Mitzva no. 614 of the Torah (negative commandment)
- 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.
- 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).
- A woman may travel in her father’s car, but only in the back seat.
- 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?”