Behind a Brooklyn Storefront Sign Lurks a Dangerous Type of Insularism

Could it sometimes be necessary for states to impose restrictions on religious freedom for the sake of other human rights?

Last month, the owners of seven Brooklyn businesses were almost put on trial over signs they displayed in their storefronts saying “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store.” The New York City Human Rights Commission had wanted the stores to pay fines for discriminating against women and non-Orthodox men, but a settlement was reached out of court, which took into consideration the claims of the Satmar Hasidic merchants that their stores were no different to restaurants demanding a dress code. Under the settlement, the storeowners did, however, agree to adjust the wording on the signs to read, “Modest Dress Appreciated - All People Welcome,” so as to avoid coming across as discriminatory

This case highlights a tension that does not only exist in the Satmar enclave of Williamsburg, but stretches from the United States to Israel, and everywhere else where religious and secular communities live side-by-side. When freedom of religion collides with other democratic ideals – like no discrimination and separating church from state – how can we have both? How can we allow insular communities like Satmar Hasidim the religious freedom to govern their communities, and simultaneously advocate equal rights and, more specifically, women’s empowerment?

Jewish law speaks to these dilemmas. One example is from Jacob ben Asher, an important medieval rabbinic authority also known as Ba'al ha-Turim, who writes of the Talmudic principle dina d’malkhuta dina (the law of the land is the law): As Jews living in a non-Jewish world, we agree to a social contract. That is, Jewish people must recognize the legal principles of the non-Jewish society in which they dwell. The outcome in the case of the Brooklyn storeowners adheres to this principle: in agreeing to reword the signs, the Satmar merchants acknowledged the social requirement to avoid discrimination.

But perhaps we should scrutinize this case more severely and consider whether states should impose limits to freedom of religion when it infringes on other democratic rights.

Maimonides, one of the most famous Jewish thinkers and scholars, who lived in the Medieval period, discussed how the relationship between Jews and the judicial system in secular countries should be determined: “The trait of piety and the path of wisdom insists that an individual be compassionate and a pursuer of righteousness, understanding that from one womb emanated both the master and slave, that one womb formed them both” [Laws of Slaves 9:8]. Thus, in court, when we uphold Maimonides’ principle of being compassionate to all (since we emanate from the same source), solutions can be found, as was the case with the Satmar storeowners.

Away from the courtroom though - inside the homes, synagogues and schools of insular ultra-Orthodox communities - such a compromise is harder to achieve. Members of insular communities who do not fit the mould and seek a different way of life face real, frightening, and ever-present danger. On the outside, insular communities can make efforts to steer clear of discrimination, but on the inside, they can get away with husbands refusing to divorce their wives and using custody threats to force women into staying in unhappy marriages, cutting off familial ties with children who stray, and forcing gay children into reparative therapy.

In her memoir, “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” Leah Vincent describes being forced out of her ultra-Orthodox home and cut off from her family after struggling with what she experiences as repressive religious strictures, particularly on women. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat in her review of the book, writes:

"It's easy to imagine the ways in which the grass is greener on the other side of that fence -- to fantasize that in a community where everyone cares about Judaism and God as much as I do, it must be easy to keep the rhythms of Jewish life; to live in constant devekut / union with God; to aspire to serve God with joy in all things. This book reminds me that there is a terrible shadow side to that kind of insularity, and that those who deviate from the community's norms -- especially women -- pay an unthinkable cost.”

Insularity has a beauty all its own - a warmth for those within the boundaries - but for those who even tread outside the lines the dangers can be great.

"I felt like I was caught in a garish nightmare," Vincent writes, recalling the period that led to her estrangement, "my parents getting stricter and stricter, my petty transgressions ballooning into terrifying sins.” Her sin was finding her way as a woman with equality and freedom.

When religious requirements and legal precedent meet head-on, we must always remember Maimonides’ teaching: “And it is that principle of compassion which we must always express in executing our laws” [Laws of Slaves 9:8]. Thus, the law must be shaped by human needs and wants. If this can be achieved in the courtroom, it must also be achievable in the home, the synagogue, and the school. Perhaps when we start being compassionate everywhere, freedom of religion will exist alongside equality.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabielianna.com


Alon Ron
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