It seems this week is going to be my week of denouncing ultra-Orthodox Jewish misogyny—there have just been too many stories recently that get my activist blood going. And anyway, I’ve been accused of being both anti-Christian and anti-Catholic by commenters, so I should make sure to attack misogynist asshats of my own religion, right?
So…it’s been a busy month of misogynist asshattery for the ultra-Orthodox, also known as Hasids and Haredim (I use the terms interchangeably). They’re Jewish and I’m Jewish, but honestly, that’s about where the similarity ends. In the big international Jewish family—which has way more ethnic and cultural diversity than most people realize—the Haredim are the angry, rant-y cousins who constantly embarrass me with their backwardness. I really don’t want to invite them over for the holidays and I go out of my way to tell people “Yeah, they’re technically relatives, but I’m NOT like them.” But before we discuss the issues, I know some of y’all don’t know much about Jews or Hasidic Judaism, so for you, a little primer.
The Hasidic movement sprang up in 18th century Eastern Europe and is theologically very fervent, charismatic and messianic, emphasizing the personal mystical relationship between God and the individual. It’s a bit like evangelical Christianity that way. But although they have a rich theological tradition, Hasids are best known today for being extremely culturally conservative, which is why the men tend to dress in 19th-century European styles and why they choose to live mostly separate from mainstream society. Its religious fanaticism and contempt for modern culture make ultra-Orthodoxy very different even from mainstream Orthodoxy. A popular description of the difference between the two is this: “The Orthodox don’t wear bikinis. The ultra-Orthodox don’t want anyone to wear bikinis, so they close the beach.”
Some Hasidim emigrated before World War II but the vast majority in the US are descended from a very small group of Eastern Europeans who survived the Holocaust and resettled here and in Israel (and to a lesser extent in Canada, the UK, and Australia). They’re actually a fairly small percentage of Jews overall; Hasidim comprise less than 10% of the American Jewish population and about 10% of the Israeli Jewish population, although their very high birth rate means their population is growing significantly faster than non-Hasidic Jews’. They speak Yiddish as a common language, but the different Haredi sects trace their origins to distinct rabbinic dynasties in different parts of Europe, so there’s a lot of cultural and theological variety among them. Some Haredim are Zionist, some are not; one of the largest sects, the Satmars, are actively anti-Israel, and will occasionally show up to protest at the Israeli embassy alongside pro-Palestinian groups, which can be highly entertaining to watch. Another big sect, the Lubavitchers, believe that their rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was the Messiah and will return shortly to bring about the Messianic Age. (He died in 1994 and has not been seen since, so…draw your own conclusions).
Where I live in Brooklyn is surrounded by the largest Hasidic communities in the world: Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Flatbush, and Borough Park (the individual neighborhoods tend to be associated with different sects.) Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhoods have become so crowded that some sects resettled a large number of families upstate, founding the towns of Kiryas Joel and New Square and overrunning the once sleepy rural town of Monsey (in 1950, Monsey had one synagogue. It now has 112.) Except for business dealings, they rarely interact with non-Hasidic Jews or gentiles, so although I’m geographically close by, and see members of the community on a daily basis, we don’t mingle. I have been to the nearby Hasidic shopping district on the very rare occasions I buy kosher food, but frankly, the people were so unwelcoming that now if I buy kosher, I go out of my way to shop in a more distant neighborhood whose stores are run by modern Orthodox Jews.
Where I have a real problem with Haredi community is their constant and flagrant misogyny. Hasidic women are required by theology and custom to be submissive. They have few legal rights. Women’s testimony is seen as inferior to men’s in a rabbinical court. They cannot divorce their husbands, but if their husbands divorce them, they still require his permission to remarry. They are educated separately from men, and their education focuses on making them good, obediant wives and mothers, not academic achievers. They do not study Torah or Talmud as the men do and cannot serve as clergy. Some women do work outside the home, especially in family businesses, but most do not, especially as the average Haredi wife will have at least six children and is entirely responsible for the home. They must adhere to strict modesty laws requiring long sleeves, high necks and long skirts at all times. Most married women either cover their hair or wear sheitls, a wig usually cut in straight, chin-length bob. You see some of the same traits in modern Orthodox communities, but the Hasidic community is a closed one that demands complete conformity. If you aspire to higher education or a more secular life, if you don’t want to have children or are gay or if you in any way fall outside the traditional feminine heteronorms, your life will be hard, if not downright miserable. Socially, there is almost no interaction between men and women except in carefully controlled circumstances (which is very unlike modern Orthodoxy). Some ultra-Orthodox communities take this separation to such an extreme that they will actually disappear women entirely from their local press, deleting them from photos and altering gender pronouns in news stories so as not to discuss women at all…even when the news stories are about women.
As a woman in the Hasidic world you’ll be restricted in big ways, but you’ll also endure an endless stream of little slights that remind you of your second-class citizen status. A story about one such appeared a couple weeks ago on the blog FailedMessiah.com, an incisive and influential watchdog site that frequently reports on the ultra-Orthodox community (its editor, Shmarya Rosenberg, is a former member of the Lubavitcher sect).
