What, didn’t you know Jewish women aren’t allowed to drive?

31 May

Mitzva no. 614 of the Torah (negative commandment)

  1. It is forbidden for a Jewish woman to drive a car for behold, it is stated that it is immodest for a Jewish woman to show herself in public in the driving seat of a four-wheeled motorized vehicle.
  2. If she is married, she may travel as a passenger in her husband’s car. However, she may not sit next to him in the front for this is deemed immodest. Instead, she must travel in the back seat (whether or not there are any other passengers in the car).
  3. A woman may travel in her father’s car, but only in the back seat.
  4. If a woman needs to get from Point A to Point B, she may take a taxi, where she should sit in the back seat. However our sages do not deem it problematic if the taxi driver is a male, whether Jewish or not.

Puzzled? Yes, so was I when I first heard that women in two hasidic (ultra-orthodox) communities in upstate New York are forbidden from driving cars.

At first I thought I must have misheard. What, are you trying to tell me that there are women in 21st-Century, post-feminist American society who live in such closeted, fettered communities where their ‘modesty’ is called into question in such a dramatic way that they aren’t even allowed to drive a car, I asked in a state of near panic?

Yes indeed is the answer. In both Monroe, where a large Satmar community lives, and New Square, home to the Squarer hasidim (who famously have separate sides of the street for members of each sex to walk on), women are not permitted to drive.

I found this out through a frum relative of mine (let’s call her Tania) who is secretly teaching a wayward Satmar colleague of hers how to drive. She tells me that her colleague (let’s call her Suri) has slowly been coming to the mind-blowing realization that you can be a frum, halachic Jewish woman like Tania and also drive a car.

Let’s make things very clear: Suri still wants to lead an orthodox Jewish life. She covers her hair (but does not shave it) as halacha requires, she keeps Shabbat and kosher, she keeps all the laws of family purity, etc etc. Yet, as an apparently intelligent young woman, she’s realized that her community has extended Torah prohibition into the realm of pure societal customs and restrictions. And it is against these customs that she is now secretly waging her own personal war.

Indeed, it is the spurious conflation of these societal prohibitions or taboos – often involving dubious ways of repressing women in the name of modesty (women not driving, women having to shave their hair when they get married) – with real halachic prohibitions (such as not keeping Shabbat or kosher) that is the problem here. The women – and men – in these communities are not even taught the difference between real Torah prohibitions and community-specific interdictions. Thus, they grow into adulthood fully believing that if a woman learns to drive a car, she’s well-nigh breaking a Torah commandment.

So when you ask me what bothers me in this whole sorry story, it’s not just the feminist in me that protests (although believe you me, she’s raging mad), it’s also the Jew/person of religion in me that cries out against this insidious and entirely disingenuous slide within the orthodox Jewish world – and invariably in other faith communities too – that is allowing community leaders to create ever-more dazzling structures of power, control and prohibition under the guise of religious leadership.

Oh and a final word on Suri which really made me sink into despair. Apparently the hairband she’s been wearing on her sheitel (wig) which is two inches wide, as opposed to the standard community practice of four inches, is really rubbing people up the wrong way. Her mother reportedly called her up and asked her, in all seriousness: “Where have I gone wrong with you?”

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16 Responses to “What, didn’t you know Jewish women aren’t allowed to drive?”

  1. Miriam May 31, 2010 at 20:32 #

    Exactly! It is the blurring of the boundaries between halacha, minhag, and preventative strictures that are turning kids off the derech, and some adults too. Our sages warned us that unnecessary restrictions are dangerous in this way, but new chumros seem to be multiplying like bunnies. When everything seems ossur, it is only human nature to feel like giving up. I have seen this happen among my own family and friends.
    Many warn against the perceived danger of the observance of Sharia law among the growing Muslim population. It seems that we are cultivating outposts of Saudi Arabia right here in the Jewish community.

  2. Abigail June 1, 2010 at 03:05 #

    ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Enough said?!)

