The ‘Kol Isha’ Question – An issue for our community to decide

On 20 June, the SAJBD Cape Council will be facilitating a colloquium for its affiliate organisations to debate the question of women singing solo at Yom Hashoah, hopefully the outcome of which will be a working solution for the  Cape Jewish community’s continued all-inclusive commemoration of the Holocaust. We as the national board of the SAJBD  regard such a process of consultation as being crucial to resolving what has become a very painful and divisive issue in our community. Ultimately, it is for us as a community working together, and not for outside parties, to determine the best way to resolve this particular impasse. In doing so, our aim is not to create winners and losers, but to arrive at a solution that is acceptable and accepted by all within our community .

Unfortunately, the debate to date  has been characterized more by knee-jerk emotion than by a real understanding of the facts and issues involved. Certain protagonists have sought to portray the dispute in simple, black-and-white terms, whereas in reality, it involves a range of complicated legal questions and legitimate competing claims. These include freedom of association, freedom of religion, gender equality , fair vs unfair discrimination criteria, and entanglement (that is, the reluctance of civil courts to involve themselves in religious laws and practices), in addition to a host of other procedural and high constitutional issues. 

The position of the Board of Deputies is that to the greatest extent possible, all segments of our community must feel comfortable and included when attending major communal events . This is particularly true of Yom Hashoah. We must  never forget that the atrocities committed by the Nazis were against the entire Jewish faith, race and community, regardless of what their religious beliefs or practices might have been. The Board is not a religious body, and therefore cannot and does not take any position on the halachic aspects of Kol Isha . Our mandate, rather, is to ensure that as many people in our community as possible can, and do, take part in our activities. This means that were we simply to accede to requests that the Yom Hashoah programme be amended to include women singing solo without the necessary discussions and potential compromises being reached , a significant portion of our community would inevitably be excluded from commemorating the Holocaust.

The colloquium will provide our community with an opportunity to decide these questions internally, through free, constructive and respectful discussion. Just as diversity of opinion is part of a healthy and vibrant democracy, so is the process of debate, conciliation and, where necessary, compromise, a way in which different constituencies can understand one another’s point of view and work towards achieving a solution that is in the overall  best interests of the community. For this process to be successful, all parties need to participate without preconditions or preconceived outcomes.  We are hopeful that the colloquium will result in a positive solution , believing that there is more than enough wisdom and goodwill amongst our Cape Town counterparts to ensure this. Rather than prejudging the outcome, I encourage our community to support our efforts to find a constructive way forward through this process. 

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