Belz driving ban: Rule is a key element of our Chasidic identity

November 24, 2016 23:06

Our report on a Chasidic sect banning female drivers set off a national debate. This week, two Orthodox women answer the question:Should we drive?

Read our other Belz blogger, Dina Brawer, here

Some months ago I was organising a community tour for a notable public figure, and was embarrassed when one of those present told him that as a woman, I didn't drive a car.

My reason for feeling embarrassed was because it felt rather personal, but also because it is particularly difficult to explain this practice in our Western culture.

"Why is that?" I was asked by our guest, clearly surprised. Here was I, obviously an intelligent and educated person, operating in the public sphere and leading an event at which the majority of others present were male communal figures.

I simply said: "This is what's normal in my community and my family. I respect my community custom."

"I understand," said this courteous gentleman, likewise showing respect for me.

There has been very little respect over the last week. So I feel compelled to say a little more.

A prominent value for Charedi women is tzniut, which roughly translates as "modesty" or "refined conduct". In Chasidic circles (Chasidim being a sub-section of Charedim), this is particularly emphasised.

Years back, when cars became a mass consumer product and women started to drive, some Chasidic rabbis took the view that driving compromised women's tzniut and discouraged women in their communities from doing it. To say they banned women driving would be overstating things, as there are women in prominent Chasidic families who drive. But generally not those who are "very" Chasidic. I have female friends and relatives who are as Charedi as I am, and they drive. I don't regard myself as more pious than them, just that this is my custom and they follow theirs.

There is no coercion to belong to a particular Chasidic group and abide by its norms, and there is a fair amount of inward and outward movement without stigma. We are not in Saudi Arabia and women are not flogged for driving. Women may leave their community entirely without anyone raising a finger. Or they may stay in their community and decide to drive. But they might want to choose another school for their children.

And now a great clamour has arisen about the inequality.

Some of the clamour is pernicious. Some of it is genuine puzzlement. Why do Charedi women seem not to mind being told not to drive?

Our Yiddishkeit is demanding and influences almost every aspect of our lives. You might as well ask why I don't mind "being told" to cover my hair, not to wear trousers, not to watch films that depict immodest scenes etc.

I don't regard these things as misfortunes or constraints. Sometimes the mitzvoth that are regarded as the most constrictive are those we cherish most, such as taharat mishpacha (laws of family purity).

All of this is my way of life, my very identity. It is a cherished identity, and if I give, I get much more.

I do not accept that women, more than men, are subject to discrimination or inequality. The purpose of tzniut is to protect kedushat am yisrael, the sanctity of Jewish family life.

The expectations from women and men may not be the same, but they are equally demanding on both sexes. The demand to act with refinement and modesty is strongly weighted towards women. The demand to avoid temptation and to be careful with shemirat einayim ("guarding the eyes") is heavily weighted towards men. It may be counterintuitive, but Chasidic boys have considerably less freedom and exposure to the world than Chasidic girls, and my daughter feels she has at least as many advantages as my sons.

Charedim are commonly regarded as narrow and intolerant. But I have never experienced such intolerance. Watching the Jewish establishment join public officialdom in Chasidim-bashing has been very sobering, and I'd like to strike a note of caution. Jews across the spectrum have beliefs and practices that are different, and should be fighting to defend freedom of religious conscience as a matter of principle even when the particular practice flies in the face of societal consensus.

Chaya Spitz is the chief executive of the InterLink Foundation

November 24, 2016 23:06

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