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Charedi ghetto's flimsy walls

November 24, 2016 23:28

On May 19, the Charedi website "Behadrey Haredim" carried a report to the effect that rabbinical and other authorities of the Belz Chasidim in London had the previous day given written instructions, in Hebrew, that - unless exempted by a "special committee" - females of the Belz species were forbidden to drive motor vehicles , and that, if any Belz mother was found after Rosh Chodesh Ellul (August 15) to be driving her kids to (and/or - presumably - from) either of the two Belz schools in the capital, these children would henceforth be barred from attending the school or schools in question.

Interestingly, this sensational report did not appear in the English-language version of the website, but was confined to its Hebrew-language web pages. Perhaps the hope was that those unversed in the Hebrew language would remain in blissful ignorance of this extraordinary pseudo-rabbinical initiative.

Of course this did not happen. The JC got hold of the story, and ran it. Within hours, it had reached radio and TV stations throughout the land. Within a day of the JC running the story, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had condemned the Belz ban on women drivers as "completely unacceptable" and had announced "an inquiry." And within a few hours of this happening, we encounter Belz spokesman Ahron Klein writing to Ms Morgan assuring her that "it was never our intention to stigmatise or discriminate against children or their parents for the sole reason that either of the parents drives a car. We have already made it clear to our community that they need have no reason for concern."

He added that "we accept that the choice of words was unfortunate and if a negative impression was created by our letter then we unreservedly apologise… It is a fact that most women in our community do not drive cars. It is equally true that a fair number of women do drive cars openly and entirely unhindered. They and their families are as respected within our community as any other members and we have no intention of changing that."

I do hope that Reb Klein's hurried apology will not be accepted. Because of course it was the intention of the Belzer rabbis to single-out, stigmatise, discriminate against and penalise children whose mothers drove them to school. The "choice of words" for which Klein has hastened to apologise was unfortunate only in the sense that the secular world got wind of them. Their meaning, as set out in the Hebrew letter of 18 May, is patently obvious. An apology has been offered only because the truth has got out.

'Driving a car offers women a freedom some can’t deal with'

There is, however, one sentence in Klein's missive that gets to the heart of the matter, albeit in a typically elliptical way. In an effort (Klein protested) to formulate guide-lines that had as their sole purpose the protection of Belz's "time-hallowed traditions," the issue of women driving cars "became conflated with broader issues which we intended to address." What these "broader issues" were he doesn't say. But we can hazard a guess.

There's no halachic basis for a ban on women drivers. But there is a communal basis - I mean within the Belz community - and that has to do with its view of the place of women in its social order. It's not that Belzer women do not have a place. They most certainly do, as home-makers, child-bearers and kindergarten teachers. Driving kids to school may be harmless in itself. But, to drive, one needs to take lessons and pass a test. This involves contact (or at least interaction) with the outside world. And while such contact may be necessary in order to earn parnossoh - a livelihood - that is a man's prerogative.

Put simply, driving a motor-car offers to a Belzer mother a certain independence and freedom with which the Belzer rabbinate is intellectually incapable of dealing. Better therefore to ban it altogether.

For the moment, this game is at an end. The media furore has seen to that. Following this furore there will be an inquiry, which may have some further unpleasant consequences, and not just for the Belzer community. The conviction of the Charedi child-molester Todros Grynhaus would not have happened without the courage of his female victims, who broke with tradition by co-operating with the secular authorities. Charedim fool themselves if they think they live within the impregnable walls of a ghetto that is no less real for being spiritual rather than physical. These walls turn out to be remarkably porous.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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