When Fealty To Jewish Law Becomes Misogyny
Tue, 01/03/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Gail Bendheim
Gail Bendheim

The shocking behavior of a small group of haredi militants in Israel has forced me to face the difficult reality of just how much divides the Modern Orthodox Zionist community, of which I am a member, from that of the haredim, despite our sharing of an ancient text. 

Until recently I viewed haredi beliefs and attitudes as benignly different than mine. But I have come to see that those haredi views lend themselves to extreme behaviors that are actually threatening my way of life, despite the fact that I live thousands of miles away from Beit Shemesh. More importantly, I have had to acknowledge my sickening sense that these destructive behaviors are occurring along an ugly and dangerous fault line that imperils the viability of the State of Israel. 

A recent YouTube video, gone viral, highlights the activity of abusive haredi activists in Beit Shemesh who are hurling insults and epithets at females whom they believe are not dressing properly.

“Ani ish bari!” (“I am a healthy man!”) trumpets a young haredi man in a car, in response to a reporter’s questions about men who called an 8-year-old schoolgirl a “loose woman” because they felt her clothing to be immodest.

What does this man’s health have to do with this little girl’s clothing? It takes several synaptic jumps to realize that he is referring to his robust sexual urges — apparently a sign of health in a red-blooded man — which are seemingly stirred up by the sight of this little girl in her long skirt and blouse. Healthy? Maybe those urges feel scary — as well they should. Or maybe out of control — as they most certainly are. But healthy? Really? I think not.  Sexualizing a young girl should set off alarm bells, but this man’s religious stance gives him the cover not to have to hear them.

So what assumption is operating for this man that allows him to shout these words without worrying that he might be crossing a line? Is he trying to make the point that Judaism requires women to cover up because men — whose “health” is to be both vaunted and protected at all costs — can’t, and shouldn’t even be asked to, control themselves? What is his statement if not a poorly veiled justification of sexual abuse, a religiously clad declaration that inadequately covered females of any age are fair game?

It is not by chance that the community where this behavior originates has chosen to call itself haredi (literally, trembling with fear). For just as fear and trembling fuel their relationship to God and God’s commandments, so does fear fuel their relationship with other aspects of God’s world. In a relationship based on fear, there are only two possibilities — submission or domination. Submission to the ultimate will of God may be a positive religious stance; however, to be overly fearful has an ominous flip side, which is to be rigidly authoritarian. When the community becomes vulnerable, especially at its edges, where there is less stability, the situation we are now witnessing is the result. Hence this powerful fringe group, driven by fear of modern society, rigidity and ignorance, and unable to process any aspect of the world that doesn’t conform to its fantasy of the perfect life. 

Using force and abuse to ensure that their external reality will accommodate their needs, they flout both the principle of human dignity upon which their country was founded, and the Torah’s language of  “Tzelem Elohim” (that humans were created in the image of God), a term they seem to have reserved for themselves alone. Unfortunately, the response to this sadistic, narcissistic bullying, done in the name of God, has been inadequate to the threat it represents to the particular people it targets, to the democratic country of Israel, and to the Jewish religion.

Something is shockingly, perilously, toxically awry in a society where even a small percentage of men who think this way about women are bolstered by an interpretation of the Torah that supports their sexist agenda, and are rewarded by a polity that wants their votes. Where are the haredi rabbis? Where are the political leaders? This is a perfect Taliban-like storm, and it requires a strong religious, political, economic, cultural and philosophical response commensurate with its destructive power. 

The weak response of mainstream haredim is not enough. The revolting demonstration this weekend of haredim dressed as Holocaust victims wearing yellow stars defines profanity.  Moreover, reactionary measures resulting from mainstream haredi initiatives such as the “back of the bus” phenomenon in Jerusalem, and the absence of pictures of women in Jerusalem advertisements, are sexist and destructive, and combine to create an all-too-logical context for the playing out of these extreme forces.

Immediate action is called for. In Israel, the government needs to take strong steps to criminalize this behavior and withdraw economic entitlements and political rewards for the nefarious activities of these groups. Every religious leader needs to powerfully condemn this violence and take pains to make it stop. We in America must use the power of our purse, refusing absolutely to support any institutions that do not indisputably condemn and take action against the madness we are seeing on the streets of Israel.

