
One commenter pointed out that this law of kol isha does not exist in other sects of Judaism, and that’s certainly true. That, to me, is the beauty of Judaism — there are so many sects to choose from, and all of them worship God and practice religion in their unique ways. Does that mean one is more “right” than the other? No. Does that mean we should judge and mock the other sects simply because we don’t agree with their way of believing? Of course not. That defies the very beliefs of Judaism: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
In the case of this one seventeen-year-old, who I am sure is a talented woman with exceptional drive, it’s hard for me to say the school did something wrong. A student has to follow the rules of its school even if it means pushing off a dream. Ben-Shetreet seems to be sticking to her plan of singing, and that’s admirable. But if she doesn’t want pushback from her school, then she should wait the last few months of her senior year to sing publicly, or she should switch schools. And if she does want to stay in her school and sing anyway, then no one can fault a school for following its own rules. This is not a case of public humiliation, but of a school punishing its student for stepping outside the school guidelines, and the entire Jewish world blowing up for, once again, disagreeing with an Orthodox halacha.
Simi Lichtman is a contributor to the Forward.
Keep Singing, Girlfriend, But Obey the Rules