How dare Nahamu stigmatise strictly-Orthodox marriage

Guests celebrate at a Jewish wedding (This wedding took place before the pandemic). Via Jewish News
Guests celebrate at a Jewish wedding (This wedding took place before the pandemic). Via Jewish News

It’s astonishing.  How has a connection between forced marriages and the Charedi community made its way into the public sphere? As if we don’t have enough with the old tropes.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, forced marriage is completely alien to Judaism.  It is unequivocal. Any form of coercion is a complete violation of halacha (Jewish law).  This is not only the case before marriage, but during marriage as well.  Marital rape was halachically banned many centuries before being finally put on the UK statute books.  If there is a whiff of coercion, no rabbi would proceed with a marriage ceremony. If he did, the marriage would be invalid.  It is as simple as that.

My wonderful colleague Malky Davidovits is one of the privileged educators who teach brides-to-be in Stamford Hill.  She teaches the halachos of consent with the seriousness they warrant.  Of the many young women she has mentored, she has never come across someone whom she feared was marrying as a result of pressure.

We need to clear up some of the myths that others are promulgating.

First, the institution of Charedi life, the ‘shidduch’, is not an arranged marriage; it is an arranged introduction comprising a series of meetings or dates.  A person is ‘on a shidduch’.  You ask ‘how’s the shidduch going?’ You bemoan that ‘the shidduch collapsed’.  The rest of the world has caught on and now dating websites and agencies are pretty standard as a way to find a partner.

Second, the choice of the young people in this process is paramount.  The suggestion that somehow a truncated shidduch process equates to coercion is disgusting.  I come from a family of generations of devout chasidim.  My five sisters and I met varying numbers of suitors over different periods of time.  We all said no before we said yes, except for my youngest sister Miriam, who engaged herself to the very first person she met.  She was no more forced than any of us.

Tragically, abuse can happen anywhere and takes many forms.  We all need to be alert to it and call it out.  Coercing someone into a marriage is one particular form of abuse but it is not linked in any way to the Charedi community.  Nor did the prime minister say it was.  The twisted headline making its way around world media last week was a distortion of a bland Downing Street statement saying that forced marriages are not specific to any community but are an abhorrence that can happen anywhere.

Reading Nahamu’s ‘Charedi forced marriages’ manifesto and observing the ruthless way it has been promoted, explains a lot about how Nahamu often attempts to demonise Charedim.  The rolled-up case study presented by Nahamu is wildly remote from normal people’s experience or of what halacha permits.  Of course even a single incident is a violation and a crime.  But it is completely wrong to put this forward as representative of a communal problem.

In my role at Interlink, I’ve now been working with grassroots Jewish social activists for well over two decades.  We’ve been privileged to know and support many dedicated people determined to right inequalities and injustice.  Good, true activism is easily recognised.  Here is an example of what it looks like.

Some years ago, a young chasid got in touch.  He was starting a new initiative to improve how young men are prepared for future married life and asked to use Interlink’s offices for a series of training workshops.  He was keen to use our video conferencing facilities to link with trainers from overseas.

What motivated him?  He didn’t share the trigger, but there always is one.  He spoke with conviction and shining integrity.  He believed that change was needed.

He mobilised.  He consolidated a network of sensitive, experienced, wise educators; secured support from Rabbonim and leaders; organised regular training and professional development; and created a quality assurance system.   In doing so, he has made an immense contribution and is now working with others to roll out his model for young women.

This is an example of good social activism.  Bad activism, as Jews well recognise, has no scruples about distorting the truth, is disinterested in achieving progress, and is intent of demonising the objects of its campaign.

If you asked my sister Miriam, a successful clinical speech therapist, about Charedi forced marriages, she would be bemused.  What does it have to do with her or her community?  According to Nahamu, she and others may be in a forced marriage, but just don’t recognise it.  According to Nahamu, they have been ‘groomed’ from childhood into the normative communal way of meeting husbands.  They are coerced by a system, perhaps not unlike the way that Jews are raised to be Jews.

If Miriam deigned to reply to this absurdity, she would be forthright: “I am a blessed woman with a stable family and faithful husband, surrounded by love.  I cherish my way of life.  How dare you deny my agency? Who do you think you are to tell me how to find my life’s partner?  How dare you denigrate and stigmatise my way of life?”

 

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About the Author
Chaya is Chief executive of the Interlink Foundation
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