Hassidic wedding - Mizrahi - Feb 2012
A Hassidic wedding (photograph used for illustrative purposes only). Photo by Lior Mizrahi / BauBau
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When R. was a girl, she came into the possession of the books in the "Anne of Green Gables" series, which her parents did not allow her to read. One Yom Kippur, when her family was at synagogue, she slipped away from the women's section. In her parents' room she shed a tear when the protagonists, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, kissed for the first time. When she became engaged a year later, she expected that some of her innocent, romantic fantasies would come true in her own marriage.

On her wedding night, her brand-new husband called her into the living room, where a large picture of the Admor of Gur - the rabbinic leader of that Hasidic sect - hung on the wall. He told her she had to imagine the rebbe's face when she observed the mitzvah of ishut (conjugal relations ), so that she would have "righteous" children.

As she tells this story, R., who is now 30 years old, shakes her short-cropped head as if in disbelief. A few years ago, already the mother of two children, she divorced her husband and left the Gur Hasidic sect.

R. was outraged by the research, whose findings were described last week in Haaretz, about the concept of kedusha (sanctity ) among Gur Hasidism, which revealed the ethos of prishut (separation ) and its strict practices aimed at restraining sexuality. According to her, the depiction of these sacred strictures as merely a supreme value, to which the Hasidim are prepared to devote themselves totally, is imprecise, to put it mildly.

Gur is a large Hasidic sect, numbering tens of thousands of members. Most of them follow the "official line" they are taught in their schools and yeshivas. However, quite a considerable number observe the strictures only during the first years of their marriage, and thereafter see them as guidelines that can be relaxed in the privacy of their own homes.

R. and her girlfriends who were raised in hard-core Gur families - some of whom left Hasidism by the skin of their teeth - speak of the heavy psychological price paid by women living in a world where kedusha constitutes an ongoing, restrictive way of life, imposed with severe emotional coldness. They describe a society in which the men, who until their wedding night hardly ever have looked directly at a woman, keep their distance and alienate themselves from their wives as well.

The women's descriptions were embellished by male former Gur Hasidim who spoke about the implications of being educated toward a life of prishut. Out of the desire to maintain their relationships with family members who are still part of the Gur community, most of the speakers preferred not to identify themselves by name.

According to Dr. Benjamin Brown, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, criticism of the regulations laid down by the late Rabbi Israel Alter (also known as the Beis Yisroel ), who led Gur from 1948 to 1977, goes back as far as the 1960s. Among the critics was Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899-1985 ), known as the Steipler. Kanievsy was the brother-in-law of the world-renowned rabbinical authority Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (the "Hazon Ish," who lived 1878-1953 ) and the father of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leading rabbinical authorities in Bnei Brak today.

The Steipler wrote that one should not necessarily act according to the sect's strict regulations, which he said mainly cause suffering to women. To this day his views are studied in instruction sessions for bridegrooms in the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ) ultra-Orthodox community, who are encouraged not to refrain from sexual relations. Among other things, the Steipler wrote: "It is known that a woman's main hope in her world is to have a husband who loves her ... but heaven forfend that he observe the measure of prishut, whereby he hurts his wife."

The commandants

R. was considered a good and pious student at the seminary for young women where she studied. Her family, which had a lofty status within Gur, arranged a match with a groom who did not deviate one iota from the doctrine of kedusha.

"My family," R. recalls, "were good people with good values, but my husband was the product of his education. In Gur sex is a sin. He was convinced that if he loved one woman, this would be a slippery slope and he would become a pervert. The men are severely warned about this."

At the only encounter she had with him before the engagement, R. did not like her designated groom, she says, "But I thought that if the Rebbe of Gur says it's suitable, then it's suitable. The Rebbe is not God's messenger on earth: He is God."

At the wedding, she recalls, "When we were in yihud [where the couple is left alone immediately after the wedding ceremony], he kept making sure that the fabric of my dress wouldn't touch him. My feeling was that he found me disgusting."

