Banished - the female face

Contrary to popular mythology, Jewish women in the Middle Ages were not confined to the role of home-maker, powerless in a male-dominated world. According to Avraham Grossman's modern classic, Pious and Rebellious, a survey of Jewish women's lives in Europe between 1000 and 1300, many women worked and their economic power helped improve their position in their families.

The rabbis granted them, for example, the right to initiate divorce and not to be divorced against their will. In the religious sphere, women were known to act as sandak in a brit, as well as circumcisers and ritual slaughterers. The rabbis tried to relax a ban on women learning Torah, and the women struggled to be allowed to perform certain mitzvot from which they were legally exempt.

"Various outstanding sages, including Rashi's own teachers," Grossman writes, "already recognised this right in the second half of the eleventh century. This was not a purely religious matter, as it also entailed a clear recognition of women's place in society."

Why do I bring all this up now? Because recent allegations that Charedi policy towards women is "medieval" does an injustice to the medievals. Back then, Jewish women saw steady improvements in their status. Today, the Charedim - particularly in Israel and America - seem to be waging a concerted campaign to erase women from the public sphere.

To say Charedi policy to women is 'medieval' insults the medievals

Take two recent examples. The entire world saw the picture of American officials watching the operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden, which two American Charedi newspapers published - minus the image of Hillary Clinton and another female staffer, who had been photoshopped out. The newspaper editors (one of whom, bizarrely, did not seem to mind being interviewed on CNN by an attractive female presenter) explained that their blanket refusal to publish pictures of women was an issue of "modesty".

But Mrs Clinton was dressed perfectly modestly, with sleeves down to her wrists and a high-cut shirt. Her legs were not visible. The issue was, therefore, not dress but women's faces, which are apparently no longer allowed to be seen in respectable Charedi publications. But there is no halachic prohibition on looking upon a woman's face. Why, then, ban them, unless there is a wider agenda against women being seen in public?

Last week, an Israeli Charedi website, Kikar HaShabbat, carried the story of a young Charedi man who had aggressively accosted a woman sitting at the front of a gender-segregated bus in Jerusalem.

A few days later, he asked the most senior Charedi rabbi, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, whether he need apologise; the rabbi allegedly ruled that "humiliating" someone who had transgressed the laws of modesty was permissible.

Several Orthodox internet bloggers have been so shocked by this ruling that they have argued that Rav Elyashiv could not possibly have issued it. However, there has been no official denial from the centenarian's circle.

Again, forcing women to the back of the bus has little to do with modesty. Israeli Charedim were perfectly happy to ride mixed buses until recently, and continue to do so in the diaspora. It is, rather, a political statement about the place of women in society - separate from men, and behind them - which can now, apparently, be reinforced with threats and verbal violence.

Both of these events are the culmination of long trends among Charedim, who reacted to modernity by isolating themselves from the rest of society, and in recent years, becoming increasingly sexist. It is no coincidence that the cult of Israeli Charedi women who cover themselves in burkas is flourishing; they have internalised the message that good women are invisible.

The rest of us should care deeply, firstly out of concern for the women who are being discriminated against for emphatically social, not halachic reasons, often against their will. Charedi rabbis are also in control of Israel's religious establishment, including its marriage and conversion mechanisms, so the norms of that society directly affect the wider tone of Israeli society and almost every Israeli individual.

And since the borders between the religious streams are porous, the standards of behaviour established in Charedi society often end up influencing the national religious camp (in Israel) and modern Orthodoxy (in the diaspora).

The growing misogyny of the Charedi world is therefore not an internal Charedi issue.

If its rabbis cannot be persuaded to moderate themselves soon, the Jewish people as a whole will pay the price.

    Last updated: 9:59am, May 27 2011