“The film was enough to make your blood boil. Bearded hassidim talking about how it was God’s will to spit on little girls who didn’t follow the dress code.”
“No woman should wait to hear the last kaddish for the obvious reason that women should make their exit before the men, lest they mingle with them… No woman aged less than forty should attend the synagogue for the afternoon and evening services…whether on a weekday or on the Sabbath, with the exception of the New Year and the Day of Atonement.” New regulations in Beit Shemesh? It wouldn’t be hard to believe. But actually, the above paragraph refers to regulations adopted by the Jerusalem Rabbinate in 1854 and is taken from the fascinating book by Prof. Margalit Shilo: Princess or Prisoner: Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1840- 1914.
The book also talks about a dress code in place in Jerusalem, with women forced to cover themselves from head to toe and even to veil their faces with a white sheet known as a lizar. “We have agreed by all force, and by an overwhelming majority, that no daughter of Israel, even elderly women, may walk in the market without a covering over her clothing.”
Attempts by modern-day extremists to turn back the clock to the last century, not to mention the Middle Ages, are not as widely popular among the haredi community as populist writings in major Israeli dailies, haredi and secular alike, would have us believe. In fact, if recent haredi writings are to be believed, under the surface of a smooth, united front, there bubbles a cauldron of diverse opinions reflecting outright opposition to extremist and reactionary behavior that has apparently left many members of the haredi community upset, embarrassed and ready to rebel. I’d even argue that a tipping point of sorts has been reached.
I began to realize this quite by accident when I passed by a newsstand selling the latest issue of the popular haredi English-language publication Mishpacha. On a background photo of haredi youngsters in Holocaust garb, shouting haredi men and television crews, the headline reads: “Intolerant? Fanatic? Solve our image problem.”
Intrigued, I bought a copy and read it cover to cover. To my surprise, I found almost universal condemnation of the Nazi-inspired haredi demonstration against “incitement.” One letter to the editor condemned the “terrible goings on in Eretz Yisroel,” even protesting that the magazine had printed a photo of it. “It was appalling enough to read about it.”
Authors Binyamin Rose and Rachel Ginsberg summarized their headline article, “Making our Case,” this way: “Violent demonstrations. Segregated buses. Nazi effigies. Degrading headlines. The charedim definitely have an image problem.”
Was this the first time I was seeing a crack in the united front that the haredi world often puts forth in public in the name of solidarity when condemned over the actions of its extremists? Or had I just been unaware of self-criticism that goes on in that world? One of the public relations experts consulted in Mishpacha, Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg, a Brooklyn-born hassid, put it this way: “It’s not that there is no discussion. It just takes place where the outside media doesn’t see it. There are many differences in outlooks and opinions under the very wide umbrella ‘haredi.’”
I decided to investigate this claim by going to the haredi website Hadrei Haredim, which has a reputation as one of the few places where members of the ultra-Orthodox world feel able to freely express themselves under the cloak of cyberspace.
Under the talkbacks relating to the Shai Gal film aired on Channel 2 on the Yair Lapid show about the goings on in Beit Shemesh, I was amazed to find a wide array of opinions – and a great deal of information. The film itself was available for viewing on the site.
The film was enough to make your blood boil. Bearded hassidim talking about how it was God’s will that they spit on little girls who didn’t follow the dress code and how haredim were eventually going to take over the country and impose their standards on everyone else.
Footage of little Na’ama Margolese, still traumatized by the incident in which she was spat upon by haredi men for not being dressed “modestly” enough, crying in fear as she held her mother’s hand and made her way 300 meters from her home to school.
There were over 250 responses to the film. Some were one-liners expressing disgust at the haredim or disgust at the media for maligning haredim. But in between were a number of thoughtful responses that showed sensitivity as well as a valid alternative point of view.
Said a haredi in Beit Shemesh: “As a regular normal haredi (like 98 percent of the haredi population, which you will never see on television) and as a resident of Beit Shemesh these past five years, I feel ready to explode when I see such a slanted view. There is a very fanatic group. But ve-r-r-ry. Made up of a few dozen families, they are connected to extreme chassidic sects like Satmar and Toldot Aaron. They live in two places: in Meah Shearim and a specific neighborhood in Beit Shemesh. There is absolutely nothing in common between them and the general haredi public… Unfortunately, their neighborhood adjoins the place where the municipality, in its wisdom, decided to build the modern Orthodox girls school.”
Someone identifying himself as a haredi journalist completely disagreed: “To my sorrow, we are now talking about 90% of haredim. In this film, I identify chassidim from Gur, simple Jerusalemites, and Breslavers side by side with Neturei Karta. If this is the true face of my society it’s time for me to throw away my streimel.”
A reader named Shalom agreed. “It’s true that the troublemakers are a small minority, but there is a swathe of rabbis and wheeler-dealers involved from the center to the fringes… who feel that they have to toe the line being set by the extremists, and who persecute yeshiva boys that seem too liberal to them.”
And finally, there was the talk-back that enforced the idea that the Mishpacha article represented a widespread and growing sentiment in the haredi world, which indeed seems to have reached a tipping point: “As a haredi, I take my hat off to these journalists. As long as a strong condemnation doesn’t come from Rabbanim in the haredi world, these destructive people won’t be stopped. We are seeing the haredi world fall apart in front of our eyes. The attitude towards us and understanding of what it means to be haredi depend entirely on us. If we don’t wake up in time to make a real change in our approach our silence will have terrible consequences.”
In a January 20 op-ed in The New York Times, Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, courageously decided to pick up the gauntlet:
“The ultra-Orthodox men in Israel who are exerting control over women claim that they are honoring women… In fact, though, their actions objectify and hyper-sexualize women… once you judge a female human being only through a man’s sexualized imagination, you can turn even a modest 8-yearold girl into a seductress and a prostitute… All of this is done in the name of the Torah and Jewish law… But it’s actually a complete perversion… The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze – the way men look at women – that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.”
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 27 January, 2012.