Friday, May 29, 2015

Another Modesty Chumra Hits the Fan

Female Chasidim of Belz in England have been forbidden to drive (IBT)
“Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us we have to cover our faces in public!” According to an e-mail from a member of an online Jewish forum to which I belong - this sentiment was apparently expressed by R’ Ovadia Yosef’s daughter, Adina Bar Shalom.  She was reacting to the Charedi newspapers blocking out the faces of women in the widely distributed  picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new cabinet members. 

Whether this is true or not (and I suspect it is) I’m sure that this is how the majority of Orthodox Jewish women feel about the kinds of things going on in the far right of Orthodoxy. And that isn’t even the latest nonsense coming out of that community. Nor is that community limited to Israel.  From the International Business Times
The leaders of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in North London have banned women from driving, in a move that has sparked outrage and comparisons to Saudi Arabia’s widely condemned ban on female drivers. A letter endorsed last week by rabbis of the Hasidic Belz sect in Stamford Hill said that women drivers defied “traditional rules of modesty” and that those who continue to drive would risk having their children barred from school, the Jewish Chronicle reported Thursday. 
These kinds of modesty extremes keep on piling on. With claims by these people that they are the most devout among us. As I have said many times in the past, the various religious camps in Judaism have every right to do as they please. They can be as Machmir as they want to be. But when their extreme versions of modesty become public it makes Judaism look like it belongs in the dark ages. And I am going to publicly protest it.

It is not good enough to dissociate ourselves from people who are otherwise seen as the most religious among us. Because these people are not a cult. They are mainstream Chasidim.

If they were a cult, it would be easy to make it clear to the world that they are. And positively reject them as being in any way representative of authentic Judaism. Belz has been around since the early 19th century. They are a very large group that has many adherents in many countries. Tens of thousands of people are Belzer Chasidm. So when they come out with ban against women driving with a sanction of expelling the children of violators from their schools, a lot of people will think that this is a serious violation of Jewish modesty standards. Even as they – might - know there are modern Orthodox or even Charedi Rabbis that do not keep these kinds of stringencies and consider them extreme, They will surmise that the more devout Jew will adhere to them.

Consider all the extremes like this that have been on public display in recent times: Separate sides of the street for men and women in both Israel and the US; Separate seating on public transportation; Never publishing pictures of women; not even mentioning a woman’s name in print; demands to exchange seats on an airplane so that a Chasid can avoid sitting next to a woman; panning Shaitels (wigs) that are too long…

And then you have the vigilante types that will not countenance infractions. From rebuking women in public, to throwing rocks at them, to spitting on them; to spilling acid in their faces, to beating them up in a bus; to torching a clothing store that does not measure up… and God only knows what else. And then there is the often cited reason for world disasters: lack of sufficient modesty on the part of our women.

That driving is forbidden is not new. The ban on women driving has existed for some time now in these circles. Just as it has in Saudi Arabia. I recall a very Chasidic Rebbetzin here in Chicago that started driving against her father’s wishes back in the 70s. Her father was a widely regarded senior Chasidic Posek in Israel who forbade his daughters to drive. But she felt she had to because she did not want to burden her very busy husband with driving car pools for their many children who were spread by age across different schools (elementary boys and girls; and high school boys and girls).

 It seems that in certain Jewish circles we are approaching the Muslim versions of modesty. Which seems to make R’ Ovadia’s daughter’s statement a distinct possibility.

There are those who will say that we should admire this level of sensitivity to modesty. Or at least that we should ’live and let live’. Normally I would agree. But not if it makes Judaism look primitive or silly. When a mainstream religious sect touts itself as being the most religious among us, it is quite normal for the uninitiated readers of a secular newspaper to see their extremes as a just more devout expression of Judaism – instead of seeing it for the extreme it is.

It’s kind of like this for me. If a sect wants to require wearing underwear on their head as a matter of Tznius, that is their right. But I am not going to be quiet and allow the world to think that is in any way a normal modesty requirement. I only wish mainstream rabbis in all versions of Orthodoxy would do the same, instead of praising them for their extreme sensitivity to modesty.

Update: The Times of Israel reports that the UK government is investigating the Belz ban against women drivers calling it 'unacceptable'!