Recently the Orthodox Jewish community has had a fair share of media coverage related to its culture. There were stories about how women were segregated during a parade, how women were removed from photos in the Orthodox Jewish Press, how Orthodox Jewish men refused to sit next to women on a plane and that in some Orthodox Jewish Sects women don’t drive. These and various other stories gave the impression that Orthodox Jews are anti-women and their only goal is to degrade women.
These allegations could not be further from the truth.
For a layman to understand the reasons behind those actions it is necessary to understand the principles of the Hasidic Jewish culture.
In Orthodox Judaism, especially in Hassidic Jewry, family purity is paramount. When a couple gets married they set out to build a dynasty; their own dynasty. An Orthodox Jew’s ultimate goal is to build future generations that remain as pure as pure can be.
The Torah consists of 613 commandments which must be abided by. However when it comes to matters of life or death, saving a life supersedes all other commandments. When it comes to saving life not only is one “allowed” to break the commandments, but one is obligated to do so.
However there are three commandments in which death is preferable to transgression. These are: idolatry, murder and adultery.
So imperative is family purity in the Orthodox Jewish culture, that adultery is one of the only three commandments where you are required to choose death over transgression.
In order to maintain this purity much emphasis has been put on modesty, morality and family values. Boundaries are set by Rabbis and individuals take upon themselves either stronger or more lenient boundaries. But whichever way one leans, the ultimate goal of maintaining modesty will remain. Whatever boundaries or stringencies one accepts upon themselves will be kept under any circumstances. Some of these boundaries include, not shaking hands with a woman, not greeting a strange woman, not sitting next to a strange women, not accepting any item directly from the hands of a woman, not mingling with other women in any circumstances and some will even go so far as not to even acknowledge a strange woman’s presence in the room. This is not due to lack of respect, but a personal guideline to avoid any temptation whatsoever.
When a man doesn’t want to sit next to a strange women on an aircraft, or when a man doesn’t enter an elevator where he will be alone with another women it is because they don’t want to be in a situation where they’ll even for one second have a temptation of appreciating a strange women’s looks.
We live our lives according to tradition. We do have a choice. And our choice is to live our lives according to these traditions because our primary objective is to maintain the spirituality and family purity. And while some traditions may seem outdated, we understand that once we start letting go of our traditions, even minor ones, it is a slippery slope that may eventually lead to immorality and social strife. We trust our Rabbis to maintain our spiritual standard, and when they issue guidelines we not only accept them, but are happy and willing to follow them for the sake of the future of our generations.
And it’s not just men. Orthodox Jewish women abide by the same principles. They too don’t want to be put into a situation of even minimal temptation. Orthodox Jewish women will not shake a strange man’s hand, sit next to a strange man or mingle with them. And as nature has it that men are aroused more easily than women, the women will avoid doing anything that may cause a man to be aroused.
One of the primary principles is that girls and women avoid any behaviour that may incite a strange man. Modesty of dress is important; they wear only long sleeves, high necklines and their dresses must cover the knees. Tight or suggestive clothing is a complete no-no. Many women will take upon themselves more stringent boundaries such as only wearing wide skirts and covering their hair. Within the households many are extremely stringent not to bring in any outside female influences which includes clothing catalogues, magazines, movies and other media. Some even go so far as to not allow internet access in their homes. All this is done so as to sanctify the home to ensure the purity of future generations.
When Orthodox Jews have parades or celebrations and organize separate seating areas for men and women, this is not a form of segregation, it’s because we want women to enjoy the events with us and take part in the celebrations, women will not attend unless it is separated.
And we’re not really different to the general population. If you’re a non-Jewish person who doesn’t abide by those principles, ask yourself; would you allow your partner to have an affair with another man or woman? Would you allow them to kiss a strange man or woman? Would it be OK just to flash them? Of course not. You’ll probably be OK with a handshake, but you have guidelines too, the difference is that our guidelines are more stringent. Who is it to decide which guidelines are acceptable and which are not?
If one were to take a closer look at the Jewish community the result of these stringencies means that, unlike any other culture in the world, teenage pregnancies are practically non-existent, sex outside of marriage is more or less unheard of and even talk of sexual nature, except of that between husband and wife, is considered unacceptable. We have no gangs, no worries about kids bringing weapons to school, and as for drugs… it’s a foreign concept. All the social problems that plague the secular world are practically unheard of in our insular community.
This is not to say that the Orthodox Jewish community is uneducated or not up to date with news or world events. The community boasts successful businessmen and women, accountants, lawyers, doctors, politicians, financial advisers and even journalists and other media representatives.
