I usually tend to avoid getting into debates about the cultural values of the Orthodox way of life. We live our lives to a certain standard, which is oft times difficult to explain to those who are not part of our community. I may engage in a light-hearted discussion, but for the most part, I will listen to the rantings of the uninitiated with some amusement and a tentative shake of the head. I don’t expect people who are not part of my culture to live by my moral standard, I don’t force them to accept it, I don’t try to impose my beliefs on to them. What I do ask, and what I do expect, is for them to respect my choice, my decision and my beliefs in the same way I respect their choice not to agree to it.
Which is why, when this story about women being banned from driving exploded, I decided to come out from the shadows.
A few weeks ago, the Belz Rabbi in Jerusalem posted letters to all the members of the Belz sect worldwide advising them that women are banned from driving. In fact, this is no new edict, this was just a reiteration of a tradition that has been set from the time when the idea of driving became popular by the general public. Most of us, received the letter, read the letter, accepted its contents and threw the letter in the bin. It was a non issue. Nobody in the entire Belz community, no man, no woman, no child even thought to complain. And nobody even wanted to.
And then somehow the letter fell into the wrong hands. The story was picked up by the Jewish Chronicle, who are notorious for their anti Orthodox bias and the story exploded out of all proportion. Suddenly the mass media is coming out in “defence” of women, saying that they are forced to live their lives in a certain way, that the choice has been taken away from them and these rules have been imposed upon them.
Let me make it very clear: I am an Orthodox Jewish woman, belonging to the Belz sect and I do not feel hard done by, I do not feel degraded, I do not feel oppressed. I live my life in this way because I CHOOSE to. Not because I am forced to. Now before you argue that I am oppressed and subjugated and forced to accept this let me tell you a little bit about myself.
I am a divorced woman and I have one child with special needs, who attends a school that is not affiliated at all with the Belz sect. The fact of my child’s disabilities would give me approval by the Rabbincal authorities to drive, as they do give dispensations in special cases. I have no husband telling me what I can and can’t do and no school telling me that my child wouldn’t be allowed to attend if I drive. And yet, I CHOOSE not to do so. Belz is a vibrant, friendly, understanding and accepting sect. When I need help I know my fellow Belz members will be there for me. When I need advice the Rabbi is only a phone call way. I CHOOSE to be part of this group because as a member I am awarded with certain benefits and privileges. Belz is my family. And if the Rabbi wishes his followers to abide by this tradition, I CHOOSE to do so. Because my family values are important to me. It is my absolute choice.
The mass media is getting hysterical trying to defend a sub-culture that neither wants nor needs to be defended. It is sort of ironic, that the whole argument hinges upon the basis of equality and giving women the right to choose, when the patriarchal mass media is now falling over themselves to defend the “voiceless” women of the Jewish community, when nobody has bothered asking these women what they think.
In the words of Voltaire (attributed) “few things are as nauseating as vested interest masquerading as moral righteousness.” The Jewish Chronicle published this story with indignation about the segregation and degradation of women whilst their real agenda is propagating their anti-Orthodox bias.
However, I do appreciate that for those who do try to understand our culture, this ban may seem a little bit extreme. And for those of you who do have an open mind I will try to explain.
In Orthodox Jewish culture, spiritual morality and family purity are of paramount importance. We live our lives by a certain moral code because we want to maintain that spiritual standard at all costs. As with all communities and other large groups, we have hierarchical governing bodies, which in our case is made of learned Rabbis, who study the Talmud and other teachings daily, and we trust them, and their judgement as to the best way to maintain the high moral code we have chosen to live by. We trust in the absolute judgement of the Rabbinical authority that their primary objective is to maintain our spirituality.
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.
And thus certain traditions, strictures and guidelines were set up by the Rabbinical authorities to maintain the modesty and to protect the jewels of our nation: the woman and mothers. There is not an iota of degradation in being a woman in the Orthodox Jewish community. On the contrary, she feels cherished and protected.
You may argue that times have changed and we need to move with the times. Now let’s just explore that for a moment. Yes, times have changed… and how. Just take a peek at how immorality has exploded in recent years. Teenage pregnancies, kids selling drugs on street corners, gangs, guns, violence… all this a result of the fact that traditional family values have become all but a relic to be studied in the history books. None of this is an issue in the Jewish community. Of course, there are isolated cases, because no community is immune, but these cases are extremely few and far between. Sex outside of marriage is practically unheard of, 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.
Why? One word: Tradition.
We live our lives according to tradition. Yes, we move with the times. Many women do go out to work and are even encouraged to do so, if they so choose. 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. We understand that once we start letting go of our traditions it is a slippery slope that leads 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.
It is our choice!
To the general populace, not having the freedom of driving may be considered a huge inconvenience, and in general terms I would agree. However, what the social media has failed to point out in all their reporting of this story is how the community accommodates all the needs, and therefore women not only don’t need to drive, but don’t even want to.
An average sized Orthodox Jewish family is made up of approximately 6 -7 children, with many having even more than that.
Imagine if a woman who is raising a family of that size had the responsibility of driving her children to school, doing the shopping and running a million other errands? She would be harried and exhausted before the day even began.
However, our community is set up in such a way to accommodate the needs of the large family.
Every single school without fail has their own school van to drive the children to and from school. Of course, there is a fee, but petrol, road tax and MOT is far more expensive. There isn’t a single Jewish shop in Stamford Hill, whether they sell groceries, vegetables, meat, fish or whatever else one may need to provide for a family, that doesn’t provide a same day delivery service free of charge. One can even buy toys, clothes, wine and flowers over the phone and have it delivered the same day. Specialised stores may charge a nominal delivery fee, but as mentioned earlier, running a car costs money too.
When it comes to attending weddings, some of which are held a little bit out of the area, there is a service called the “Wedding Link.” For each wedding, they provide a car service that picks up women at pre-arranged meeting points. There are several conveniently located meeting points so no woman has to walk for more than 2-3 minutes to find her nearest one.
Another service called “Chesed” which translates to “kindness” provides drivers, who generously volunteer their time to drive people to and from hospital, be it for an appointment or to visit an inpatient.
If every woman was allowed to drive, these organisations would not exist, and the workload of the mothers would increase exponentially.
It is because of these strictures, because of these traditions, that we have the peace of mind and are able to maintain the spiritual standard we have set for ourselves.
We choose to live in this way. Our community supports our choice.
We don’t ask for you to accept it or even understand it.
But we do ask that you respect it.