Finally, as a people, we have to examine carefully and courageously what it is about our religious life that has led to such a deeply festering misogynistic impulse, masquerading as a celebration of woman’s exalted status in Judaism. Debasement is exaltation’s evil twin. Women and men, both created in God’s image, need to share in the responsibilities of modesty in all the ways that they live. We cannot allow depravity, frustration and ignorance to define our religious and political agenda unless we are prepared to have our lives, our religion, and our Jewish homeland brutally wrenched from our grasp.

Dr. Gail Bendheim is a psychologist in private practice in New York.

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Mohammed would surely approve the covering up of the provocative 8 year old girl.
There's a story about a bathing beauty and peeping Toms that I can't quite remember. Stoning might have been involved. The point was who was to blame the luster or the lustee?

Is giving a lot of money and having your community worship you modest?

I think the entire Jewish world needs to review their behaviors around community and modesty.

Brilliant article, Gitti. Beautifully articulated. Thank you! --Shoshana

i would like to further comment that the issue of segregated bussing is a different topic all together. One that would stir up much debate and disagreement. Of course, many view this separate seating as demeaning to women ("back of the bus") however for the charedim it is natural and poses no threat to women. It is hard to argue with people's long standing beliefs about certain things so I wouldn't even go there. This system works for chareidim but clearly not for the general population. The question then is should this standard be imposed to those not in favor of it. There was a good letter to the editor in this week's Mishpacha from a woman on such a bus where often it is a man who gives up a seat for a woman or reshuffles passengers to allow more seats for women who board, etc.
When one wnats to paint us in a bad light, it is easy to misrepresent facts or pick the actions of a few to speak for the majority.

The author is an example of why Jewish men like myself have looked elsewhere for female companionship.

The state of Israel discriminates brutally against males:
- retirement 5 years later than women
- only 2% joint custody when it should be 50%
- death and mutilation of males in defense of the country.

Yet the author is either ignorant of or ignores this, in order to complain only about disadvantages to women.

The selfishness of Jewish women such as the author, is obscene -- and one of the reasons Jewish men give up.

@Chantal Modes, ah the "no true Scotsman" defense.

These people are NOT chareidim... they are nut cases. And yes, the Torah Leadership in Israel and here in the United States (the Agudah) has denounced them unequivocally.
Ms. Bendheim's article raises many excellent points, but she is mistaken on the subject of the charedi leadership remaining quiet.

Enough comment about the uninformed and defensive comment- how about comment on the article itself?

Superb article - hits the nail on the head- but misses one essential point- part of the problem is that the Charedi way of life has become so extreme in its unhealthy and unnatural segregation of the sexes it has created such levels of frustration and pent up rage in young 'healthy' men that inevitably boils over one way or another. Keeping so many young men together in all male institutions for years with no female contact whatsoever- it's asking for trouble, and trouble is what we've now got.

As the comment above that this is just a small fringe group- would that it were! If it is just a small fringe group in Bet Shemesh- how come segregated buses are becoming an increasing problem in Jerusalem? How come posters showing women are being torn down? How come ordinary modern orthodox women are intimidated if they unwittingly wander into the 'wrong' areas in Jerusalem? How come we are now seeing gender segregated streets and places where women are being asked not to speak in public places even to each other? How come the IDF is now having to deal with problems from religious soldiers who will not attend events where women are seen or heard in public? Just a fringe group? Not really charedim? Then why can't we hear the Charedi rabbonim loudly and publicly denouncing their behaviour for the gross and ugly chillul Ha'shem that it is, that shames all Jews everywhere? When will they do the right thing, take a stand against it and turn the perpetrators over to the police instead of protecting them? A light unto the nations? I don't think so!

You editorial points out the truth about a SMALL PERCENTAGE of the Charedi population. They do NOT represent most Chareidim. As a Chassidic woman I resent your representation of Chareidim. Painting a whole group of people with a broad brush is rarely accurate.

I think you really ought to run your interpretation of "healthy" by a number of Hebrew speakers who live in Israel. I am confident none of them would translate it the way you have. In fact, others used the term over & over and it was clear that they were talking about societies they see as "healthy" or "sick" - NOT sex drives.

