Friday, November 18, 2011


Imagine that you move to a new town with a whole new set of rules.

In this new land, women must always dress in long sleeves and skirts. Why? Because the female body is too beautiful, too sexual. Ladies must enter many businesses through a “women's only" entrance and restrict their strolls to "women's only" sidewalks (regardless of what the court decides). Why? Because the presence of females (or her touch if she comes too close) is too distracting to men. In fact, men are known to literally relegate women to the back of the bus. Why? Because women are not the equals of men.

The discrimination does not stop there.

In this new town, a woman who sings in public will cause quite the reaction. Whether nor not her singing occurs intentionally or accidentally, a woman’s song will cause several men in the vicinity to leave her presence (...and not because she sounds awful). Why? Because her luring voice inspires sexual thought. Printed images of women do not fare well either. Advertisements utilizing images of women will last for only a few days before they are covered or defaced. It does not matter if the advertisement serves to promote upcoming performances or product lines targeted at women. Why? Because men should not be distracted by the image of a woman, and women should be hidden, protected, respected, and focused on their home-making and child-rearing responsibilities.

Unfortunately, this new land is not a figment of my imagination. My "new land" is, in fact, the very old, "holy city" of Jerusalem. While people of many religions share the streets of Jerusalem, this post highlights the world of Ultra-Orthodox Jews within the walls of the city.

As a Jewish woman, it insults me to know that many fellow Jewish women live as second-class citizens (or so it seems to me). The restrictions naturally remind me of those endured by African-Americans during the shameful era of U.S. segregation. Placing my personal outrage aside, though, the law student in me questions whether such conduct warrants protection, and, if protected, what it means for the women of these communities. Additionally, especially in the wake of growing extremist activity, how much “ultra-orthodox” is too much (especially in a religious country)? It seems the restrictions serve to harm women, but might the restrictions provide a benefit to the women?

As I contemplate these questions and consider the value of the Ultra-Orthodoxy’s rules and restrictions, I’m reminded of the Prologue to the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. “Tradition. Tradition!” the voices sing as songs and images set the 1905 scene of Anatevka, a traditional Russian Jewish village. Is “tradition” an appropriate reason to treat females different from males?

Tradition fascinates me. Raised in a family more ethnically than religiously Jewish, my parents let me choose whether or not I wanted to study Hebrew and become a Bat Mitzvah. I chose to do both. My interest in the religion centered predominantly on a desire to understand my family’s history and the associated religious traditions. As a child, I also created many of my own traditions with friends and family. Additionally, during my undergraduate years, I joined the committee charged with protecting the songs and traditions of the university, and I even served as the ritual chair of my sorority (there’s nothing like songs, passwords, secret handshakes, and initiation ceremonies from 1894).

As someone who appreciates and respects tradition, I am thankful for the religious communities that preserve the old Jewish traditions. My family, like many others, lost traditions during the Holocaust, and we continue to lose them as the elder members of my family complete their lives. My limited experience with traditional (often called ultra-orthodox) Chabad-Lubavitch families reminds me of the value of such communities to a “dying religion.” In many ways, the home of a Chabad family feels much like the home of my grandparents. It’s warm, open to friends and neighbors, and filled with people hungry to learn and more than willing to share their thoughts on controversial subjects. Babies are passed from person to person, there’s always something to help out with, and there’s always lots and lots of tasty food.

Yet, people and traditions evolve. While I appreciate that Chabad provides a space for the preservation of many religious traditions and Jewish culture, and I can understand why an ultra-orthodox community might institute new rules that better allow members to follow these traditions, I also value progress. Women fought and continue to fight for equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunities. As a woman, I want the freedom to pursue my interests, and I want others to treat me like an adult person, not like a prize, a child, or a sex object.

To return to my earlier questions, then, how much orthodoxy is too much? Limits must exist somewhere, right? If I can create my own, feminist traditions, what should stop the ultra-conservatives from developing their own not-so-feminist traditions? A productive analysis might balance the importance of religious freedom and tradition against the potential harms to women and women’s rights. Are the women of ultra-orthodox communities making their own personal choices, or do the men decide? Are not both parties equally inconvenienced by many of the aforementioned ultra-orthodox rules? What other aspects of Judaism discriminate against women?

Personal Choice

While covering hair and wearing long skirts might represent a personal choice, I question whether a woman (even a religious woman) would prefer special walkways and entrances. Unlike the issue of co-ed bathrooms, a woman buying milk should not need to take off her panties in the grocery store. It’s simply her presence and proximity that creates the issue.

Both Suffer, Right?

I’m not convinced that both suffer equally. A woman barred from singing in public will need to worry about accidentally singing while she runs errands or walks down the street with friends. It is true that when a man hears this woman singing he may need to leave the line and change his plans for the day. Yet, while the rules, restrictions, and associated actions may create inconveniences for both sexes, it appears to me that they inconvenience women more than men. Why? Because women, due only to their sex, provide the reason for all of the rules.

Other Religious Discrimination?

Other rules associated with Judaism generally (rather than simply the ultra-orthodox) also serve to suffocate and humiliate women more than they improve observance of traditional religious ideals. For example, finalization of a traditional Jewish divorce requires the husband to deliver a document called a “get” to his wife. Without this document, neither party is free to remarry under Jewish law, and any future children born to women in this situation are deemed bastards (which carries its own social and religious consequences). Since Jewish law requires the man to provide the document of his own free will (and not by order of the court), many women—including victims of domestic violence—fall subject to the consequences. See Ann Laquer Estin, Embracing Tradition: Pluralism in American Family Law, MD. L. Rev. 540, 578-586 (2004).

Thus, even the law student in me has trouble rationalizing protection of all the ultra-orthodox gender segregation policies. I acknowledge that I approach these relevant questions from a biased perspective. Yet, while I understand a woman who prefers the company of women to men, I find it difficult to understand a woman who welcomes restrictions on her non-offensive actions simply because of her sex.

I hope that Israel (and other countries facing extremist activity prejudicial to women) considers the issues and considers them carefully. Tradition, culture, and religion deserve recognition and protection, but so do women. Rules that place restrictions on women simply because of their gender suffer from the flaws of inequality. Unless leaders develop further protections for women, I fear that restrictions discriminating against women could result in more harm than good.

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