Exclusion of Women on Yom Hashoa

by Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked, Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue, Johannesburg, South Africa

Reprinted from a Letter to the Jewish Report April 24, 2014

The leadership of the South African Jewish community should be ashamed of surrendering to the Shaked articlebullying prohibition on women singing at Yom HaShoa services.

The mind can hardly grasp the vulgarity of a ceremony which claims to represent the victims of the holocaust, male and female, while using discrimination to prevent women’s voices being heard in song of lament and hope. 

Yom HaShoa is not a classic religious event. It is a modern memorial service held by the entire community, religious and secular, conservative and progressive, to commemorate a catastrophe that occurred to our people only a generation ago. Victimising women at an event which supposedly manifests our commitment to fight all forms of discrimination “least we forget” is a mockery of the memory of the six million. 

Our master sages created a term to describe deeds that are harmful toward human dignity. They called it “Mema’et Ha’Demut”, diminishing the image or the figure. They refer of course to the image or the figure which the almighty granted to us. This is the “Pnei Adam”, the human face of the divine. 

When we oppress our fellow human beings, deny them equal access to what is sacred in our culture, we are harming the agents of God’s presence. By putting stubborn and oppressive prohibitions ahead of the spiritual needs of real human beings, we are committing a form of Avoda Zara, idolatry. 

There are many disputes among the open and close-minded camps in Judaism. None has been as stubborn and bitter as the struggle for the rights of women to raise their voices in the public sphere, especially on those occasions which evolve prayer and liturgy. Gladly, we can report that in the wider Jewish world, those unacceptable notions are being addressed by brave women who are not willing to be shut down simply because their voices are considered a temptation or a threat by some rabbis. 

Woman of the Wall, for example, who have risked arrest each Rosh Kodesh at the Kotel, are making inroads in their battle against the blackmailing Jerusalem religious establishment. They are just one example out of many. One day, and this day is not far away – discriminating loathsome approaches will find their place where they belong, in the garbage can of history, together with racism and homophobia. 

The Orthodox movement could very easily have avoided the embarrassment of picking a fight with singing women if they wished to do so. As many of you can remember, the prohibition is a new one; no-one found it necessary in previous years. If the late Chief Rabbi Harris walked out when women sang at memorials, I have not been told of it.

This discrimination is just the latest example of a fundamental deterioration in the quality of public life in the Jewish community. It is not just the attitude of the rabbinate which concerns me but that of all our people, Am Yisrael, who are willing to believe that this kind of ugly behavior represents the best in Jewish values. 

Especially disappointing is the silence of the Board of Deputies. That silence will be remembered by future generations, and already casts a dark shadow on the false claim by the Board that community events like Yom HaShoa represent not a particular faction of the Jewish community, but the whole Jewish community. 

Now what needs to be done? It is time for “Et La’asot LeHshem, heferu Toratecha”- time to act for Hashem against the violation of his commandments. Refuse to take part in Holocaust memorials which discriminate against woman. Talk to people to raise awareness of this issue. Bring to the attention of your local leadership your concerns about the ever-widening grasp of this discrimination masquerading as religion 

In the long term, the plots to exclude woman from the religious realm shall fail. It is simply wrong to discriminate, on a gender basis or on any other. Our brave sisters from “Women of the Wall” have already started to liberate the Kotel from oppressive orthodox dominance. Slowly but surely, we will do the same here.

Amen, so be it.