Colloquium: Parties eagerly seek solution
The colloquium was called to try to resolve the divisive issue of whether women should be allowed to sing solo at annual Holocaust memorial events, run under the auspices of the Board.
While no decision was announced at the almost three-hour discussions, it provided an opportunity for the various interest groups to air their views. The event was mediated by well-known mining executive and veteran on the labour relations landscape, Bobby Godsell.
His task was to collate the submission and opinions and present it back to the Board in a way that would help them to reach a compromise.
Conspicuously absent from the forum were the two original claimants Gilad Stern and his sister-in-law Sarah Goldstein.
The pair had brought the original case against the Cape Council of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies to the Equality Court – claiming that excluding women from singing at such functions amounted to gender discrimination.
Businessman Stern taught for many years at Herzlia and is an observant Orthodox member of the Cape Town community.
The case was later joined by the South African Centre for Religious Equality & Diversity (SACRED) – to which the SA Union for Progressive Jewry (SAUPJ) is affiliated.
The applicants were not originally invited and said that due to the late invitation to attend, they could not rearrange trips that had taken them out of town.
Stern, speaking to the Jewish Report after the colloquium, said: “Had I been invited to speak, I would have said five words: ‘Discrimination against women is wrong’, and anyone who needs that explained to them, is beyond my ability to help them.”
Various members of the Board expressed the view that whatever the outcome, the status quo – women not being allowed to sing at secular events while men are allowed – would no longer be acceptable. Jeff Katz, national chairman of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies who flew from Johannesburg to attend the colloquium, urged participants to express their true views without fear of the pending court case in the Equality Court scheduled for late August.
“The reason we are doing this is not because of the court case,” he said. “The colloquium needed to happen irrespective.” But Katz expressed regret that the applicants were unable to attend to offer their side.
Among the many divergent arguments presented on Monday, the commonalities were passionate ideologies and a hope to find a solution that was acceptable to all.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW PICTURE…
ABOVE: Participants listen as veteran community leader
Gerald Kleinman addresses Monday night’s colloquium
In a conciliatory bid to remind everyone to look for peaceful outcomes, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who also flew down for the meeting, called on everyone to remember that they were all “brothers and sisters”. However, he urged the audience to remember that “halacha has helped preserve the Jewish people until now”, pleading with them to not give up on a halachic prescription (such as Kol Isha) now. His suggestion was that perhaps no singing at all would be a peaceful compromise.
Rabbi Greg Alexander and a colleague, representing the Progressive view, questioned the notion of whether Kol Isha was actually immovable halacha, saying: “The understanding that Kol Isha requires women not to sing is a very recent interpretation and only one of the many ways that Kol Isha has been interpreted in its 2,000-year history.
“What is clear is that whatever their interpretation, no-one up until the 19th century suggests that in order to save men from hearing a woman’s voice, it is forbidden for women to sing (at communal events).”
Rabbi Alexander proposed various solutions including a redesign of the ceremony into three distinct sections, clearly marked on the programme, allowing attendees to stay for whichever they wish. These would include songs, music and poetry that included male and female solos and mixed choirs.
Holocaust survivor Miriam Lichterman spoke of fellow survivors at camps like Auschwitz who refused to eat bread on Passover when they were starving in order to uphold Jewish law.
She implored the attendees to find the strength to refrain from adding another item to the Holocaust programme, since the Jewish prisoners could find the strength to refrain from eating bread. “I beg you to please stop the nonsense,” she cried. “Please accept that certain things are not done.”
Among the voices of participants from the younger student generation, Julia Chaskalson, representing Habonim Dror, said: “It seems that this is a decision being made by men about women,” adding that Judaism is a system where men tend to hold the reins on decision-making.
Other comments from students at the event characterised the Board’s current stance on Kol Isha as “rape culture” and “Taliban style”. This led to passionate comments from Rabbi Goldstein and other rabbis present, that these people were perhaps misunderstanding Jewish laws.
Interested in the legal arguments? Here are the PDFs of the two sides’ latest affidavits.
The debate which has been smouldering for at least a decade among South African Jewry, essentially came down to the great ideological divide between those proposing to maintain the status quo and uphold their Orthodox interpretation of halacha versus those who feel it’s an infringement on women’s rights.
It is also a debate about whether the Yom Hashoah ceremony is a secular event under the auspices of a secular Jewish organisation.
Members of the Jewish Board told Jewish Report that they are determined to not let it reach the judicial system of the Western Cape while Stern, speaking for the applicants, says they are “very keen to resolve this and not let it go to the courts”.
Fortunately, both sides seem eager to resolve the issue and say they would prefer that a decision on Jewish halacha is not left to the interpretation of a judge of the South African court system.