Last year the Cape Town Jewish community was rocked by a court case. After ten years of prohibiting women from singing at the community-wide Yom Hashoah commemorative event, the CT Jewish Board of Deputies, the communal body which (supposedly) represents the entire CT Jewish community, was sued on the basis of Gender Discrimination. The court case sparked great debate not only about Kol Isha – the halachic prohibition on men hearing women sing – but also about community and communal representation and how the community should respond to potentially transgressive behaviour.
Thinking of these themes, I was struck by a story in parashat Emor which speaks greatly to this issue of community inclusion/exclusion. The story tells of a fight that breaks out between an Israelite man, and another man born of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father. The cause of the fight is the unnamed second man’s act of blasphemy. Blasphemy is, in the Bible, a punishable crime but this is interestingly one of four incidents in Torah (the others being Num.9:6, 15:32 and 27:1) where Moses must first make special inquiry of God before giving a decision about the man’s punishment. All four incidents are somehow connected to the theme of community, inclusion and communal responses to potentially transgressive behaviour. God’s punishment in this case is that the man be stoned to death by the community leadership – problematic to say the least, but I won’t get into that now.
What I do want to highlight is how a midrash on this text sees the story from a different point of view: The rabbis of the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 32:3) understood that there must be another layer to this story. They wanted to understand why the man blasphemes in the first place. Rabbi Chiyah teaches us that the man utters the ineffable name of G!d because he does not feel a part of the community of Israelites. Having been born of an Egyptian rather than an Israelite father, he does not fit in with any of the Israelite tribes (the Israelites were instructed to encamp according to their father’s houses). He feels excluded, othered, and like an outsider in his own community, and in his frustration he cries out and blasphemously utters God’s name. While the Biblical text regards his behaviour as transgressive and destructive, Rabbi Chiyah sees him as a victim of his circumstances and his blasphemy as an attempt to challenge a community which is not fully inclusive of all of its members.
Similarly, there were two perspectives on the challenge levelled against the SAJBD: Many regarded the law suit as an act of blasphemy against the sanctity of the community – women singing would, to many, be a transgression against halacha. On the other hand, I think many more members of the community saw the law suit as a natural and inevitable response to an oppressive system and a not-yet-fully inclusive community.
The SAJBD realised that in order to deal with this challenge they needed to adopt a similar approach to that which Moses took – they needed to make a special inquiry before moving forward with a solution. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, in this case God couldn’t quite talk back to us with a solution, so this special inquiry was made of the community instead – a colloquium was held and all the relevant stakeholders were (finally!) given voice and an opportunity to present their case. Following the colloquium, a settlement was reached before the case went to trial.
The ceremony this year, which took place on 23 April, was divided into two parts. For the first time in ten years, a woman sang during the first part of the ceremony. Sitting in the cemetery on 23 April, I was viscerally moved by Caely Jo Levy’s rendition of Meir lebn Eybik (We will live forever). It was powerful to hear a woman sing - I realised that women's voices carry a unique gravitas; that there's something in the quality of a woman's voice that is able to capture the anguish that we feel about the Holocaust. Hearing and seeing a woman in the ceremony was a powerful reminder of how much we have been missing for the last ten years. The current structure of the ceremony is not ideal as it still separates the woman’s voice from the ‘traditional’ ceremony. However, it is a realistic compromise which takes into consideration the needs of all members of the community.
The title of this week’s parasha, Emor (Speak), is significant. This week, our Torah portion tells us that there are things we must say, words we must speak, and circumstances that we must speak out against. Sometimes speaking out is frightening. There is a possibility that speaking out against our exclusion will marginalise us even more. But we should not let our fear silence us. We should not let our fear deter us from raising our voices. Sometimes, it’s our very voices that need to be heard.
Sofía Zway grew up in Pretoria, South Africa and now lives in Cape Town. She is a bogeret of Netzer South Africa and will be starting rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.
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