  3. Jacqueline June 1, 2010 at 14:34 #

    you’re right

    it isn’t just outrageous to our feminist sensibilities. but it is a travesty to our religious halachic sense. how dare they turn the torah into this. how dare they condescend to imagine that they are more religious than others for behaving in this immoral way.
    and how dare we still buy into the myth that charedim, the right-wing are the more serious and more religious ones.

  4. Alexei June 3, 2010 at 02:26 #

    Very interesting. The teachers in my charedi school are all taxied in from Stamford Hill – i.e. none of them drive there anyway. Given the series of responses to this very interesting article, I will refrain from making any comment whatever relating to women’s driving skills, which are of course, er, excellent and need no comment, joke, insult or disGRAceful sexist remark.

  5. Gaelle June 4, 2010 at 11:13 #

    Is a Daytona 900cc (yellow) okay to ride then?

  6. Gaelle June 6, 2010 at 06:43 #

    Yes however in France during the napoleonic years, this ultra-orthodox population was offered French citizenship on the condition of giving up polygamy which was in conflict with the laws of the French republic -and still is- and they did.
    That shows a capacity to adapt (one of the highest form of intelligence for me), a will to integrate and an acceptance of the Western world.
    This polygamy is still sadly echoed in the islamic practices nowadays in France and allowed by the politicians. Here lies the danger of a religion – which is also a republic- that is thought above the laws.
    More generally, there is a reason why I see so much intelligence in mainstream Israel, beside the question of survival. That’s what comes with putting women first. It is not a coincidence that in most languages ‘mother tongue’ translates literally: It takes a woman to transmit a language, therefore a culture.
    Treat women with contempt, abuse them, depreciate them and it is the civilisation down the drain.
    Continue to respect women’s freedom (women in Tsahal, Krav Maga (conceptualised for women) and so on), if only to preserve this needed island of civilisation in the middle east.

  7. Elle July 7, 2010 at 10:58 #

    Answer simple? As Noami Wolf would say: ‘I am not a feminist because I do not want equality for women and men, I want superiority of women’, ie: go for over the top to have a little.

  8. Adin August 11, 2013 at 18:03 #

    You may not like these practices but they are well within Torah: musar midrash etc all demand of Jews to act in a holy way at all times. Judaism is not about shabbos and sheitels and mikva, though all necessary, it is about spiritual purity. We say in shma: lo sasuru meaning don’t stray after the delicacies of the world. Time shows communities with weak standards have people following after the tempting modern life. You make the classic mistake that restrictions must mean male dominance over women. Instead view it as a way of maintaining purity, as is done in every religious sect, and they’re not forcing you to join. Plus no one is being fooled, they know of other orthodoxies: they choose the Chassidic doctrines. Home where women are free to dress and act the way they want have the highest number of depression, abuse, family crisis, etc. Learn something before you proclaim what the Torah is and isn’t, the Rambam says the best thing for a family is for women to stay in the home. All our foremothers Sarah, Rivka, Rochelle, and Leah wore veils over their faces. Look around any city in America and you will see the negative results of feminism: depressed, single, career-driven, women who are more objectified by their body due to immodesty then their Chassidic counterparts and who have disarrayed homes where their kids are more familiar with the housemaid then their own mothers.

    • rebeccainspace September 23, 2013 at 06:41 #

      Thanks for your comments. I am surprised that you make the judgemental comment that single career-driven women are ‘depressed’. Depression hits every sector of society – including single women from mainstream society, but ALSO women and men from chassidic societies, some of whom feel trapped in a community which they have come to find too restrictive for their personal needs. (I refer you to organisations such as Footsteps which is helping a number of these individuals who wish to leave chassidic communities who are suffering from depression and other issues).
      Also, I was educated in the Jewish schooling system and am well aware of what is or is not ‘within Torah’, so I cannot possibly see how or where in all of Torah there is any kind of indication that women may not drive. This is a societal convention and in no way shape or form based on a halachic prohibition. I shall therefore quote you back and say ‘Learn something before you proclaim what the Torah is and isn’t’. Finally I am surely aware that no one is forcing me to join this community, but as a woman who cares about basic human rights, I care about women (and men) from all walks of life who are being oppressed in some way or another. Thanks for commenting. (PS Let me also point out to you that many many chassidic women work nowadays).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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