As an American Jew, I am fascinated by the number of Israelis who have loving memories of their days in B’nei Akiva (the Religious Zionist youth movement) in the 1960s and 1970s.
I grew up in the Reform youth movement, and it profoundly impacted my life. When I am in Israel and I discuss this with others, people about my age – I am 64 – frequently tell me stories of their B’nei Akiva years. They almost always include the fact that in those days, boys and girls sang together and participated in youth activities together. A commitment to halakhah was assumed, but it was never seen as a barrier to mixed-sex events or contrary to the values of tzniut (modesty). Some of those who tell these stories are now Orthodox in their practice and some are not; but all remember their B’nei Akiva days fondly, and most see those days as a factor in their warm feelings toward Jewish tradition.
How did we get from there to here? How did we go from an Orthodox youth movement where boys and girls interacted regularly and easily to today’s very different reality: schools and youth activities separated by sex; separate busses; separate sidewalks; restrictions on the right of women to give eulogies for their loved ones at the cemetery; proposed limitations on women singing in the army; limitations on billboard advertising in Jerusalem; incidents of women being excluded from Simhat Torah celebrations in the IDF; and on and on.
Some argue that nothing special has happened at all; the changes reflect the normal process of development that the halakhah undergoes. I don’t think so. As a general rule, changes so radical in such a short time are rare. And as Rebbetzin Adina Bar-Shalom, the oldest daughter of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, argued recently, matters such as forbidding women to give eulogies have no basis whatever in halakhah; they reflect a changing social consensus rather than a newly evolving legal mandate.
Others have suggested that what we see is a response by the rabbis to a deteriorating moral climate that has afflicted much of the Western world, Israel included; in the 1960s, no one could have imagined the ready availability of sexually explosive materials on the web, on TV, and in the bookstores. There may be some truth to this, although responding to one brand of cultural extremism with another hardly brings honor to the Torah.
Rabbi David Hartman, in a recent interview, suggested that the spate of rulings on the separation of the sexes reflects primarily on the sexual obsessions of the rabbis themselves. Rabbi Hartman’s thesis is controversial but compelling. It is not unusual for those with supposedly traditional sexual values to be obsessed with what they profess to reject. After Bill Clinton’s outrageous adulteries, it was conservative Republicans who immersed themselves for years in “studying” his missteps and constantly bringing them to public attention.
Whatever the explanation, Israel is not about to revert to the Middle Ages. Israelis have long suffered from the coercive monopoly enjoyed by the Orthodox parties, but there are limits to what the average citizen will tolerate. Still, politicians beware: precisely because Israel is part of the West, she will be judged by Western standards and not by the standards of Iran or Saudi Arabia. When a single bus line in New York City tried to force women to the back, it generated headlines throughout America. Discriminating against women in Israel is wrong, without basis in Jewish tradition, and exceedingly dangerous for Israel’s image and well-being.