Sermon: On the Belzer Women Driving Ban

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 30 May 2015

A few years ago I gave a sermon on driving as a Jew.

I spoke about the values that might, indeed should, infuse our approach to the roads as Jews: I spoke about derech eretz, or good manners; erech apayim – being slow to anger; dan l’chaf zechut – giving the benefit of the doubt to others; ma’akeh – the obligation to care about and protect the welfare of others; dina d’malchuta dina – the law of the land is the land.

I thought the list was pretty comprehensive, but it turns out I missed something.

I forgot to mention tzniut – modesty.

But it appears from this week’s JC, and all sorts of other mainstream national and international news outlets, that tzniut is relevant to how – or rather who – can drive as a Jew.

If you’ve missed the story – and the Secretary of State for Education has most certainly not – a brief précis.

The story concerns a Hasidic group based in Stamford Hill, called the Belz.  Belz Hasidism was founded in the town of Belz in Western Ukraine in the early 19th century by Rabbi Shalom Rokeach.  As is the case in many Hasidic communities, leadership passes within the family, so that the current Belzer Rebbe, the fifth, is Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the great great great nephew of the first.

On his advice, the rabbis of the London Belz community have written a letter to their followers saying that women driving “dvar ha-nogeid et k’lalei ha-tzniut ha-n’hogim b’machaneinu.”  Women driving is “a matter against the rules of modesty practiced in our camp.”

There is particular concern about mothers driving children to school, so:

“We announce that from Rosh Chodesh Elul 5775, no male or female student will be allowed to study in our institutions if his or her mother is driving a car”.

The reaction of the broader Jewish community has been, in the main, to reject this as the behaviour of a small and marginal group, pointing out that some of the other larger Hasidic groups do not have similar rules (while ignoring that in none of them is women driving the norm).

Dina Brawer of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who has been one of the main protagonists in the media conversation has gone further and argued that the ruling has no basis in Jewish law and that it is ‘a draconian ban’ about control of women, that ‘masquerades as a halachic imperative’.

Dina Brawer is, alas, only half right.  She is right that it is a draconian ban about control of women.  But while it might make us feel better to dismiss this as the ruling of a fringe group with no halachic justification, this is not strictly true.

Because the ruling of the Belz rabbis is, in fact, a logical extension of the classical position of Jewish law.  The general approach to women’s lives in our tradition is predicated on the idea that men and women have distinct gender roles.  We can, of course, argue about the extent to which that remains true in the complex modern world, recognising that there are now multiple models of family life.  What I hope we would all agree on is that the gendered roles played by men and women today – if they exist – are very different to those in the historical and social context of Ancient Judea and Babylonia, 2000 years ago.  Yet it is that which is the basis of Jewish law – men and women exist in distinct spheres – the former in the study house, the prayer hall and the public sphere, the latter in the home.  When it comes to authority in the relationship, this falls within the domain of a man, with the treatment of a woman in halachah in many ways as a piece of chattel, transferred between a father’s house and a husband’s – an idea expressed in the ritual of our wedding ceremony.

It is this paradigm that shapes much of the law of tzniut, which, though normally translated as modesty, is really a more complicated concept of appropriate hiddenness.  It includes dressing appropriately for the exclusive attention of your husband or wife, but also a general theme – for women – of keeping oneself secluded.

This explains why, while we might argue that a woman driving a car is less ‘on show’ than a woman walking down the street – less of her can be seen, and behind glass – this misses the point.  The real issue is about presence in the public sphere at all.

The classical halachah here is well expressed by Moses Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish Law which was compiled between 1170 and 1180, when Maimonides was living in Egypt.  This is what he writes in his Hilchot Ishut, laws of marriage (13:11):

“In a place where it is customary for a woman to go out to the market place wearing a veil that covers her entire body like a cloak, her husband must provide at least the least expensive type of veil for her…

[This is] so she is able to visit her father’s home, a house of mourning or a wedding celebration. For every woman should be given the opportunity to visit her father, to go to a house of mourning or a wedding celebration… For a woman is not confined in a jail, from which she cannot come and go.

Nevertheless – and here comes the punch – it is shameful for a woman often to leave home – on this occasion to go outside, on another to go on the street.  A husband should prevent a wife from doing this and not allow her to go out more than once or twice a month, as is necessary.

For there is nothing more attractive for a woman than to sit in the corner of her home, as the verse states: “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within.”

This verse from Psalms (45:14) is the formative text for this stream of halachah – kol kevudah bat melech penima

Translated – well, mistranslated – as “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within” –   the role of a woman is to be within; to be a bride; to be, as the psalm continues, led inside to the king, to produce sons as successors.  In the Talmud – importantly, this is not a medieval addition but classical rabbinic discourse – the verse is brought as a proof text to show that women should stay at home and do not go into the open road even to meet members of their own sex.

This may seem extreme to us – from another time and world.  And it is.  But it presents an ideal of separate spheres which continues to echo throughout Jewish life – it remains the paradigm which shapes women’s relationships with the obligations of Jewish ritual life.  It is this idea – that women exist in a separate sphere, not the public or religious sphere – which excludes women, classically, from reading Torah (because of Kavod HaTzibbur – honour of the community) and according to some sources, even from studying Torah, as one Mishnaic source says, because “whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut – obscenity” (Mishnah Sotah 3:4).

It is the concept of separate spheres which means that women are exempted – not forbidden, but exempted – from certain mitzvot.  Those mitzvot are those known as ‘time bound positive mitzvot’, things that need to be done at a specific moment, such as laying tefillin or reciting the shema.  How could a women be obligated in these when they need to be in the other sphere, fulfilling their home duties?

And it is this exemption that prevents women from doing certain things on behalf of the community within classical halachah, such as acting as a shlichat tzibbur, leading the service.  This is because, to quote the Mishnah once again, “Whoever is not obligated [to perform] a religious duty cannot cause the congregation to fulfil their obligation [in that matter]” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8).

I am particularly delighted to speak about this this morning, because you, Connie [the Bat Mitzvah girl], are an exemplar of a different way of doing things, a different model of how gender can be in Jewish life.

You are the product of a model – a genuine, authentic, Jewishly grounded model – that says religion must reflect the reality of our lives. Just as it reflected the reality and religious values of the Sages who shaped it.  And we do not exist in separate spheres.  So why should our religious life pretend that we do, and why should we tolerate in religion something that we would not tolerate in other aspects of our lives?

So, Connie, you have done exactly what any boy in our community would do – you have read Torah, you have led us in prayer – these obligations apply to you utterly, because you exist fully in the same world as any boy in our community.

In truth, it is not good enough to reject the driving ban issued by the Belzer Rebbe as merely a fringe ruling.  It is the easy answer but it’s not true.  In the heart of our tradition – the tradition that we love and revere – there is an ideal that supports this kind of ruling.  So, if we think it is extreme, or weird, or draconian, or makes us the same as Saudi Arabia (as Dina Brawer states) then the answer is not to just reassure ourselves with simple platitudes.  When we are faced with a challenge such as this, the answer is to question that the edifice on which it is built is compromising of our integrity.

Of course, things within parts of Orthodoxy have changed a huge amount.  There are parts of the Masorti world in this country which have removed the concept of separate spheres.  But for most the basic underlying paradigm remains.

It is this, in its entirety that we need to move away from.  It is the great task of modern Judaism, in all its forms – not only in this space – to build a new model of gender on Jewish life, one of genuine, unflinching equality – on the road and in the shul.