I paid a condolence call the other day. Ruth (not her real name) formerly one of the most respected rebbitzins in Meah Shearim, the wife of a prominent Rabbi and scholar from a distinguished rabbinical family, had lost her beloved father. When I finally found the address in Meah Shearim, I couldn’t believe my eyes: walking down to the basement of an apartment house on a busy shopping street, I found Ruth in a shabby cellar apartment without plumbing or hot water, in a dingy bedroom whose rusted window faces a noisy alleyway.
Ruth, who used to live in a large, elegant home with her twelve children, is a beautiful, distinguished woman, still every inch the dignified Rebbitzen she once was before her divorce. Sitting alone on the floor, Ruth’s only visitor is her friend Zehava – a Sephardic haredi mother of ten, who has stuck by Ruth through everything. Her loyalty has cost Zehava dearly: two years ago, she was attacked by the Modesty Patrol, who broke her arm and several ribs and put her into the hospital. Her husband recently left her as well.
The rest of Ruth’s family, her mother, brothers and sisters, were sitting shiv’a in the family home, a bus ride away. Ruth is not welcome there. In fact, ever since she left her husband, she has had no contact at all with her family. Indeed, her mother and sisters testified against her in court during her divorce proceedings. She also had no expectations that her own children would come to pay her their respects. Despite her legal right to do so, she hasn’t seen or spoken to her children ever since fleeing her home two years ago. At her husband’s request, the Rabbinical Court even issued an injunction preventing her from attending her daughter’s wedding. Her husband now claims that the children don’t want to see her. Ruth has been trying, without success, to convince the Rabbinical Courts otherwise.
At her father’s funeral, Ruth tells me, she saw her nine-year old son. “He tried to wave and smile at me, but they wouldn’t let him. Someone spread out their arms and hid him. I just wanted to smile back at him,” she murmurs. She speaks softly, without rancor, and without much hope. “They wouldn’t let me see my father in the hospital, either, even though he was dying. Father was always the peacemaker. “Don’t make them angry with you. Wait, wait, I’ll come to you, my daughter. No one can stop me from coming to you.’” For the first time her eyes fill with tears.” After he passed away, I waited for him. But he didn’t come. He didn’t come,”she weeps.
Ruth has not only been banished from her family, she is assiduously avoided by her former friends and neighbors, who cross the street when they see her coming, in a way reminiscent of the “shunning” described in Nathaniel Hawthorn’s SCARLET LETTER, except that in Ruth’s case, it was her husband who committed adultery.
Ruth’s unforgivable crime is that she went public, seeking and receiving a divorce from a physically and sexually abusive husband, who was also an adulterer, a thief, and a sexual pervert. But when Ruth finally found the courage to leave him, it was for a different reason altogether: Ruth, a deeply religious woman, left her husband because he forced her to have relations when religious law forbade it. She believes that the terrible ordeal of being forcibly separated from her children is a punishment from G-d for not fending her husband off more successfully. She hopes that when she has being duly punished, G-d will give her back her children. In the meantime, she haunts the courts, with petition after petition, trying desperately to get her case moved from Rabbinic Court to the newly created Civil Family Court, where she is convinced she will be treated with greater fairness concerning child custody and property settlement.
Two older women, relatives of her father, walk in. Their eyes betray how appalled they are with Ruth’s living conditions. Ruth, delighted they’ve come, tries to convince them her present condition is undeserved. Finally, when nothing works, she plays them a secretly-taped conversation with her former husband, in which he admits everything from adultery to wife-abuse.
“We can’t go against the family,” they murmur, hurrying out the door. Ruth thanks them for being the only ones with the courage to come visit her. I too get up and leave.
Out in the streets of Meah Shearim, I looked around me. Did they simply not know of the unjust suffering just beneath their feet? Would they reach out to Ruth with generosity, decency and courage – true piety, once informed? Or might they join Ruth’s friends and neighbors, creating and believing lies to exonerate their culpability? Or simply knife the storyteller?
I’m waiting to hear.