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confessions of an orthodox feminist

28 Oct

Some musings of mine published recently on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, which I haven’t written for for quite a while.

These thoughts were triggered after the whole shul (synagogue)-going binge over the high holidays, during which I came to the (disquieting) realisation that I, the supposed feminist, still feel a bit too at home in not very feminist-friendly shul settings.

Was pleased to see the article prompted a good flurry of comments, some of which attacked me for my complacency in this sphere.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the piece – click here for a link to the full article (and comments):

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Confessions of an Orthodox Feminist

By Rebecca S

Over the recent (and somewhat endless) round of high holidays this year, I came to some disconcerting realizations about my attitude to shul-going as a woman and a feminist.

Coming from an orthodox background, I have realized that however much of a feminist I am, I still don’t feel comfortable in prayer settings of other denominations where real equality reigns. It’s a dismaying head-versus-heart dilemma, and I’m trapped by it. Why is it that I, a supposed 21st century feminist, still feel more at home in a segregated prayer service than at an egalitarian service where women are fully active participants, not just onlookers?

Again and again, I confess that I betray my feminist sensibilities by seeking out the comfort of orthodox shul settings. And I find myself squirreling away quietly behind the mechitza (the partition separating men and women) in the women’s section, instead of joining in the services as an equal participant, and as a real feminist should.

This year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, my husband and I chose to attend a small hasidic (“ultra-orthodox”) shul in our neighborhood of Riverdale, in the Bronx. We usually go to a more modern orthodox shul, which is very large and can be quite impersonal. But I yearned for a more intimate prayer experience — and also hoped the services might not drag on as long

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A spiritual activist takes on the tznius (modesty) police

10 Oct

Time to get back on my soap box and start blogging again (after a long summer spent relaxing back in the old country).

 
So in Monsey, about an hour north of New York City, a town with a large population of frum Jews (many of whom are Hasidic, or devoutly Orthodox), it is a fairly common occurrence to see posters adorning lampposts, notice boards, and random walls across town proclaiming that in order for G-d to be/remain in our midst, or to avoid divine retribution,  women have to, for example: –

– Wear looser clothing, so as not to attract the wrong kind of attention;

– Refrain from wearing beautiful, human-hair sheitels (wigs) that could send out the ‘wrong message’ (Orthodox Jewish women have to cover their hair, and many do so with wigs, but some branches of Hasidic Jews proscribe the use of wigs and authorise only cloth hair coverings, such as shpitzels, or snoods);

– Wear skirts of a certain length only (Orthodox Jewish women are prohibited from wearing trousers, and must wear skirts instead, which should extend below the knee).

This last item forms the topic of interest today. Recently, in Monsey, a new ruling was promulgated on posters across town stating that women must wear skirts “that extend exactly four inches below the knee“. Not three inches, not five inches, but four inches. Women who wear skirts either longer or shorter than this length, the proclamation went on to proclaim, are causing the shechinah (G-d’s divine presence) to depart from our midst.

(How the proclaimers know of this direct causal relationship between the length of local women’s skirts and the presence or absence of the shechinah therein remains a source of great mystery to those not in the know.)

In the event, a young, Orthodox Jewish spiritual activist who lives in Monsey – my niece by marriage, Rochel Kind – decided to take on the proclaimers at their own game. She went round town and everywhere she found a poster of said proclamation, stuck up next to it her own carefully formulated response, showing how the directive is quite out of line with the halachot (Jewish laws) governing modesty. Using the appropriate terminology and jargon as well as using reasoning based on the Jewish legal traditions, she responded in kind to the modesty police. Here is her inspired response (glossary of Hebrew terms below):

Related blog posts:

Honey, I’m just popping down to the garage to pick up some cholent

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

Muslims and Jews united in…banning women from driving

Reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad’

heads, shoulders, knees and toes

GLOSSARY:

hidur: extra ‘beautification’ of a Jewish law, but not a requirement

halacha / halachos: laws / religious instructions

makor: a textual source from the Talmud or other Jewish legal texts

Gemara: the Talmud

Beis Hamikdash: the Temple in Jerusalem

sinas chinam: baseless hatred / intolerance

ahavas chinam: baseless love / tolerance

Klal Yisroel: the Jewish people

ahavas yisroel: love of fellow Jews

b’kedusha: holy

Hashem: G-d

mechalel Shabbos v’yom tov: breaking the laws of Sabbath and holy festival days.

heads, shoulders, knees and toes

21 Jul

The latest installment in the “extreme modesty” saga  is that girls three years old and above must now wear tights all year round when they attend kindergarten (pre-school).

This from a contact of mine whose family live in Stamford Hill, a hasidic community in London, where parents clothe their baby girls in tights from the tender age of three, and where kindergarten rules dictate this same vestimentary requirement. From doing some Googling, I understand that this is already the norm in some hasidic communities in Israel too.

Three-year-olds forced to wear tights the whole year round? I’ve had enough.

I accept – even if I don’t quite adhere to – the reality in orthodox Judaism that there are well-established halachot relating to a woman’s external modesty. Namely, that her elbows and knees must be covered at all times once she reaches bat mitzvah (coming of age at the age of 12). Within the orthodox community, these are universally accepted halachic requirements.