Nevertheless, R. says she wanted to love the man who was intended for her: "I kept trying to connect with him, even during the time I was fighting the rules [of kedusha]. I tried to explain to him that this [sort of life] was irrational. But that didn't help."

In Gur Hasidism, there is a network of men called commandants, who counsel the young grooms regarding marital relations. If there is one thing L., a friend of R.'s, could not stand in her marriage, she notes, it was the commandant's intervention in her intimate life.

L.: "Early on in my marriage, it sometimes happened that at 1:30 A.M. on the night of my immersion [in the mikveh, or ritual bath, to render her pure for marital relations], he would phone to consult. The commandant told my husband to set a clock for 3 A.M. because only until dawn is it possible to observe the mitzvah. We fell asleep and suddenly the alarm clock rang. It was pitch dark - because in marital relations you cover even the light of the clock. I didn't wake up. The whole evening I had cleansed myself in order to be immersed in the purification pool at the mikveh. I had worked that day. I was tired. And nevertheless he performed the mitzvah. If that isn't rape, what is it? That's how we started out life. Already the next day, you are ritually impure."

D., a former Gur member who also fled the sect with her two children, describes entire nights when she sat in the bathroom and wept because her husband treated her cruelly. "While I would cry, he would be fast asleep in his bed, a meter and a half from me, clutching his tzitzit, with an angelic smile on his face," she relates.

D.'s husband, who actually came from a more open family and thus presumably wasn't committed to kedusha, used the regulations as a weapon against her. Sara Einfeld, a former Gur Hasid, says: "Men are liable to use this to control their wives and avoid treating them well, in the guise of spiritual 'elevation.'"

Yiddishkeit

Y., a Gur Hasid, sent me the following message: "It is important to me that our outcry reach the sane world," he wrote.

We met under the cover of darkness in a secular neighborhood in Jerusalem. A fellow in his late 20s, Y. appears to be a full-fledged Gur Hasid, but inwardly he has stopped believing and he abhors the sect's rules.

"When I was nine or 10 years old," he recalls, "the mashgiah [supervisor] at the heder called the children in for personal talks. That's how I understood for the first time that there are things about the body that are forbidden. In the conversations with the counselors the feeling is that they are walking on eggshells. On the one hand they are warning you [about sex] and on the other hand trying to withhold information that there is such a thing as sex. There is a code name for this: Yiddishkeit [Jewishness, a Jewish way of life].

"When I was 15 the mashgiah interrogated me, asking: 'What happens with you at night in bed?' He became all serious when I told him - completely naively. 'These are absolute prohibitions,' he reprimanded me. I was very upset and kept thinking how I could do penitence. This is the main frame of mind in Gur, beating your breast for the terrible sin of sexuality."

Y. learned to walk along side streets quickly, and with his eyes cast down: "We didn't know what we were missing out on. I wasn't even thinking about women then. I didn't see my body. At the mikveh we'd compete to see who could go in and get out the fastest. There was one boy who managed to take his dip and get dressed, all in nine minutes."

Presumably a young man who has grown up completely separated from any female figure will feel strange when he is brought before a woman on the eve of his engagement. Indeed, says Y.: "The meeting was one big stutter," he relates. "I felt I was riding in a train and there was an engine pulling me. I did not have an independent opinion, I was so accustomed to my parents deciding for me."

Y. did not see his intended at all during the next two months. "You are not allowed to think about her, about the wedding, at all. I would not have recognized her in the street had I seen her. It's a disaster that there is no guidance for bridegrooms before the wedding. When the counselor told me, two hours before the ceremony, about a woman's period and intimate relations - I was in shock. After all, my whole life they had taught us that this was something forbidden."

Like many grooms, Y. fainted during the conversation with the counselor. There are others who throw up. "I saw black circles in front of my eyes and all of a sudden I found myself on the sofa," he recalls.

