Opinion

Why Are ultra-Orthodox Jewish Men So Afraid of Women?

When it comes to Shabbat observance and kashrut, ultra-Orthodox men aren't concerned about being unable to resist temptation, yet it is a different story when it comes to gender separation

FILE PHOTO- Ultra-Orthodox women pray at the Western Wall , Old City , Jerusalem, November 4th 2013
Tali Meyer

Interior Minister Arye Dery recently demanded the abolishment of the ban on gender segregation at public events (Haaretz, October 20). This contradicts the decision of the Justice Ministry, which was adopted as a cabinet resolution. Dery claimed that such a ban is an abuse of the ultra-Orthodox (or ultra-Orthodox) minority in Israel. This clearly disregards the fact that this same minority is trying to impose behavior on the majority that is acceptable only to them.

The question arising from this – another part of the exclusion of women – is: What is it about men and women in close proximity that drives the ultra-Orthodox so crazy? What are they afraid of? After all, is it not written in the first chapter of Genesis: “Male and female created He them,” without discrimination.

Knowledgeable, active and admirable female figures regularly appear in the Bible: The four matriarchs; Miriam; the prophetess Deborah, who was also a military leader; Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; Ruth; and many more.

And in the talmudic era, Bruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, was noted for her learning and put even sages of the Mishna to shame.

My late grandfather had a long, thick beard and was careful to observe all the commandments – the minor ones as well as the more serious ones. That my grandmother and grandfather sat together at cultural events and in wedding halls goes without saying.

In the ultra-Orthodox community today, not only do men and women not sit together at celebrations, there are even separate entrances to the places where the events are held.

The trend of separation and exclusion is growing: The battle against coed military service; the prohibition on men being able to hear women sing; separate seating areas on buses, and even separate sidewalks in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

The apex of absurdity came when women were excluded from a conference on issues related to women’s fertility.

This trend, which until recently was the province only of extremist Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, has intensified and now also been adopted by the spiritual and political leaders of the Sephardi community.

What is so regrettable is that this community, which has always excelled in its openness, moderation and pleasantness in matters of faith and observance, now denigrates itself in the face of the Ashkenazi hegemony.

The exclusion of women is a clear sign of the complete failure of the ultra-Orthodox educational system. This society is based on iron discipline, aimed at obedience to halakhic rulings. The ultra-Orthodox Jew is commanded from his first words when he opens his eyes in the morning, “Modeh ani” (“I give thanks”). Then, upon rising from his bed, he is instructed to step first on his right leg. Every piece of food to be eaten requires a prior blessing. The meticulous attire, which is a form of uniform, is also a sign of discipline. And yeshiva students’ entire days are supposed to be devoted to prayer and study.

And yet there is this fear they will not be able to withstand the temptation of being near women, and therefore they must remove even the smallest doubt – lest the evil urge cause them to commit a sin.

Surely it could be expected that their education and the closed lifestyle in which they grew up would grant them greater immunity than those educated in secular education and society, and would not create even a flicker of fear of deviation from the norms that bind them. What a colossal failure!

On other matters, such as Shabbat observance and kashrut rules, there appears to be no significant difficulty in resisting the temptation to sin.

If this is so, why are they willing to move heaven and earth to confront the general public on the matter of gender separation? It seems to me that the cause is something deeper, something the ultra-Orthodox will never admit: There is reason to be afraid.

In Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh and Beitar Ilit, ultra-Orthodox women are the breadwinners. The yeshiva students spend their days deep in talmudic issues – which require an impressive intellectual effort, but whose connection to real life is very tenuous. They feel compelled to reiterate and emphasize that they are at the center of existence, and to do this they must highlight the inferiority of women and exclude them.

What is particularly unfortunate is the obvious parallel to what is taking place with the growing extremism of traditional Islamic societies and the Third World.

As a result, even the more moderate elements in ultra-Orthodox society have not come out in defense and are not demanding imposition of the rule: “[He] who humiliates his friend in public has no share in the World to Come” (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3:11). Perhaps they have also found a vague explanation for this, such as it’s talking about a male friend, not a female one.

Prof. Rafi Walden is a surgeon and human rights activist.