A little over 14 years ago after my youngest daughter was born, my mother-in-law treated my wife to a few days at a post-natal care center in Lakewood, New Jersey. These facilities are generally utilized as respites by ultra-Orthodox Jewish women who have busy households with many young children awaiting them immediately after childbirth. Thus, it was atypical for my wife, who is Modern Orthodox, to be there. Still, there was a wonderful comeraderie among the women of different backgrounds; Lakewood “Yeshiva” types, Boro Park Chassidim, more stringent Williamsburg Chassidim, and, of course, my wife. In one conversation my wife was involved in, one of the Lakewood women casually mentioned something about driving her kids somewhere. Incredulous, one of the Williamsburg women interrupted her and gasped in her thick Yiddish accent, “You Drive? Your Husband Lets?”

There was a kerfuffle recently in the Stamford Hill neighborhood of North London over a private Jewish school’s announced policy to expel the children of any mother who was seen driving her children to school. Some Jewish Chassidic sects, such as Belz in this case, have restricted women from driving for decades. It happened to make the news and social media circuit now because this Yeshiva tried to up the ante by giving the ruling some teeth. Apparently, this was because some of the women in the Belz community were getting uppity and violating the longstanding ban. Regardless, this is just one of countless restrictions Chassidic Jews acquiesce to on a regular basis.

Understandably, we “enlightened” folks were all in a tizzy about this. How could anyone tell a woman living in a modern, democratic nation not to drive in the 21st century? In fact, as a result of the social and political outcry, the school was forced to reverse its policy. Even with the reversal, it’s unlikely much will change. Living within a restrictive religious society requires conformity and even if there are no specific penalties enforcing compliance, social pressure keeps people in line. (Of course, all social structures have some level of peer enforced strictures, but those of religious sects tend to be far more numerous than in normative society.)

While such an extreme restriction on what appears to us typical Westerners as a mundane facet of everyday life seems bizarre, one can see a certain level of hypocrisy in the venomous outcry against this “outrage” by many of my Modern Orthodox peers. Though we Modern Orthodox Jews fancy ourselves to be at the pinnacle of integration between secular society and Orthodox Judaism, we actually live in proverbial glass houses. While we are hurling stones of disdain and condescension at those “religious fanatics” for being, in this case, misogynist in not “letting” their women drive, we fail to see the stones that could be coming our way for what could easily be perceived as our own misogyny. For example, most married women in Modern Orthodoxy cover their hair with a scarf or even a wig, women in general follow some level of restriction on how they dress, they sit separately from men in synagogue and do not participate in services, they cannot be rabbis or cantors, nor are they counted as part of a “minyan.” Imagine how this all looks to the “enlightened” people outside of our glass houses!

My issue here is not to condemn the practices of orthodox Judaism. There are plenty of bloggers out there doing that. However, as denizens of liberal democracies, a cornerstone of our ideology is to allow freedom of religious practice. Though this mainly refers to government interference, if we are going to be intellectually honest, our actualization of this ideal should be to at least tolerate the religious practices of other consenting adults. On the other hand, taken too far, such tolerance can lead to the creation of a relativistic black hole where anything goes.

As is so often the case with these philosophical issues, the question is; where do you draw the line? When do you look at a religious practice and say this has gone too far, it’s time to get the government/authorities involved? When is right for one to no longer tolerate the religious practices of others? Below, are a few red lines I’ve thought of:

  • Child welfare – When a religious practice has the potential to seriously impact the physical or psychological well-being of a child. Obviously, the definition of “serious” is a gray area. And given that we do and should allow parents some latitude in rearing their children, the threshold should be pretty high, but it should exist.
  • Abuse – When someone, adult or child, is forced to conform to a religious practice under threat of physical or psychological abuse. Possibly even if the practice itself could be deemed abusive, but again that would require a high threshold.
  • Groups/Sects – When an organized group or sect attempts to force people to conform to religious practices under threat of physical or psychological harm. Or even, in general, when they attempt to impose their practices, by any means, on the broader society.
  • Security – In some cases the need to secure society may outweigh an individual’s religious freedom. Face covering veils come to mind as an example.

I’m sure there are other red lines that could limit tolerance of religious freedoms and I’d be happy to hear suggestions. Also, none of this is to say that we have to like or agree with what we consider to be extreme or regressive behavior in the name of religion. We also have a right to speak our minds about it. But, in general, I think it’s fair to say that, as people who greatly value the liberties afforded us by democratic society, we should be very circumspect about attempts to curtail those liberties when practiced freely by our fellow citizens.

So, as long as that woman from Williamsburg and the women from Stamford Hill have chosen to be a part of a patriarchal religious society that lets the men around them decide how it’s best for them to serve God, then, to paraphrase Voltaire, while we may not agree with their religious life choices, we have an obligation to defend their right to make them.