The Technion Megilla Controversy

Float from the 2011 Technion Purim Parade

Students at the Technion* requested that the school reschedule a Wednesday evening class last week so that they could attend the night-time Purim megilla reading. The technion administration refused explaining that it was a secular institution and it would have to reschedule classes and exams for students of all religions if it rescheduled for Jewish students.

The students then turned to MK Michael Ben-Ari (Ichud Leumi). Ben-Ari wrote to the education minister and deputy speaker of the Knesset, MK Gideon Saar (Likud): “It cannot be that a Jewish country would prevent the reading of the megilla on Purim. If this were to happen outside of Israel there would be an uproar. I am appalled to hear of the lack of consideration shown by an institution like the Technion.”

The technion agreed to reschedule the class.

On the surface this seems to be a simple story. A Jewish state takes time off on Jewish holidays. The university perversely refused to recognize this, therefore they were in the wrong and MK Ben-Ari saved the day. This is certainly how the Haredi papers were portraying the story and also how it was portrayed two days later when the Jerusalem Post decided to bring it into the mainstream press. But there is more to this story than meets the eye.

It is simply not true that the Technion ignores Purim. The Technion academic calendar says that there are no classes or exams on the day before Purim, the exact day when this class was being held. The class on lil Purim in fact contradicted their own schedule. The real question that needs to be asked is why there even was a class scheduled on lil Purim.

One possibility is that the university didn’t see their schedule as interfering with Purim. It was a secular institution and so secular understandings of Purim should govern its actions.

Secular and religious Jews both celebrate Purim in Israel, but in different ways. The scheduled class ran from 7:00-9:00pm. This is the time when congregations usually do their evening megilla reading. However, it is well before the time most secular Purim parties start. Purim is one of the preeminent party nights in Israel.

It may also be a response to increasing religious rigidity. The mitzvah of hearing the megilla reading at night can be performed anytime from nightfall to dawn. This rule goes back to the mishnah (Brachot 1:1) that ruled that any mitzvot that is normally performed after nightfall can be performed up until the next dawn if necessity demands it. Even chabad accepts this. Given the scheduling conflict there was no reason the students couldn’t have scheduled a megilla reading after class.

There has been an increasing trend in Israel for certain Haredi Jewish communities to demand accommodation even outside of private Haredi spaces in the name of “freedom of religion”. They usually insist that there is one and only one way to be Jewish and that secular institutions are preventing this.

The increasing rigidity is making secular Israelis wary of religious claims. In almost every sphere Haredim are asserting that their religious rights demand control over public spaces: they have tried to prevent women’s pictures in advertisements on public billboards and buses; they have tried to control the side of the street upon which women walk. They have demanded separate seating on buses subsidized by the state; refused to let women speak at scientific conferences and award ceremonies sponsored in part by the state; and refused to work or serve in the army unless they can be provided gender segregated spaces. In more than one case a rabbi has claimed that the religious values at stake are so important to their understanding of Judaism that they are worth dying for. Those that are more zionist will often couple their demand with rhetoric about how Israel can’t be a Jewish state unless it bends to their will.

For example, last November, some religious soldiers and their rabbis insisted that the army was preventing their religious freedom by insisting that they not walk out of military ceremonies where women were singing. The basis for this claim is a religious injunction called “kol isha”. The meaning of this injunction is much disputed. The Haredi community believes that this means that men should not listen to women sing. Outside the Haredi community, most people understand this principle to mean either (a) a restriction on hearing women’s voices during the Sh’ma, a prayer where concentration on God and God alone is especially important or (b) as a command having nothing to do with women per se. Rather it is simply part of a general command to take care to eliminate distractions in prayer.

Yet despite opinions on many sides, the students and their rabbis insisted that the “kol isha’ could only mean men can’t listen to women sing. Any other conclusion was anti-Jewish. Further they insistent that there was only one way to “not listen”: walking out. The IDF chief rabbi suggested that soldiers who didn’t want to listen to women wear earplugs or recite psalms as an alternative to walking out. The soldiers and their rabbis rejected these alternatives. One rabbi, Elaykim Levanon, even went so far as to say students should prefer court martial and even death over being in the same room as a woman who was singing.

