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Belz are not ‘normal’. But what’s normal?

November 24, 2016 23:28

As a story, it really does have it all. Jews in black hats, women drivers, bad behaviour at the school gates. Add a klezmer soundtrack and you've got a Channel 4 documentary.

And it seems that for many in our own community, it makes uncomfortable viewing.

So uncomfortable in fact, that everybody who's anybody has been queuing up to pass comment and judgement on our brothers and sisters from Stamford Hill.

Once the JC story was picked up, the race to present the voice of modernity and moderation in the face of apparent extremism began. One after another, figures from across the gender and religious spectrum queued up to make the case that "normal" Jews do not ban women from driving.

Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism, said: "This is not normative Judaism."

Newly elected Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush stated there was "no possibility of this becoming anything like accepted or acceptable elsewhere in the Jewish community".

Joseph Dweck, senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, said the ruling would cause, "…inner feelings of inadequacy and inferiority" and were "not in line with Torah's call for the sanctity of the human being created in the image of God".

The message was clear and consistent. This kind of edict was not only wrong, but also not at all "Jewish".

It is very difficult to assert "normality" within the context of religious observance. What the Chief Rabbi refers to as "mainstream Jewish practice" is more than a little bit crazy to the outside world and sometimes even to those of us who follow its strictures.

Within my own "mainstream" Orthodox community there are many women who have voiced feelings of "inadequacy" and "inferiority" around their permitted involvement. The line may be drawn in a different place, but it is a line nonetheless.

At face value, it cannot possibly be acceptable for a school to prevent pupils attending because their mothers drive them to school. But don't all Jewish faith schools - even those that consider themselves to be moderate or mainstream - make demands on the families that want to attend?

At the modern Orthodox school that my children attend, men and women are asked to dress in a certain way when on school premises. If these requirements were to be transgressed, words would be had.

There are alternative schools that have different guidelines around Shabbat observance, kashrut and other areas. Across the spectrum there is something for everyone. You know what you're signing up for.

For some that means not driving on a Saturday and for others it means not driving on any day. If you don't like that particular ethos, you are free to look elsewhere.

This is not a criticism of such schools. They exist to cater for a need and are often the most over-subscribed in the ballot for places. But they exist within a framework that is anything but "normal" in the eyes of everyday society.

We are not, ever, going to be the same as one another. We are never going to be "normal". And while we may see our community as being every colour of the rainbow, to the secular world we are many shades of black.

Let's not forget that the next time our extended family drives us to despair.

Barry Frankfurt is a media consultant

November 24, 2016 23:28

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