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The Concert That Wasn’t

After a week of drama, outrage, and poisonous name-calling, the cancellation of the concert might have been the most peaceful conclusion. But it was also the saddest

 

L

ast week, as I watched the Ezra LeMarpeh concert overtake the headlines, I kept thinking of a single story retold in Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s Out of the Depths. The story occurred during the years that the orphaned Yisrael Meir lived with his uncle and aunt, the Vogelmans, in Kiryat Motzkin, a little town bordering on Haifa.

As he remembers it, he was around 12 years old when the local bus line inaugurated a new Shabbos route that would run from secular Haifa to the beach, via Kiryat Motzkin. Rabbi Mordechai Vogelman was broken by the thought of a bus running through his neighborhood on Shabbos. But what could a single religious rabbi do to halt the secular establishment from rumbling roughshod through his enclave of tradition?

This is what he did: That first Shabbos, Rabbi Vogelman led his kehillah outside of shul when the leining concluded. As bus number 52 approached, he removed his tallis and spread it on the street. The rest of the men followed suit — as Rabbi Lau remembers, they carpeted the avenue with talleisim “until not an inch of asphalt was visible.”

The bus driver braked and got off the bus. He approached Rabbi Vogelman, shaking visibly, and said, “Why is kevod haRav doing this to me? Am I not a Jew? How can I run over a tallis?”

Rabbi Vogelman explained that just as it’s forbidden to trample a tallis, it’s forbidden to trample Shabbos. And, Rabbi Lau concludes, as far as he can remember he never again saw a bus drive through Kiryat Motzkin on Shabbos.

 

I think of this story when I encounter Israelis who seemingly have no fealty to halachah yet tremble with reverence for a tzaddik, or who don’t pay much attention to hechsherim yet pour out their hearts during Selichos. Somewhere in their DNA is an abiding respect for kedushah. And I thought of it again this week as I read some of the righteous or self-righteous comments about the Ezra LeMarpeh concert — a concert in a secular venue, geared to secular Jews, but which would not feature female singers out of respect for the religious standards of Rabbi Elimelech Firer, whose famed nonprofit would be the beneficiary.

There used to be a grudging understanding that, as in the mashal of the Chazon Ish, the “empty wagon” of the secular camp would make way for the “full wagon” of religion. The beach-going bus driver of Rabbi Lau’s childhood understood that he had to find an alternate route rather than trample over Shabbos in an observant neighborhood. But today’s warriors fighting discrimination or injustice don’t consider their wagon to be empty. They’re motivated by values too.

The concert that wasn’t holds many messages and likely fits many narratives. The bottom line, though, seems to be a series of miscalculations and misunderstandings of two societies’ value systems.

We experience this dynamic sometimes at the magazine. Thankfully, the gap among our readers isn’t nearly as wide or as fierce as the gap between Rabbi Firer’s values and those of the Tel Aviv concertgoers, so our usual policy is to cater to the highest standard.

The best hechsher might not be the best fit for everyone, but it keeps the doors open to the biggest spectrum of readers. And for the most part, everyone can make do with a slightly drier menu to achieve unity. It may not be as rich, but it doesn’t hurt. (Although I still remember that taxi driver who, as he drove me home from a wedding, asked why the chicken at all chareidi weddings tastes so bad. “It’s chicken, the same bird we’re eating at our weddings,” he complained. “You should be able to make it taste right!”)

Sometimes, though, the cultural, ethical, or moral gulf is so wide that what we consider a higher standard comes across as hurtful or exclusionary — and what is sacred to one is perceived as sacrilegious to another. In these cases, the simple formula of finding the best hechsher and inviting everyone to the table is just too simplistic.

That was one of the unexplored threads of the Ezra LeMarpeh concert, one of the factors that wasn’t anticipated or fully explored in advance: the way traditional halachic standards can be misconstrued as hurtful, even offensive, to a liberal society that feels a sense of mission to empower women, however they translate that empowerment.

We always like to think that we can solve our problems with just a pinch of goodwill and a dose of dialogue. But the furor over the concert was so heated, so pervasive, that it left me wondering: Is it really possible to conduct a fruitful dialogue and to find a solution that works for everyone when precisely that thing we’re commanded to avoid is the one you see as an exalted value? Or do we just have to call off the concert and concede that we aren’t going to find common ground right now?

After a week of drama, outrage, and poisonous name-calling, the cancellation of the concert might have been the most peaceful conclusion. But it was also the saddest — because it was a tacit acknowledgment that right now, our differences are too great and our commonalities too limited for us to work together. No longer can we find a place for everyone beneath that tallis spread across Kiryat Motzkin.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 785)

 

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