But the greatest crisis of all came when Y. realized he could not establish a relationship with his wife: "I was not supposed to know anything about love, but I remember myself praying to God to bring me a match that would grant me love and a real relationship."

Y.'s wife did not want to budge from the strictures of the sect, he adds: "She believes that if she opens up to my love, she will damage her 'paradise.'"

Nor did Y.'s counselor leave him alone. "I got a phone call. They had told him I had walked in the street with my wife" - which is against Gur regulations. "After that I got it. I would wait for my wife at the bus stop to help her with the stroller and the children. In Gur it is forbidden to help a woman."

A., also a young man in his twenties, has had doubts about being a Gur Hasid, but has decided to remain in the sect. He says he keeps making efforts to lessen the feeling of alienation he feels from his wife, and she - whom he defines as "one of the strong ones" (in terms of faith ) - has made some concessions. Today this enables him to live within the community, and yet he still does not forgive it for meddling in his life when he was an adolescent.

"The institution of the commandants is a disgusting mechanism in my opinion," he says. "When I was about 14 years old, a mashgiah interrogated me about some strange thoughts that I was having. I was an innocent lamb. He succeeded in exposing my innermost self, he drew out the marrow of my bones. I am damaged to this day because they did not respect my intimacy. I think this is sexual abuse in every respect. They gave me to understand that hell awaited me if I didn't confess."

A. believes that the institution of the commandants serves as a refuge for Hasidim, who satisfy their own lustful urges by means of voyeurism and conversations about the sexuality of married couples and young boys.

"They are obsessively concerned with this," he says. "There are also wonderful people, counselors who help in matters of fertility, for example, but they are few."

According to A., the commandants have total independence, and in the absence of a written code of kedusha, also encourage extremism.

A. himself was released from some of the constraints of kedusha thanks to his financial independence. According to him, "Gur Hasidism applies force mainly upon the young learners, who are 'nourished' around the community table. The moment the Hasid starts working, like me, he is not dependent on them."

By force of pride

In R.'s former environment, she says, they continue to this day to live by the rules of kedusha. "The girls in my class, my aunts, my sisters-in-law, my sisters - all of them are living that way."

At one time she went along with them: "I wasn't educated to be critical. I lived in a sheltered world. I thought people only do good. That it's necessary to admire the admor. I didn't wake up until my marriage. Then I realized that a woman in Gur is a vessel in the service of the man. I envied men for going to learn when I had to clean and cook. I was strangled by the kedusha rules, and in the end it was a matter of life and death for me - and I preferred to leave."

R. adds, "Most of the women are submissive because they don't know anything about rabbinical law or Gemara. In the Gemara there are stories that are full of sexuality, but [the authorities] only teach the line about Rabbi Eliezer, who had intercourse with his wife as though possessed. The women can't fight it because they don't know that both things exist.

"Women hold themselves together thanks to the pride instilled in them for being part of a select unit. Look at the others, they are told - look at the secular, look at the Lithuanians: They are like cats. We are angels, ascetics. And if the women want something different, they are ashamed. You are not supposed to want your husband to stay home and not travel to the Rebbe [in Jerusalem] every three weeks. After all, you are driving him to sin, and causing him to stray from the path of Hasidism - and you definitely don't want him to hug you."

R. agrees that it is possible for relations of mutual respect and caring to develop even in the most pious Gur families. But that is not enough, she notes: "There is emotional alienation. There are no demonstrations of affection, the whole matter is taboo. It reminds me of marriages in royal dynasties in Europe intended for the perpetuation of the kingdom."

S., a Gur Hasid of 30 who has left religion, recently attended his sister's wedding. "I saw how she was dragged to the wedding canopy with an opaque cloth covering her face," he relates. "I thought about how she was feeling, thinking that soon someone would be touching her in an automatic and insensitive way, and I wept. I think this is traumatic, but I know that her culture and her locked-up world prevent her from feeling what they are doing to her."

This is the second of two articles.