In the Hasidic section of Williamsburg signs were bolted to a tree that read in Yiddish: Precious Jewish Daughter: Please move to the side when a man approaches!
One of FailedMessiah’s snarkier commenters thoughtfully translated the sign’s true meaning for the rest of us: Step aside, bitch. You’re in the presence of a PENIS. The Sacred Bobbed Dick makes its owner the Crown of Creation, Adonai’s Vicar on Earth.
The mainstream media soon picked up the story of the step-aside signs. In a response on Ynet, the Israeli news website, Orthodox Rabbi Levi Brachman wrote:
The New York Daily News quoted 18-year-old Abraham Klein as saying, “The signs don’t bother anybody,” explaining that in his community “men and ladies don’t go together. It’s just our religion.”
Many newspapers and blogs used this quote, thus, giving the reader the impression that the reason woman are asked to step aside for men in Hasidic communities has to do with Hasidic laws regarding modesty.
The Talmud indicates that the reason a man should not walk between two women has to do with the superstition that it may impair the man’s ability to remember the Torah he learned.
It’s like a couple of magnets and a floppy disk! Poof! Memory erased! He is powerless before those sexy women clad modestly in several yards of fabric and some wigs! All will be lost!!
Seriously, people? This is some embarrassing bullshit. And Rabbi Brachman knows it:
Asking all Jewish women, whether they keep to this tradition or not, to move to one side when men approach on a public street in New York City has nothing to do with Jewish law or modesty. Sadly, it rather has to do with a basic lack of Menschlichkeit (Yiddish for common decency) and Derech Eretz (loosely translated as polite and considerate behavior).
Still, a sign is a sign and can be ignored (or easily removed). There was an even bigger story in New York this week about the ultra-Orthodox trying to enforce gender segregation on public transportation. A Columbia University newspaper reported that a (non-Hasidic) woman had been ordered to move to the back of a public bus in Brooklyn. The bus line is mostly used by members of the Hasidic community, and in keeping with their rules about gender segregation, Hasidic women ride at the back and men at the front (presumably so that the men can’t see the women and thereby risk losing all the Torah that they’d learned that day). When the rider objected and asked why she was being told to move, the answer was: “If God makes a rule, you don’t ask ‘Why make the rule?’”
The New York Times also ran an article, noting:
On Wednesday afternoon, the custom of women’s sitting at the back of the bus was evident, both in practice and in writing.
Guidelines, posted in the front and the back, said that “when boarding a crowded bus with standing passengers in the front, women should board the back door after paying the driver in the front” and that “when the bus is crowded, passengers should stand in their designated areas.”
Gawker ran their link to the story with a photo of Rosa Parks, and frankly, the Rosa Parks comparison is a fairly accurate one. Women are told to sit at the back of the bus by Hasidic men because Hasidim see women as inferior, just as black people were seen as inferior in the Jim Crow South. Problem is, this isn’t the Jim Crow South, where local law permitted that kind of discrimination and the law itself had to be overturned. The law in this case forbids discrimination because the B110 bus is operated by a company that contracts with New York City Department of Transportation. It’s a public service, and the DOT issued a statement saying that because the bus was available for public use, bus owners could not discriminate based on gender. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg said such discrimination was “obviously not permitted” on public buses. “Private people: you can have a private bus,” he said at a news conference, “Go rent a bus, and do what you want on it.”
I may abhor the misogyny of the Hasidic community, but I don’t oppose their right to practice their religion or culture in their own private spaces. I do, however, get extremely angry when they try to force women to submit to gender segregation on public transportation funded by my taxpayer dollars. I think the city should yank the contract from that company, and in a strongly worded letter sent this week, it seems they’re investigating their options and confronting the bus operator itself.
Some members of the Hasidic community have asked for a religious exception, but have been reminded that freedom of religion only allows them to control their private spaces, not public ones. In Israel, similar gender segregation in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim was held to be illegal by the High Court earlier this month. A city councilwoman there also invoked Rosa Parks’s example: “If Rosa Parks succeeded in racist US of the 1950s, we in democratic Israel of 2011 must succeed too.” It should also be pointed out that what the ultra-Orthodox are doing in Brooklyn actually goes against the millenia-old Jewish law of dina de-malkhuta dina, which says that that the law of the country where Jews reside is binding (the name translates as “the law of the land is the law.”) . Legally, the Haredim are bound by Jewish law to accept US law in this regard.
But the line in the Times story that most stoked my anger was this:
One father who sat in the front with his son and daughter and declined to give his name said men and women “need to be separated.” He looked down at his daughter dressed in a bright red raincoat, with her blue eyes frozen in amazement, and said: “She’s small. When she’s big, she will sit in the back.”
When she’s big, she’ll be told to step aside when a man walks down the street. She won’t have much autonomy or be able to hold any position of authority in her community. She’ll told to cover up so that her body, which is for her husband only, won’t tempt or distract any other men. What a promising future for Brooklyn’s “precious Jewish daughters.”