Blurring democracy: the Orthodox vision of respecting women

Posted on October 21, 2012 by


It was my first time at the Western Wall. It should have been a beautiful and emotional moment, one that allowed me to connect to the history of the Jewish people. And yet, something irked me. Perhaps it was the shoulder and knee coverings I was required to wear in the brutal heat. Perhaps I was suffocated by the crowd of women crammed into a fraction of the wall’s length. Or, it may have been the stifling atmosphere of only being allowed to pray silently.

Though I had known these policies existed, policies espoused by the ultra-Orthodox, experiencing them firsthand was a stomach-dropping shock. The more I saw of Israel, the more closely I questioned the status of women in a supposed “Western-style” democracy. I had never viewed the Orthodox movement back in the U.S. as a threat, mainly because it seemed to be contained within very tight-knit communities, unwilling to fraternize with outsiders.

When I returned home, I looked into the various ways the ultra-Orthodox attempt to preserve the Halacha, and the collateral damage their strict adherence to those laws inflicts upon women. One method that caught my attention was through the use of eyeglasses. Historically intended to improve vision, they have now taken on a new function within the ultra-Orthodox community: blurring reality.

For the ultra-Orthodox male wary of the sight of exposed women, the Committee for Purity in the Camp offers a range of products designed to keep his thoughts pure and his behavior rigidly halachic. Such products include stickers for glasses which distort everything further than a few meters away, non-prescription glasses that serve the same purpose, and scarves for eye protection. For the high risks involved in air travel, portable screens are available to block out passerby females and in-flight movie actresses.

Theoretically, these proactive methods of respecting women by maintaining their modesty for them (otherwise known as observing tzniut) are benign, aside from the possible risk of walking into a wall or falling down an unassuming stairway. However, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, who, according to a 2010 Israel Central Bureau of Statistics study, make up eight percent of its citizens, are the fastest-growing segment of the population. With increased numbers comes increased societal and political power, in effect shaping Israel into a more fundamentalist state than ever before.

Haredi-style neighborhood watch services, sometimes colloquially known as “Modesty Mobs,” patrol for indecent activities, generally within their own cloistered communities. The Committee for the Purity in the Camp is one such self-appointed Haredi group (of the Eida Haredit faction) which dictates social decorum. According to a story published on October 12, 2011 by The Jerusalem Post, the Committee issued a decree that the Orthodox women of the Mea She’arim community should avoid the main streets where the Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations would be taking place.

Only recently, in Beitar Illit, the Committee allegedly signed posters featuring the picture of a woman and her full name, condemning her for not marrying halachically. In other instances, images of women in public places are often covered up on billboards and newspapers. On one notable occasion (the raid on Bin Laden’s compound), the Hasidic paper Der Tzitung published a picture of the White House staff with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton photoshopped out.

The rights of all Jewish women are threatened by blindly following outdated, fundamentalist laws. If such behavior is becoming a social norm in the frum parts of Israel, the democratic identity of Israel is at risk. Democracies require sociopolitical pluralism, and the strict divide between the secular and the Orthodox in Israel does not allow for other forms of religious lifestyles. Were more options recognized by the government, perhaps a greater fraction of the population might be inclined to join less fundamentalist sects.

Unfortunately, the religious authority in Israel is often unwilling to embrace other movements within Judaism. This past Rosh Hashanah, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel declared Reform Judaism to be a threat, encouraged solitary prayer over reform services, and described reform marriages as invalid, according to The Jewish Daily Forward. Not until May 2012 have the reform and masorti (conservative) Jewish movements been formally recognized by the government.

Despite the new legal rulings recognizing female reform rabbis, women continue to be arrested when conducting traditional services at the Western Wall (most recently Anat Hoffman). When fundamentalism endangers opposing beliefs, the democratic principle of equality may crack. If women are to be truly treated with respect and dignity, they must be equal both under the law and in society.

Please note: the opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Ha’Am Newsmagazine.