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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Are The Haredi Jewish Taliban?

Yes, I know that my post title is inflammatory, but the question comes to mind after reading The War on Women in Israel by Elana Maryles Sztokman.  Author Maggie Anton read and reviewed it on Goodreads and it sounded like a book that I needed to read.

The Haredi that I've seen in New York have never seemed threatening.  They just wanted to be left alone to practice Judaism in the way that they choose.  I have no quarrel with that.  Those in their community who want to leave should be allowed to do so, however.  I recently reviewed Julia Dahl's mysteries that dealt with individuals who had been brought up Haredi, but wanted to live a different life.  The first was Invisible City which I reviewed here , and the second was Run You Down which I reviewed  here. It's important to point out that these books took place in New York, not Israel.

 When Haredi live in a nation in which freedom of religion is a founding principle, they should expect to be treated with respect.  On the other hand, they should also expect that the imposition of their beliefs on people who don't choose to follow them will meet with considerable resistance.  In fact, there is mention in this book of  New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg telling Haredi in 2011 that they could rent buses if they wanted them to be gender segregated, but segregation on New York public buses was prohibited. 

The situation in New York is very different from the one in Israel.  Like the United States, Israel was founded by people fleeing persecution in Europe.   Yet the United States originated from thirteen colonies settled by people with varying backgrounds.  Puritan Massachusetts was  different from Quaker Pennsylvania, for example.  Over the centuries, the US has become a diverse population of immigrants from all over the planet.   There were differences among the founders of Israel too.  Some were religious, but others were secular.  Despite these divisions, their intention was for Israel's population to be a homogeneous one with a single dominant religion. This has turned out to be a problematic proposition in many ways.  So the issue of freedom of religion has been very controversial in Israel.

When I was sixteen, I accompanied my family on a tour of Israel. When the tour visited Jerusalem, women in the tour group were warned about the standards of dress expected in Mea Shearim where the Haredi lived.  Women had been stoned there.  I thought at the time that I would simply stay out of Mea Shearim.

The War on Women in Israel deals with the conflict that has resulted over Haredi attempts to impose their standards for women on the rest of Israel.


Israel has no separation of church and state as the U.S. does.  Their established religion is Orthodox Judaism.  Many of their laws conform to Orthodox Jewish traditions.  The trouble is that there is more than one approach to Orthodox Judaism.  In Eastern Europe, the religious ancestors of the Haredi were known as Chasidim.  Their emphasis was on faith and strict obedience to their Rabbis' rulings.  They called their opponents the Misnagdim  which literally means those who are against.  My own ancestors were Misnaged Rabbis.  They emphasized Talmudic scholarship.  The Talmud is actually a series of debates about Jewish law.  So Misnaged communities prized the ability to argue well, and decide which interpretation you would follow.   Their flexibility and rationalism meant that they were more likely to assimilate successfully within modern society.  Today the Misnagdim are called Modern Orthodox. So both the Chasidim and the Misnagdim considered themselves Orthodox Jews, but they were diametrically opposed.

Originally, the Chasidic/Haredi  population in Israel was small and limited to Mea Shearim in Jerusalem.  Now there are many thousands of Haredi and they have large presences in a number of cities.

The first case in this book that really got to me was the one of Ophir Ben-Shetreet, a 17 year old girl who performed on the Israeli version of The VoiceThe Voice is a very popular singing competition in the U.S.  I'm a big fan myself.  Ophir and her family lived in a religious settlement which expected behavior in accordance with Jewish Orthodox standards. She took second place, then came home to a suspension from school for singing in front of men.  I looked at some Jewish opinions that were in opposition to the school's decision.  One Rabbi said that the prohibition was against a man listening to a woman singing.  Men didn't have to watch her performance.  Another Rabbi said that the prohibition was only against a woman singing seductively which Ophir didn't do. Yet another said that the prohibition only applied to a woman singing religious songs during a service because it would distract a man from prayer.   So there was a variety of views on the topic.  Why was a very stringent Haredi oriented opinion imposed on this talented teen?   Why did her school feel she had to be silenced?

This book devotes considerable space to the Women of the Wall.  These are women who want to pray in the women's section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem which is a remnant of the second Jewish Temple built by Herod.

One of the reasons  why this has been a problem is because they pray aloud which is considered a distraction to praying men in the Orthodox perspective. So both Modern Orthodox and Haredi believe that women's voices shouldn't be heard at all in public prayer.

A reason why the Women of the Wall clash with Haredi is because they want to pray with a tallit ( prayer shawl) and tefillin which are also known as phylacteries.  These are required for men in Jewish law.  This is why Orthodox Jewish men wear them at prayer services daily.  In the view of the Modern Orthodox women are neither required nor prohibited from wearing the tallit and tefillin.  The Haredi are absolutely adamant that women may not wear them.  This book doesn't discuss why the Haredi are so opposed to this practice but I found   a couple of illuminating articles on the Chabad website. (The Chabad are a worldwide organization who are the largest and most influential sect of Haredi.) You can read about the Haredi perspective on this issue at Is It Appropriate For A Woman To Wear A Tallith? and  Why Don't Women Wear Tefillin? 

The Women of the Wall practice that attracts the most Haredi ire was that they  want to carry a Torah and read from it. Here's a 2015 article from The Jerusalem Post  dealing with a recent Women of the Wall incident.  This  article shows that Israel still refuses to recognize freedom of religion for non-Orthodox Jews, and that women are on the front lines of this religious war. 

I was absolutely outraged by a July 2012 incident in which a modestly dressed Orthodox woman in Beit Shemesh emerged from her car carrying her baby, and had stones thrown in her direction by Haredi.  She was carrying a baby!  Who are these monsters?   Fortunately,  neither the woman nor the baby were harmed.  She was called names and told to leave the neighborhood.  Since she was dressed according to their standards, I think the issue must have been driving.  Women driving is perfectly legal in Israel.  There is no Modern Orthodox objection to anyone driving unless they are driving on the Sabbath or on a Yom Tov (literally good day, but it means an important holiday to which Sabbath rules apply).  So I would think that it's the Haredi who believe that it's appropriate to throw stones at women who drive that should relocate to a nation that is more in sympathy with their perspective.    

My impression that Haredi have very much in common with certain types of Muslims was confirmed when I read in this book that some women from the Haredi community were wearing body covering shawls that resemble Islamic niqab.  They have been classified as a separate splinter group called the Haredi Burka Sect. Now my readers understand where the title of this post came from.  It's in the form of a question because some Haredi men actually don't approve.  The women took it upon themselves to dress in that manner.  Historically, some Jewish women veiled because it was the custom of the country for women, but veiling isn't the current custom of Israel nor is it required of women by Jewish law.  It is definitely a religious custom in some sects of Islam.  This may be one reason why a few Haredi men asked their Rabbi to prohibit the wearing of "burkas".   I was taught that Jews are supposed to avoid any religious practice of non-Jews.   The Haredi Rabbis who were consulted on this issue have decided that this garb calls attention to the women and therefore sexualizes them.  See this  article from the UK Telegraph. Other Haredi men have petitioned the city of Beit Shemesh for permission to establish a school where girls were expected to wear "burkas".  If it weren't for the fact that the Taliban are opposed to the education of girls,  I might suggest Afghanistan as a better location for such a school.

Although I already knew about discrimination against women in Israel, I hadn't been aware of the spread of Haredi violence against women, or the extent of Haredi political influence.  Any woman who is considering settling in Israel should read this book.  I would also recommend it to anyone who thinks that Israel is similar to the United States.




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