The writer of this article has an 18 your old daughter. She has never dated, never gone out with a boy and other than having her mother explain to her about her period, she is totally unaware of the concept of sex. She knows nothing about it. When the time is ripe and she’ll get married she’ll be explained the facts of life in the most respectful and understanding way.
Yet, this 18 year old girl, who is not on Facebook or twitter, doesn’t have a blog, never watches television and doesn’t have internet access, has many qualifications, she has A-levels, GCSE, and has passed all of the national curriculums with top marks. She can name every British Prime minister going back generations, she can name every US President in order and she’ll name every European country in alphabetical order. She is fluent in three languages, she can do math without using a calculator and has a wide knowledge of History, Geography, Politics and Arts. And it’s not just her. This describes every Orthodox Jewish girl. Because their minds are not filled with immodest images and worries about dating, their brains are clear to actually be educated.
How does the community stay informed with current affairs? With the mass media celebrating sexuality and where moral values keep on plummeting, the Orthodox Jewish community has its own media outlets which comply with the most stringent boundaries set by individuals upon themselves, the newspapers have set extremely strong moral guidelines.
There are various Orthodox papers, with some catering specifically to women, where pictures of women are allowed, but still kept to an extremely modest standard. Each editor will set his or her own boundaries as to how much is permissible in their particular publication based on their target audience. Whilst a picture of a modestly dressed female politician will not be offensive to many, each paper must stick to the guidelines they have set so as not to alienate their target readership. If a paper has established, based on Rabbinical guidelines, that no pictures of women are to be included in their paper, they will stick to it. Even if the woman may be the President of the United States. This is because once the paper starts blurring the lines of what is and is not acceptable, it is a slippery slope and defeats the purpose of having an Orthodox Jewish publication.
At this point it is encumbent upon me to mention that the Orthodox Jewish media in general, will support female candidates. They will cover speeches, events, print campaign posters equally for men and women. What they will not do is print a picture of any female, whatever her station.
These traditions are not new, they go back since people were drawing hieroglyphics in caves, so it amazes me that the mass media is picking up on them now.
As to the claims that the Orthodox Jewish community cannot accept women in power, these preposterous allegations are widely disproven during the course of history. The Book of Esther is obviously named after the heroine, when it could just as well have been the Book of Mordechai. The Book of Ruth could well have been named the Book of Boaz. The Israelites have several Jewish Queens and even the non-Jewish ones like the Queen of Sheba are celebrated. And let’s not forget that the State of Israel had a female prime-minister long before the British had one and the Americans have yet to catch up.
In the course of the debate some have argued that by doing so, Hasidic Jews are degrading women, subjugate them and by accepting “culture” of leaving women out of photos or separating them, they are heading down a very slippery slope like burka and sharia. Someone noted that this will result on Hasidic Jews forcing their culture on everyone else. In fact Judaism is the only religion that does not send missionaries out to try to convert the general public. Anyone who wishes to convert is accepted, but it has to be their choice, with no force, intimidation or pressure involved.
Far from being subjugated and degraded, Jewish women are considered princesses. It is encumbent on the men to provide for their families whilst their wives maintain a kosher home and raise the family. Women are sheltered and protected, not because they are brow beaten and forced to remain locked indoors, but rather because she is considered a precious jewel, a diamond, which needs to be protected at all costs. The woman, whose primary job is to raise a family, is the matriarch, and the spiritual radiance that emanates from the souls and smiles of the children is to her credit and in her merit.
Yet, many Orthodox women are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, accountants, hold high executive positions and political offices. Not only do they hold those positions, they are even encouraged to do so. Orthodox Jews do not invoke the culture on any one else and except in rear occasions, like entering a synagogue, a non-Jewish or non Orthodox women entering a Jewish area will not even be asked to abide by the cultural guidelines.
The Jewish community is made up of several different sects, ranging from Conservatives, Progressives, Reform and extreme Liberals. Many of them have had a lifelong mission to assimilate the Orthodox community. They always represent the Orthodox as being stupid, naive and living in the dark-ages and this theory has been widely disproven judging by the successes of the community in general. Progressive newspapers, and all the other self-hating Jewish blogs, will never miss an opportunity to stick it to the Orthodox Jews and spin nothing into something when they know quite well where the Orthodox community are coming from.
Orthodox Jews have never expected for the general public to understand us, what we do ask is just as we accept and respect your choices for you to accept and respect our choices.