It was revealed last week that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic sect Belz in north London has been forbidding women to drive. In fact, as was made clear in a call by “Joshua in Tottenham” to the LBC radio station they’ve been forbidding women to drive for about the past 60 or 70 years – it’s just that they only recently put it in writing, in a letter sent to parents of pupils at Belzer schools saying that children whose mothers drive them to school will not be admitted to class.
We all understand why driving is important: it is freedom. Even if you don’t intend to drive often, knowing how to drive means you can, in extremis, be useful in an emergency and get away from a bad situation quickly. Denying this right to women is shocking – and I thought I knew all the lowest points of the Orthodox Jewish community’s deeply embedded misogyny. The question it raises for me though is not: how can we stop such letters going out? But rather: how can we reach women who, as citizens of a free country, are living their lives like this?
I grew up an Orthodox Jew, although not a Belzer. In the community I come from, the modern Orthodox women drive, go to university, and have careers. But female relatives still told me – with my philosophy degree – that “a woman’s mind isn’t suitable for studying the Talmud”. They agreed that a woman can’t “pasken halacha”, that is be involved in making Jewish law, the equivalent of having the vote in the Orthodox Jewish world. I once attended a talk at an Orthodox synagogue entitled “the beauty of a woman is in her silence”. Really. The most striking thing to me – and most relevant in this context – was that the talk was delivered by a woman.
Therefore it doesn’t surprise me in the least that the women of Belz have issued a statement themselves. They support the driving ban. They “feel extremely valued belonging to a community where the highest standards of refinement morality and dignity are respected”. Well, sure. The idea that misogynist oppression is done by men to women is incredibly simplistic. Women can be just as sexist as men, both in the Orthodox Jewish world and everywhere else. Self-oppression is the most insidious form of tyranny and the hardest to root out.
The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has launched an inquiry into the school’s ban, which I welcome; the letter the school sent out was probably illegal. But make no mistake, rescinding it won’t get Belzer women driving.
So, what are we to do? It’s tempting to use this incident as an argument against faith schools, but even shutting down the schools wouldn’t alter Belzer women’s lives. Change in fundamentalist communities can’t be imposed from the outside – it must come from moderate voices of those still within the fold.
Where are the Jewish leadership organisations denouncing this extremism and offering to pay for driving lessons?
Dina Brawer – who hopes to be the first British woman to receive Orthodox rabbinical ordination – has called the ban sexist and embarrassing. Other Orthodox women’s voices have joined her. But I wish the office of the chief rabbi – supposedly a moderate and outward-facing organisation – had come up with more leadership than the milquetoast statement: “The Belz Hasidic dynasty has contributed significantly to the rich tapestry of our tradition, but this particular view is entirely removed from mainstream Jewish practice.” How about saying you condemn “this particular view”, Rabbi Mirvis, that you find it unsound in Jewish law? How about saying it’s regressive and brings shame on the entire Jewish community? How about using your position to say that until this ruling is changed, Belzer will no longer be welcome to take up honoured positions in synagogues under your authority: they won’t be counted in minyan prayer quorums, or allowed to be witnesses in your religious courts? These moves might be symbolic, but in the religious world symbols count for something.
Where is, for example, a letter signed by the headteachers of other Orthodox Jewish schools in London, censuring Belzer and offering places to any children who are excluded from Belzer schools? Where are the other Jewish leadership organisations denouncing this extremism and offering to use community funds to pay for any Belzer woman who wants driving lessons to have them, as a show of solidarity? Where are the Jewish charities, talking about what the ban on driving means for women?
We Jews like to think of ourselves as a model of immigration and integration; retaining our own ways of life while adopting British values. We like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient too, with our own strategies for dealing with our own problems. Well, it’s time to live up to our ideals. Let’s see moderate Judaism in Britain stand up to this one.