Erasing Women: On Haredi Judaism’s Influence in Israel

If a person needed further evidence that religious discrimination is alive and well, even in religions with many secular members, one need only look at the Haredi community in Israel.  Many of us living here in the United States see how Christianity’s influence on our government and society is causing problems, including violations of the separation of church and state and the promotion of discrimination against various groups.  There is a similar problem occurring in Israel, where Haredi Jews influence the government and promote discrimination.  In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Ruth Pollard writes, “Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community may be just a large (and growing) minority, but the impact of its deeply conservative values is being felt strongly in the country.”  She describes various ways in which the Haredi community discriminates, such as gender segregation, opposing and defacing advertisements which show women, and even insulting young girls going to school for being “immodestly dressed”.  There are also problems caused by vandalism of buildings, Haredi influence on the government on the issue of settlements, and the fact that Haredi are exempt from general educational requirements.[1]  There are some other bloggers, a couple of whom are mentioned in the acknowledgements, who have written blog entries about the harm done to women by the Haredi community in response to this article, and I thought I should write about it as well, as it is important.

Treating women as the enemy is feature common to many religions, including the Abrahamic faiths.  It serves to virtually erase women and betrays a belief that women are not equally human — a belief that when making decisions, the effects on women should be disregarded.  The holy books of these religions address men and instruct them concerning the rules they should follow and the rules they should impose on others, including women.  Upon reading these texts, it becomes apparent that females are seen as property, as slaves, as subordinate to males rather than equal members of a society.  There are various ways, some of which are discussed in the article, in which these discriminatory beliefs are put into practice.

These religious beliefs encourage people to obsess over the amount of a female’s skin that is uncovered.  The way a woman is dressed receives lot of attention, and telling her what to wear is considered appropriate.  These clothing requirements are based, not on what she wants to wear or on other reasonable considerations (e.g. comfort, safety, appropriateness for certain tasks), but based on the idea that certain types of dress are a sign of virtue.  Women are taught that they should expect (and deserve) insults and attacks if they don’t follow the religion’s dress code.  Despite the claims made about religion being a source of meaning and morality, the outrageous offense that is taken at the sight of uncovered skin indicates a worldview that is shallow beyond measure.  It actually teaches people to judge a woman’s morality based on what she is wearing and to excuses immoral attacks on women on the basis of clothing.

Gender segregation teaches people to feel uncomfortable interacting with those of a different gender and to automatically be suspicious of “immoral” actions if the rules of segregation are broken.  What others in the community think of a relationship is considered more important than the autonomy of the people in the relationship.  Similar to the rules about clothing, this segregation actually teaches immorality in the guise of morality.  Rather than teaching people to treat others with respect, these ideologies teach that a person’s life and the details of their relationships with others should be based on dictates from a few people who have decided that they know the true word of the Almighty.

The exemption from educational requirements serves to exacerbate the problem, with children receiving religious indoctrination in the place of secular education, in order to propagate the religious beliefs down the generations.  Great attempts are made to preserve old ideas and place barricades around people’s minds, to prevent ideas of secularism and equality from entering and gaining favor.   There is suspicion of the secular, an insistence that secular society is a threat to the religion being defended.  This is doubly ironic:  First, because it is due to secularism that members of various religions, including those who are in the minority, are able to practice their religions without being persecuted.  Second, because in the Hebrew Bible God treats everyone, including his Chosen People, horribly.  It is not secularism that is insulting, but rather the immorality that is recommended by God, and which is carried out by the most fundamentalist members of various faiths.

It isn’t surprising to me that the most ultra-Orthodox group within Judaism treats women badly, because it is in fact a tenant of their religion.  It is difficult to ignore the parts of scripture which mandate discriminatory rules, because they are prevalent throughout the Hebrew Bible.  There are many other people in Israel, of course, who do not agree with the Haredi.  There are Jews who are members of different denominations and those who are secular.  The Haredi, however, have scriptural support for their actions.  Therein lies the problem:  Though there are many religious people who favor equality and secularism, it is difficult to find a way to reconcile these good ideas with the bad ideas in religion.  If someone believes that a certain book should be followed unquestioningly, and that book advocates discrimination, then it’s difficult to convince them to stop discriminating without also convincing them that the book is incorrect on at least some matters.

Is there hope in such a situation?

The problem here is the worldview.  Worldviews based on obedience and fear, rather than equality and rights, lead to horrible discriminatory actions like this.  Worldviews which value tradition over thought, sacred texts over reality, and God over humanity lead to abuses like this — and that is why I cannot believe, not even for a second, that equality and respect are compatible with the most orthodox, fundamentalist readings of scripture.

Still, I tend to be hopeful for humanity.  Although I believe that the contents of scripture are discriminatory, I also believe it is possible to promote equal rights successfully.  Any efforts to promote equal rights for women, though, must address the religious contribution to discrimination.  Though it is not the only factor, it is one of them — and it’s one that is defended and protected from criticism even by those who actually don’t practice most of its teachings.  Those teachings need to be brought to light in order for people to contrast them with reality.  Hopefully, more people will realize that women should be treated as fellow human beings, according to the reality in front of their eyes, rather than obeying ideologies which contradict reality.

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Related Reading and Acknowledgements

I found Pollard’s article via an entry by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels.[2]  Much thanks to her for writing about the way women are treated in religion, a topic which she frequently addresses on her blog.

Adam Lee’s Religion Imprisons Women is worth reading as are his previous blog entries on this topic, some of which he links to in this entry.[3]  He’s written often about the treatment of women in religion an also specifically about the Haredim.


References

[1] Pollard, Ruth.  When women and girls are the enemy.  Posted on 21 November 2011 at The Sydney Morning Herald.  Retrieved on 9 December 2011 from http://www.smh.com.au/world/when-women-and-girls-are-the-enemy-20111118-1nn4d.html.

[This article was first published in Saturday’s News Review section of The Sydney Morning Herald.]

[2] Benson, Ophelia.  Deface them.  Posted on 19 November 2011 at Butterflies and Wheels.  Retrieved on 28 November 2011 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2011/11/deface-them/.

[3] Lee, Adam.  Religion Imprisons Women.  Posted on 28 November 2011 at Daylight Atheism.  Retrieved on 28 November 2011 from http://bigthink.com/ideas/41278.

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One thought on “Erasing Women: On Haredi Judaism’s Influence in Israel

  1. Throughout history, halacha has addressed issues on the basis of circumstance and precedent. There have been some significant adaptations over the centuries, including more formal education for women in the early twentieth century, and the application of halacha to modern technology. While Haredim have typically been more conservative than their Modern Orthodox counterparts regarding new practices and rulings on new applications of halachic concepts, Orthodox Judaism views these types of innovations as consistent with traditionally expounded halachic concepts. Haredi Orthodoxy’s differences with Modern Orthodoxy usually lie in interpretation of the nature of traditional halachic concepts and in understanding of what constitutes acceptable application of these concepts to the modern world.

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