We love the Maccabeats. Like most of their day school friends, our kids have been singing “Candlelight” since December.
“Candlelight,” their big hit, is a smart and funny parody of the pop chart hit “Dynamite.” It is also an expression of Torah, with overt Hebrew lines sung unabashedly before millions of viewers on television and the Internet. This is fitting, as the Maccabeats are a product of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy. For all these reasons, the Maccabeats make us proud not only as Jews, but as modern Orthodox Jews. They show the world that you can take halakha seriously and engage in the best aspects of modernity.
Yet we were let down by the Maccabeats’ more recent release, their Purim song. Like “Candlelight,” the Purim song takes a number one hit and reworks it to tell the story of the holiday. The video is once again slick and professional, and the music is catchy. But in a song and video devoted to the story of Esther, there’s one major missing element: women.
Women are entirely absent from the Maccabeats’ rendition of the story, and from the Purim seudah (meal) at which it is told. Okay, there are a couple of girls in the video, most notably a baby who is meant to portray the Purim heroine. Aside from these literally infantilized presentations, women aren’t there.
One can argue that the Maccabeats are an all-male a capella group. There’s no reason they need to have women singing in their videos. And many in the Orthodox community might take issue with women singing in deference to the halakhic considerations of kol isha, the prohibition on men listening to women’s voices lest they become aroused.
Fair enough. But the Maccabeats’ failure to deal with the presentation of women sadly reflects a broader issue in Orthodoxy, namely the inability of so many Orthodox institutions to include women in their public culture.
Women are welcomed in the public life of Orthodoxy when that public takes place in the form of words, when their bodies—including their voices—can be separated from their minds. They have become important voices in the print culture of Torah, as evidenced by the phenomenal growth of advanced study institutes for Orthodox women in Israel and America and the publication of erudite works by Orthodox women scholars.
But the Orthodox community remains challenged to find a way for women, in their bodies, to participate in the public life of the community. If we can be modern enough to make a snazzy music video, can’t we also be disciplined enough not to reduce a woman to a sexual object when she ascends the podium? Or do we have to turn her into a baby and erase women’s presence from the video of a Purim seudah? (The image of a Purim meal full of men with young children and not a single woman present is simply preposterous.) Are we really no more advanced than Shakespeare’s England, where the parts of women had to be played by boys?
The most ironic aspect of the Maccabeats’ writing women out of the Purim story is not the fact that the Book of Esther is about one woman (Vashti) who refuses to be reduced to a sexual object, and another (Esther) who finds her voice. The real irony comes when one watches the video for the song that was parodied, P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass.” The video is a provocative salute to women’s empowerment. The song’s refrain is an exhortation to the marginalized of society to show their individuality:
So raise your glass if you are wrong,
In all the right ways,
All my underdogs,
We will never be never be anything but loud
And nitty gritty, dirty little freaks
Don’t allow yourself to be marginalized. Write your own story, show your power, raise your glass, raise your voice: That’s the point of the song.
To a potential Orthodox viewer of the video, the point is made with extreme images, including some that would offend their sensibilities. Yet in a most poignant irony, the Maccabeats’ video, which makes women invisible from a story to which they are central, is extreme in the opposite direction.
We’re sure the Maccabeats had all the best intentions in writing their song and making their video. They weren’t thinking about gender politics. And that’s precisely what disappoints us. The problem is not with the Maccabeats. It is with an Orthodox community—of which we are members and leaders—in which even the best-intended efforts still fail to meaningfully include images of women. (This is in powerful contrast to the Purim video by the Israeli group Ein Prat released a month ago, which is also set to the P!nk song, but includes women fully. It can be done. The Maccabeats just didn’t think to do it.)
If we are truly committed to living a life of commitment to Jewish law and engagement with the modern world, we can’t hide our faces when confronted with the question of the public portrayal of images of women. That is a betrayal of the message of Megillat Esther. It’s time for us as a community to hear the voice of Esther, and to welcome her into the public square.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson is the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. Natalie Blitt is a Jewish educator. They are married and live in Evanston, IL.