Tag Archives: halacha

The battle between Rebecca and halachic stringency

1 Oct

The battle between Rebecca and halachic stringency:

Final result: Halachic stringency 10 – Rebecca 0 (Halachic – pertaining to Jewish laws governing all religious festivals and rituals.)

Nothing like the solemnity of Yom Kippur,  the most awe-inspiring of festivals in the Jewish calendar, when we fast from dusk until sunset the following day and spend the day in prayer, to bring out the halachic OCD lying latent deep within, it seems.

Although still living a Modern Orthodox life, liberal (with a small ‘l’) me likes to feel that I have left the ever-expanding list of stringencies required to live a strictly halachic life far behind in my murky past. I hope that I succeed in existing in a reasonably moderate “grey zone”, following a Jewish lifestyle, keeping to standard halacha and ignoring the multitude of more obsessive details.

Apparently not.

After 25 hours of fasting, no food, no water, feeling parched, exhausted and dehydrated, I would have expected someone  – me in this case – to gulp down some victuals the very second the clock struck 7.30pm, heralding in the grand end of the Day of Atonement.

But no. In lieu of this obvious and reasonable dénouement to the fast, I got my knickers in a right old halachic twist about whether I could make havdala (a blessing recited over wine and a lit flame to conclude the Sabbath or a festival) on a newly lit candle, rather than the customary pre-lit candle which should have been burning throughout the fast – which I had forgotten to prepare.

Haunted by memories of a dear, very religiously observant parent howling with disapproval when we were little and did not wait for them to return from the house of prayer to make the havdala blessing in order to commence our scoffings, I, as a grown woman, became wracked with indecision as to how to make a truly kosher havdala. And as such, refused to break the fast until I had solved this conundrum.

Before I knew it, I had dragged a close relative (known as “SK”) present into a fevered debate about the intricacies of this halachic quandary. 7.30pm came and went but no one was doing any scoffing of any kind.

If we were allowed to use a newly lit candle, could we then make the appropriate blessing over the flame (“boreh meoreh ha’esh” for those in the know), or should this particular blessing be omitted? Would the fact that Yom Kippur had fallen on a Shabbat this year mean that the halachic requirements of the ritual were altogether different? Did we need to make the blessing over the traditional spices or not?

I had a moment of inspiration as to how to resolve our issue, grabbing at the very textual embodiment of humourless Orthodoxy – the inimitable ARTSCROLL machzor (prayer book for the festival). If there was to be a resolution to my dilemma, surely it would be found somewhere deep within that compendium of intricate laws listed in painfully small-print at the back of the Artscroll Yom Kippur machzor.

I pored over Laws #148 – 154 of said manuscript along with SK.

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Law  #150 sent us on a rollercoaster of hopes raised then dashed then raised again.

The minutes ticked by and still no one was eating or drinking.

Finally, it seemed that Law #152 was going to provide our happy answer. Yes, one COULD kindle a new flame for havdala….:

“If on Motzei Shabbos such a flame is not available, it is preferable to kindle a new flame…”

BUT…of course with halachic OCD, the answer is never as simple as that. Read on to the end of that sentence:

…and then to use that one TO MAKE A SECOND FLAME. The Havdalah should then be recited over the SECOND FLAME.” (my emphasis)

Not in my wildest dreams would I ever have come up with that most wild of halachic resolutions. Of course it wasn’t going to be as simple as just light a new flame and on yer bike.

Yes you MAY use a newly kindled flame BUT THEN use it to light A SECOND FLAME! There’s your obvious halachic solution!

(Don’t even start to ask WHY – I’m warning you.)

I happily and obediently lit flame number 1 followed swiftly by flame number 2.

And the Havdala blessing to finally put an end to that 25 hour PLUS 15 EXTRA MINUTES fast was finally recited.

A mighty breath of relief was expired, and eating and drinking and merriment were finally given the kosher seal of approval to go ahead.

In conclusion, it seems that sadly, I am a lousy failure at being a failed Jew.

 

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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.

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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