A University Connundrum

A sensible person would say that reading megilla in shul is as much a part of the historic Purim tradition as is a racaous midnight party in Tel Aviv. There is no secular value such as equality of women that is being violated and it shows a certain disrespect for the emotional bonds of family and relationship which is as much a secular Jewish value as it is a religious one. But in an environment where religious Judaism becomes the property of a single group which defines Judaism by fiat, common sense quickly goes out the window.

The university is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If the university follows a rule of being tolerant to all and making no judgements, then it will quickly find itself facing demands that violate its own secular values with no argument to make in its defense. When everything becomes life and death, ultimately nothing is life and death. There becomes no way for a secular university administration to distinguish between the importance of religious demands.If the university gives in on something that is seemingly innocuous and schedules classes so that religious students can celebrate Purim with their families at their own synagogue, then they have no grounds to stand against an alleged life and death issue that fundamentally violates secular values. For example, they could not object to a demand that university publications not show pictures of women in the name of religious beliefs about modesty.

If the university uses its own values, or even its own understanding of halacha and Jewish law, it will be accused of imposing its own secular values. There is no possibility of a Jewish argument because Haredi rabbis insist that only they know enough about Judaism to consider alternatives. They have ruled out all of the alternatives and any attempt to say they are wrong is “discrimination”. There is no possibility of a secular argument that ignores Judaism because the rabbis have rejected secular arguments as non-Jewish and will levy the claim that the university is violating the Jewish character of the State of Israel as well as discriminating against religious students.

Religious Authority in the Public Space

Religious freedom in Israel runs into conundrums because of the way we view religious authority. In the USA problems like this are largely avoided because religious authority is restricted to the private sphere. Religious freedom does not mean tolerance for everything. Those who want to shape the public space cannot rely on religious authority. They cannot cite religious privilege. Instead they must make a convincing case based on widely held secular values. If they cannot make that claim they are free to set up their own private institutions where they control behavior.

The difficulty in Israel is that not only Jewishness but rabbinic fiat is increasingly demanding control of public space. To bring some sense and kindness back into decisions about religion we need to push towards a similar distinction as in the US: religious fiat in the private space, secular debate in the public space.

This is not inconsistent with being a Jewish state. One of the key lessons of the enlightenment is that human beings can define culture, history, identity and philosophies for life based on reason and conscience and not just authority. It is high time Israel embrace that lesson as part of its own self-understanding as a Jewish state.

Public life can be distinctly Jewish, in the sense that it is rooted in values that flow from Jewish culture and history. However the determination of Jewish values and culture needs to be based on historical research, philosophical analysis, reason and argumentation rather than rabbinic fiat. Each defender of a view point needs to rely not on his own authority but on his or her ability to translate knowledge into arguments that convince those who have had less opportunity to do deep research. This secular Jewish ethic is secular and democratic because of its processes of definition rather than because of cultural neutrality. It is shaped through the process of persuasion rather than fiat.

In the public sphere this secular ethic should dominate and define the Jewish character of the state. Rabbinic authority and Judaism by fiat should be limited to private spaces. Those individuals who prefer authority over reason are free to do so, but only in their private lives where it does not affect others.

* Clarification: The institute in question was the National School for Engineers, which is on the Technion campus but under separate management. The Jerusalem Post reports that the “Technion would like to emphasize that it respects all Jewish holidays and its students’ right to observe them, and has also been on vacation for the past two weeks.”

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Categories: Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Technion Megilla Controversy

  1. Yael

    The story is not true. If you check it at source (http://www.kipa.co.il/now/47839.html) you will see that it was never about the Technion – but another engineering school. Technion students and Rabbi were simply trying to help on behalf of the religious right to here the megilla, not the opposite. It is mind-blowing why the Jerusalem Post would run a story which could do damage to one of the institutes that has an active, respected and highly integrated religious population. Its is OK to spoil for a fight, but at east check the facts!

    • Beth Frank-Backman

      The Kipa article isn’t clear on the association between the engineering school and the Technion. But other more recent sources are. The Jerusalem Post has issued a correction explaining that the school in question is on the Technion campus but is a separate institution: The National School for Practical Engineers. I’ve updated the article to reflect that.

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