JERUSALEM (JTA) — A tribute concert later this month for Shlomo Artzi, a man sometimes described as Israel’s Bruce Springsteen, was supposed to be a show of unity honoring an Orthodox rabbi whose life’s work is healing seriously ill patients for free.
Instead, the event is underscoring deep divisions in Israeli society.
The Nov. 20 concert at Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium was organized as a benefit for Ezra Lemarpe, a nonprofit medical support organization that has helped save thousands of lives, often at no cost to the patient. President Reuven Rivlin was slated to attend a show featuring performances by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Harel Skaat, who represented Israel at the 2010 Eurovision song festival, among others.
But controversy erupted on Tuesday after Channel 12 revealed that Ezra Lemarpe’s founder, Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, had requested that no female singers be included. Orthodox Jewish law prohibits men from hearing women sing, considering the female voice immodest and even a form of nudity.
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.
On Wednesday, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 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. Artzi himself wrote on Facebook that he plans to do “whatever is possible to change Rabbi Firer’s mind.”
The event may end up being canceled, the Israeli news site Walla reported, though Firer’s organization insisted it’s still on.
“We invite the public to attend a special event, full of joy and unity,” Ezra Lemarpe said in a statement.
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 Orthodox worshippers 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.
Elyakim Rubinstein, a former deputy president of the Israeli Supreme Court, said the concert is a test for Israeli society that can be resolved with enough flexibility by all the parties and some common sense.
Rubinstein is an Orthodox Jew whose four daughters served in the army.
“I strongly oppose the exclusion of women,” he said in a speech Thursday in Ukraine, where he was a keynote speaker at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning event.
“It can be done. The issue is about finding a format that respects everyone.”