The ultra-Orthodox Jewish Women's Revolution

As long as they were confined exclusively to Haredi society, women were not capable of bringing about change. But today they are forced to encounter the world, and are becoming aware of other alternatives.

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Haredi women working in computer programming at the Matrix company, in Modi'in Ilit.
Haredi women working in computer programming at Matrix, in Modi'in Ilit. The lack of education among the men leads to low productivity and low wages.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The cruel dilemmas that led to the suicide of ex-Haredi mother Esti Weinstein, as well as the attitude towards women in Haredi society as portrayed in Amnon Levy’s documentary series on Channel 10, have once again drawn attention to the puzzling lifestyle of Haredi women. On the one hand we see intelligent and eloquent women who seem sure of themselves and involved in the Israeli ambiance. On the other hand, those very same women are seen, at least in the eyes of the general Israeli public, as cooperating with an intricate system of social oppression that is directed mainly toward women.

What makes the situation even more puzzling is the fact that women in Haredi society usually have a far broader education than the men, who are required to devote all of their time to Torah study or to some other holy pursuit (including tending to the rebbe in Hasidic communities). They become the principal breadwinners, not only because the father of the family is presumably preoccupied with spiritual matters, but also and mainly because they have been exposed to some extent to general studies and are interested in acquiring job skills, while the men largely lack the information and skills that might get them jobs. Yet despite the huge social advantages possessed by the women, we see how they resign themselves to all the restrictions imposed upon them by male society, including their total exclusion from any involvement in community matters, and a willingness to bear many children, and thereby in effect to increase their own enslavement.

One of the most emotional accusations against Esti Weinstein was the claim that she abandoned her six daughters. But the harsh reality is that the larger the number of children, the more backbreaking the work of the woman, toiling ceaselessly from morning til night, at home and at the workplace – the stronger the bolt that keeps her locked into her family and the Haredi society.

Why do these smart women cooperate with mechanisms that were actually designed to enslave them in a life of constant exploitation? Why do they accept the Haredi consensus that determines that men are worth more, although their personal experience proves to them day in and day out that is not so, but on the contrary – many of the men they know are seriously deficient intellectually as well as in their manners.

One possible answer is that their behavior is no different from that of many women throughout history. Yet when nowadays they hold the most important social cards, why are most of them ready not only to support the values of their society, but even to sacrifice themselves of their own free will so that their society can continue to exist?

As long as they were confined exclusively to Haredi society as teachers or kindergarten teachers, the women were not capable of bringing about change. But today they are forced to encounter the world, and are suddenly becoming aware of other possible alternatives. The essential change must begin by reducing the number of children in the family, and continue by putting a stop to their exclusion from the public arena.

Moreover, in the end the prestigious status of work that goes beyond providing services within the boundaries of the Haredi world itself will also remove the competitive men from the limited Haredi environment. A combination of the two processes – that of women who become profoundly familiar with the outside world, and that of young and restless men, will lead to an internal explosion within Haredi society far more quickly than we assume.

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