I’m not going to get into deconstructing these laws by arguing that they are merely the product of a long-gone patriarchal era when such rabbinical rulings reflected societal norms on modesty – although I could.

What I AM going to get my teeth into is the fact that what was once a clearly delineated line between the actual halacha, and the chumras, or stringencies which particularly devout Jews choose to take upon themselves, exists no longer. This line has now been utterly eroded by the religious establishment, so that the ever-increasingly draconian dictates on modesty issued by haredi rabbis are now taken on by their followers with the same vigour with which they observe the actual halacha. As I argued in my previous post becrying the hasidic communities who ban women from driving:

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.

Time to call time out perhaps? Hasn’t this gone just too far? These modesty ‘norms’ have reached immodest proportions. This business of swaddling every inch of a three-year-old baby girl’s  body – from her collar bone down to her feet – under the guise of a modesty ‘norm’, is not halacha, it is simply an abuse of her human rights.

This is what one woman wrote in the comments section on an Israeli blog posting entitled Hyper-Tzniut Fashions for Young Girls:

My girls (4 of them) have worn tights all year round since the age of three. If you start at this age, they get used to it, and you don’t have to battle with them at age 10+ to cover their legs.

All I can say is the time has come to blow my own cultural relativism quandary right out of the water. It is morally wrong to argue that we should accept these women’s religious choices. What we need to do is speak up against the religious establishment which is going about creating such oppressive norms.

I am nothing but depressed by this woman’s wholly dubious argument justifying her restrictive dress-code on her four daughters from the age of three.

What, so, following her logic, should we start covering a three-year-old girl’s hair too so she’ll get used to and won’t kick up a fuss later on when the time comes for her to get married? And while we’re at it, why don’t we force all three-year-olds to start fasting Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av too so they get used to deprivation from food and drink and won’t protest at Bar/Bat Mitzva age that they don’t want to fast?

(Or maybe my argument doesn’t even work here, seeing as what she’s priming her young daughters for – wearing tights – is not even a halachic requirement like fasting Yom Kippur.)

When and where will this madness end?

I propose a return to modesty and moderation on the part of the religious leadership of the orthodox Jewish community. Let’s stop this ever-increasing spiral into an Iran-style police state, where women – and baby girls’ – modesty is constantly scrutinized, and let’s get back to basics. Let orthodox women keep the halachot on modesty which are required and let’s all get on modestly with our own modest lives.

Muslims and Jews united in…banning women from driving

6 Jun

Still mulling over my previous post about Jewish women not being allowed to drive in two hasidic communities in upstate New York, I decided to look to the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia for inspiration, they having “successfully” upheld a nationwide ban on women driving for the last 20 years.

I found out that the official ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia came about in 1990 in the aftermath of an audacious protest by a group of prominent Saudi women:

That was the day when 49 Saudi women from affluent families, grouped in 15 cars, took hold of the steering wheels in a silent protest for women’s rights. They drove on the streets of Riyadh until the local and religious police spotted them. Putting a stop to the audacity of these women proved a lot easier for the authorities than explaining what, exactly, they had done wrong.                  (source: Fahad Faruqui, guardian.co.uk)

What’s interesting to see is the wording of the ban:

The government announcement, carried on Saudi television, said that the ban on women driving was for “preserving sanctities and to prevent portents of evil, because it has been juridically proven that reasons for woman’s degeneration or for exposing her to temptation should be prevented.” (quoted in same article)

I smell a rat. Unlikely as it may sound, I’m starting to suspect strongly that the Jewish clerical leaders of New Square and Monroe in up-state New York are in cahoots with the Saudi Muslim clergy with the express aim of keeping their womenfolk down. A dubious kind of inter-faith unity. This prohibition on women driving is all to do with my Jewish and Muslim brothers’ joint fixation on the need to protect their sisters from slipping down that infamous slippery slope that leads straight to a life of harlotry and degeneration.

Well now that we’ve got that one sorted, here’s what I’d like to say to my Jewish brothers: You could do well to draw inspiration from the Saudis as to the intricacies of the ban. Think outside the box. Use your imagination. Don’t forget there are many kinds of vehicles you can ban women from driving other than the obvious automobile:

Saudi driving ban on women extends to golf carts

While we’re at it, I’d like to throw in my own suggestion too: I would argue that it would be wise to ban women from pushing shopping trolleys too. After all trolleys have four wheels and move licentiously fast. Plus they can lead women straight past inappropriate sections of a supermarket (e.g. where they sell immodest clothing, non-kosher food etc). No doubt there’s potential for a great deal of temptation and immorality in this the action of trolley-pushing. It would certainly be infinitely preferable for men to do any shopping that involved the use of this four-wheeled vehicle.

Well maybe I’m being a bit unfair. I confess that I’ve omitted to mention that the article I quoted above does read that the Saudis are now seriously considering lifting the ban on women drivers. So come on Satmar and New Square, surely if the Saudis are considering lifting the ban, you can too? What’s the worst that can happen? Your wives will drive to their places of work? To pick up your children from school? To run their errands? How bad can it really get?

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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