Over the last week, article after article have condemned the ruling of the Ultra-Orthodox Belz community, who announced that women are not allowed to drive, and that children of mothers who do drive will face expulsion from their schools.
Yet I think that our response to Belz actually tells us an awful lot about ourselves – namely, that just as we accuse Belz of burying their head in the sand regarding modern norms, we bury our head in the sand when it comes to the contents of Jewish tradition. In our justifiable desire to condemn a clearly harmful decision, we overstep the boundary, and engage in rhetoric that reflects a lack of intellectual honesty, rewriting Jewish tradition to make us feel good about ourselves.
Let me take, for example, the article by Dina Brawer, a leader of the Orthodox feminist movement in England. The article, entitled “Real Orthodox Jews don`t ban women from driving” makes the claim that the idea of banning women from driving is “absolutely unheard of in Judaism, having no basis in any Jewish text.” What Mrs Brawer has done here is not merely to condemn the decision by Belz (I stress, a condemnation that I totally agree with). She has made the bold claim that there is absolutely no basis for the position taken by Belz in Jewish texts, and “real” Judaism does not believe in this.
Yet this simplistic approach is demonstrably false. Is there really no basis whatsoever in Jewish texts for a curtailing of women`s freedoms, when Maimonides writes in his code of law that, “A man should let his wife out of the house once or twice a month”? Does our conceptions of women`s freedoms really fit with the statement of the Sages of the Midrash that Dina, the daughter of Jacob, was punished because she left her house? Does our view of women`s rights fit comfortably with the Sages` praise of Tamar, the daughter in law of Judah, for veiling her entire body, save one eye to allow her to see? (And let me really raise the stakes here by asking the following question to Mrs Brawer particularly – if the legitimacy of ideas is judged by extent to which they have a “basis in Jewish texts,” is there not more basis in Jewish texts for the curtailing of women`s rights, than for the ordination of a woman as a Rabbi, something that Mrs Brawer plans to do?)
Do I believe that women cannot leave their houses, or must veil their entire body? Of course not! The achievement of women`s rights is unquestionably one of the most important developments in recent, even human, history, and one that is certainly compatible with Judaism. There are countless times over Jewish history where Judaism has been enriched by incorporating the norms, ideas and changes of the societies around us, and a changing place for women in Judaism is just one example of this. There is a very strong basis in Judaism for women`s rights – not least, the fact that the classic verse in Bereshit symbolising female subjugation, “And He (your husband) shall rule over you,” is expressed as a punishment for the Sin in the Garden of Eden – female subjugation was not in God`s initial plan for the world.
But my beliefs about the changing place of women does not mean that I feel the need to rewrite Jewish tradition so that every Jewish text over the past three thousand years is fully in accordance with the liberal values which I believe today. If we, as modern Jews, accuse Belz of burying their heads in the sand, and failing to deal with the reality of our world, then I would accuse many of us of burying our heads in the sand, and failing to deal with the complexity of our tradition.
Simplistically ignoring those elements of our tradition that do not fit our values today is an affront to our intellectual honesty. To argue with our more extreme coreligionists that their rulings are not “real” Judaism is counterproductive, as it is engaging in a debate that we will actually lose. I am proud, as a Jew, to believe in women`s rights. But equally, in the name of intellectual honesty, I refuse to rewrite three thousand years of Jewish tradition in order to fit my values.