I was sitting on a bus on the way to Jerusalem’s town center a few weeks before Rosh Hashana, when the radio started broadcasting a commercial from the Reform and Conservative movements. It went something like this: “Ask forgiveness from your wife that you won’t be sitting next to her this Rosh Hashana. Come to a Reform or Conservative synagogue where your whole family can pray together.”
My fellow passengers included many bewigged matrons, and even more haredi men, obviously on their way to yeshiva. They sat quietly through what I considered a really quite offensive and insensitive message. After all, the separate seating in an Orthodox synagogue doesn’t require an apology. It isn’t something men are doing to women. On the contrary, I choose to pray in an Orthodox synagogue simply because I would find it very difficult to concentrate on prayers if I was surrounded by men, and I assume that most normal men might feel similarly when surrounded by women, even if they wouldn’t admit it. But this isn’t really the point. What happened next is.
For some reason, the commercial was put on a second time. At this point, a very dignified, grey-bearded haredi man, sitting in the front seat, demanded that the driver change radio channels.
No way, the driver insisted. This is national radio channel two. I always listen to national radio channel two. This is my bus. I haven’t done anything wrong.
Well, … screaming. The haredi man rose indignantly: “You apikorus (heretic)” he denounced the bus driver. “You defiler of the Sabbath! You eater of pig!”
Now the driver got really mad. “Sit down,” he screamed. “I’m going to tell you something. Do you know that I get up everyday at five in the morning to put on teffilin and pray? Do you know that we Egged bus drivers have our own prayer service every morning before we start our routes? What do you know about me? Nothing! Just because I’m not wearing a skull cap? Where do you get off accusing me of such things ?”
Well, the haredi man suddenly sat down. For a long time, he said nothing. Then he got up, and in front of the whole bus, respectfully approached the driver and apologized. For the rest of the ride, the two engaged in what appeared to me to be a very convivial and productive conversation.
The other day, my teenage son asked me why our house hasn’t been spray painted . Why we haven’t been attacked, etc. “Why would you expect that?” I questioned him, dumbfounded.
“You know…. Because of all those things you write.”
I thought about it a minute. In all the years I have been complaining about deficiencies in the Orthodox world I live in, I have been called a liar outright during lectures, usually by a bewigged matron. I have been vilified in haredi publications, denounced by friends, snubbed by former rabbinical mentors. I have received angry letters, had a lecture or two cancelled by people threatening my hosts. But for the most part, I have been left alone to think and write and publish anything I want. My friends are still my friends (even the ones who’ve denounced me) and my synagogue still opens its welcoming doors to me. Indeed, I am on excellent terms with many religious people, including many wonderful haredim, from all over the world.
Sitting in my office, relaxed and totally unburdened by threats of any kind, I can think of many other cultures and societies in which a woman like myself would fare far worse. It is to the credit of the religious world in which I live that despite the many hurtful and embarrassing criticisms leveled at them – a good number by myself — they have made no attempt to silence opposing voices through physical, social, or economic threats.
That’s because our phone number is unlisted, my son says cynically.
I’d like to think it isn’t just that, although I’m sure not being an easy target gives those with momentary uncontrollable urges the necessary moments they need to control them.
I’d like to think that despite all that is crying out for improvement and change in the religious world, there is still a basic decency, a respect for justice and a desire for righteousness there that readies that world to listen sincerely, if reluctantly, to criticism. And that ability to hear and understand will, in the end, permit the acceptance of just criticisms, allowing the religious world to move towards change for the better.
I can already see it happening. Shelters for battered religious women. Shelters for abused religious children. Job programs to give yeshiva students marketable skills. Religious women publishing novels and poetry, founding organizations like Kolech. The change is all around me. It’s blossoming.
I think that shouting and yelling is fine, as long as it doesn’t go beyond that. And as long as the voices being raised don’t deafen the shouter to what’s being replied.