There’s a hint of irony in the fact that the seventh day of Hanukkah was the one on which thousands of Israelis gathered to protest haredi (ultra-Orthodox) abuses of women and girls in Beit Shemesh. The holiday does, after all, celebrate the zealous Hasmonean rebels’ purifying of the Temple from Hellenistic (sic. secular) rule, arguably making them the “haredim” of their time, even if they have become modern Israel’s national heroes.
Regardless, for many in the modern Jewish world the haredim crossed a line when they began to harass and abuse young modern religious girls for “not-sufficiently-modest-dress,” including the most widely-publicized case of 8-year-old Na’ama Margolis, whose story was told on Israeli TV. The only bright spot may have been the rare instance of secular-religious unity in opposition to these acts of religious zealotry, although I have found the sanctimonious and self-righteous response of the modern religious (dati) community hypocritical. The same Modern Orthodox now protesting for religious freedom and tolerance did very little when the increasingly ultra-Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate and political establishment marginalized non-Orthodox Judaisms, including Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
Many in the Modern Orthodox camp justifiably feel defensive and marginalized by vocal haredi accusations against their ostensibly compromised practice and standards, as when the Israeli Rabbinate rejected a Modern Orthodox conversion from the Diaspora. The national religious movement in Israel has undergone a haredization process, largely in the settlements, creating what has become known as Hardal (haredi dati leumi—ultra-Orthodox religious nationalists). Although Hardal’s aggressive piety is not nearly as uncompromising as that of the haredim in Beit Shemesh, there are cases where female soldiers have been prevented from singing at army events—many interpretations of Jewish law prohibit kol isha, or hearing a woman sing—a prohibition that wouldn’t even apply to the Beit Shemesh haredim who mostly do not serve in the army.
The Modern Orthodox protesters’ lack of attention to the fact that these haredim read the very same texts is somewhat hypocritical. They read the same Torah and commentaries, study the same Talmud, live by the same legal codes, and adhere to the same basic belief system. Yes, the haredim have a very narrow reading of these sources but it’s a safe bet that they can cite chapter and verse to support their views—often more adroitly than their modern counterparts.
In his Mishneh Torah (Code of Law), Maimonides explicitly advocated the position that women should stay mostly in their homes. The kabbalistic literature now so popular in modern Israel is in many ways worse. We have evidence that in the heyday of Safed in the sixteenth century a “council for rectifying sins” (va’ad le tikun avonot) was established to seek out and corporally punish those who were not living up to the Kabbalist’s religious standards. Rabbi Isaac Luria, a folk hero among many religious Jews today, was likely an advocate of this council.
Admittedly, Judaism’s classical sources have always been read in variety of ways, and modern religious authorities have revised some premodern standards of behavior to conform to modern Western sensibilities. But shouldn’t this selective contextualization be investigated? Why should contextualizing the status of women not include counting them in a prayer quorum? Or ordaining them as rabbis? Why is a leniency in modest dress, women’s education, and women’s participation in public life justified, but enabling a woman to be a witness prohibited?
The Modern Orthodox community can certainly provide answers to these questions from the world of Jewish legal reasoning, but the point is still one worth considering in light of haredi responses to Modern Orthodoxy’s accommodationist religiosity. The modern religious community claims the haredi readings are antiquated. That may be true. But they fail to see the ways in which the Judaism they defend is structurally, albeit not always practically, identical to the Judaism they criticize.
Many of the same individuals protesting against the segregationist beliefs of the Beit Shemesh haredim pray in synagogues where women are segregated from men, and where women cannot publicly recite Kaddish for the loss of a loved one. Many of those same individuals attend funerals where women are excluded from accompanying the body to its resting place (a particularly precious commandment), abide by religious courts that do not allow women to act as witnesses, and get married with Ketubot where the bride is essentially “sold” by her father to the groom.
The Modern Orthodox protesters’ cause in Beit Shemesh is legitimate. Their critique should not, however, be limited to the egregious acts of the haredim, but to the injustices embedded in the very religious system they live by and defend. Schoolgirls should dress according to dress codes dictated by their parents and their schools. People should pray using any liturgy they want, and get married by the rabbi of their choice—man or woman.
The haredim are not the (only) problem; they are simply a mirror that reveals a problematic face of Judaism. Protesting the actions of the Beit Shemesh haredim could be an opportunity to subject the traditional practice of Judaism to the same critique. Ultimately, the haredim are living according to the standards they believe are true, as unappealing as they may seem to us. Can the modern religious protesters say the same?
My thanks to Ruth Ellenson, Sarah Imhoff, and Aryeh Cohen for their helpful suggestions.