The Furor Over Rav Firer

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Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90

Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, July 23, 2002.

Hyper-partisanship has claimed yet another victim – this time a person who, in normal times, would be considered a tzaddik. And while the vultures may crow over their misbegotten victory, we are all the poorer for it.

Rabbi Elimelech Firer is a phenomenon in Israel. A charedi without standard medical training, he has developed an encyclopedic and in-depth knowledge of state-of-the-art medical procedures and providers and uses that knowledge to help countless people who have turned to him over the years.

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Widely recognized for his work, he has won a richly-deserved “Israel Prize,” which is awarded to select citizens who have made outstanding lifelong contributions to Israeli society. Rabbi Firer’s vast knowledge and care for any human being – no matter his race or religion – has led him to develop desperately-needed services for the sick all over Israel, all of which are provided free of charge.

Ezra leMarpe, the organization that carries out his vision, refers people to the best doctors for their particular problem, runs rehabilitation centers, provides ambulance services, transports patients overseas, and loans medical equipment, among many other things.

Of course, running such an organization requires large amounts of money, so someone proposed holding a concert in tribute to Israeli singer icon Shlomo Artzi to benefit Ezra leMarpe. Although not fully observant, Shlomo Artzi is traditional and has warm feelings towards Rav Firer and his organization.

The expected audience for the concert at the large Heichal HaTarbut in Tel Aviv was a cross-section of Israeli society, both religious and not. Rav Firer, who would obviously be the guest of honor at this event, made only one stipulation. He asked that only male singers perform Artzi’s music because of the prohibition of kol isha.

Although there are certain exceptions and lenient views that perhaps allow men to hear women singing in limited circumstances, there is no question that hearing a female singer singing solo in a public forum is prohibited. All Rav Firer asked is that the performers at a concert devoted to honoring him and his organization – at which he would be sitting front and center – not include female singers.

But as soon as this request became known, an explosion of vitriol ensued. Feminist activists complained that his request was a horrendous example of “hadarat nashim” – a term that has come to mean “exclusion, demeaning, and belittling of women.” Liberal columnists in the press and pundits on radio and TV spoke of the scorn of women by charedim. They derided the “misogynist” and hateful attitudes of religious Jews and encouraged all male singers to boycott the event. They even implicitly threatened the performers, including Shlomo Artzi, with severe repercussions if the concert dared go ahead with male singers only.

Artzi’s insistence that he had sung with and supported female artists throughout his career and that he merely wanted to honor the rabbi’s desire to observe halacha was mocked. Predictably, one performer after another canceled their performance.

The level of hate and invective directed at Rav Firer for his supposed bigoted intolerance was frightful. Day after day, the press covered the story. It got so bad that even ordinarily reasonable people started saying horrific things. A (law) colleague of mine, whom I usually respect, had the following to say on Facebook – using a “clever” play on the rav‘s name – atop a picture of Hitler (ym”sh):

This Rabbi Fuhrer would prohibit women from singing in his fundraising event! It is illegal under the laws of Israel and the United States. I bet he is raising money in America too. It is gender and religion discrimination. He better surrender his fund’s certificate of non-profit organization.

Recognizing that the concert was doing more harm than good, the organizers canceled it – to the delight of the haters.

Although American readers may not have been subjected to the press’s daily vitriol on this topic, they are more than familiar with it. The animus and hatred that have been directed at anything to do with President Trump are unprecedented. I am among those who did not vote for him, and am often exasperated by his crude comments and the unnecessary fights he engages in. But I am quite happy with his performance as president in many areas not limited to his great friendship towards Israel. And I am profoundly troubled at the non-stop hatred he has been subjected to since the moment he was elected.

The campaign to discredit another good man, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was almost a mirror image of the campaign against Rav Firer – the only difference being that Rav Firer pulled out before the sewage to smear him could be invented.

These terrible battles are ripping us apart, as Americans, as Jews, and as decent human beings. The intolerance for someone with a different opinion, the unwillingness to accept anything that goes against one’s own values, and the non-recognition that good and decent people may hold different – but no less valid – values is killing us.

Thank G-d for people like Rav Firer, who will continue to help men and women, religious and secular alike, and belong to that special class described in the Talmud (Gittin 36b): “those who are insulted but do not insult others, who hear their shame but do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in their suffering.”

May we all learn from them, and do our best to stand up to the bullies who seek to destroy anyone who disagrees with their limited perspective.

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