You make these people out to be even worse than need be. You ought to retract this part of your op-ed and make a correction.

yes, that man was sick and yes its horrible that he would do such a thing, but where do all of you and the PRESS especially go from "a smalll group of militant haredim" to all of haredi culture???? that's quite a jump. these guys are NOT haredi, they are splinter goup that dresses like hareidim unfortunately. as such the haredi do not defend or condone their behavior. if a small group of militant Jews were to dress like the "modern orthodox" group from which she states to be a part of, would she have to condone their behavior? or would it be ok to just say "they are a fringe group" and be done? they are indeed a "small group" in beit shemesh. now we need to come TOGETHER as a people not splinter because of a loud group of weirdos.
you are playing into the hands of the press who want to make this into a whole "israel is like iran " nonsense!
read all the facts, not just these opinion pieces from people who are not there.

"Ishar Koach". I agree with every word of this powerful article.
can we put this article in our english Website of Kolech?

Is this really a surprise? Unforutunately, all of Orthodox Judaism has a mysogynist streak. The Haredim differ from the Modern Orthodox only in degree, The Haredim simply take to the extreme what is already a part of Orthodox Judaism. Only non-Orthodox forms of Judaism have made serious efforts to make the religion egalitarian.

Well-done! For more on the issue of authoritarianism in current Orthodox Judaism, please see the article below, written with my colleague Hannah Rothstein, Ph.D.


Excellent (and disturbing) analysis!

An essential article, but is it enough?

Of course, Haredi leadership should denounce these behaviors clearly, broadly and across the board ... but we already know that the tail is wagging the dog here.

Of course, donors should withhold money from institutions that even tacitly support these attitudes ... but the haredi community has already elevated poverty to the status of tzidkus.

Of course, the police and state should crack down on these behaviors ... but the police can't be everywhere, and they had a plate overfull of nasty issues to manage before this despicable harassment came around.

None of these three laudable and necessary courses of action will yield the cultural change among haredim that will render these attitudes - and the actions that spring forth from them - obsolete. My guess is that can only occur through greater integration with society, which in Israel is chiefly accomplished through the IDF and the workforce, both of which have been deemed traif by the majority of haredi society. Until that integration occurs, these loathsome outburst may wane or wax, but the underlying culture, which is the disease for which these actions are merely symptomatic, will sadly persist.

@ Gary Hess: "Perhaps he was speaking of her mother or the other adult women" - oh! so that makes their behavior ok! You've completely missed the point.

Mr. Hess,
Would that you were correct! I saw the original news report that featured this appalling incident, and the man in question repeatedly, emphatically and explicitly indicated that it was exactly the 7 year old girl that he was referring to. It is a good idea to check facts before accusing others of getting them wrong.

Interesting isn't it, how for 2000 years the Jews have longed to return to the land. However, what have they discovered ? They have discovered that their society is tragically cartoon-ish in the enactment of the Lords commands. It's funny that the Haredi, the ones who claim to tremble before "God" are actually the ones who feel as though the rest of the Jews around them aren't sufficiently pious. Because they are also active in the removal of the Native muslims and christians from the land. Ironic because muslim women are the embodiment of female modesty and fear the creator quite a bit if not more so than the vast majority of those who identify as jews. Maybe the problem is that the Rebbes and Sages have been interested in maintaining their power over the community for so long the violence that it takes to enforce their edicts was enough to maintain cohesion of the Jewish
People over the the long years of exile. But remember, not following God's commands is what got Israel evicted before, and from the looks of it she hasn't learned anything in all of that time..........Fear God........Do unto others as you would have them do unto you............Thou shalt not steal............What is done in the dark is sure to come to the light.........you know the stuff that God says, not some narcissitic Rav............this has always been the Jewish problem.............always.

@ Gary Hess: If "there is no way the man was referring to the 8 year old girl" then why was the girl spat upon and targeted with insults as to her moral character? It was the girl, no less than "her mother or the other adult women that come to the school" who was harassed because of her perceived immodesty. Indeed, it was the very fact that an 8 year old girl could be considered an object of sexual desire normatively by an entire community segment that raised such an uproar throughout Israel. But let's be clear, the age of this particular victim only illumniates the extent of the sickness. The oversexualization of women per se in this segment of the haredi community is a systemic problem, as the article argues quite persuasively.

Kudos, Gitti, for your excellent analysis. I hope it results in positive action by both the Israeli government and by individuals in this country who, as you suggest, should be selective about about where they are bestowing monetary support.

This is quite the stupid article! There is no way the man was referring to the 8 year old girl. Perhaps he was speaking of her mother or the other adult women that come to the school who are known to not dress to the modesty standards of the local community where the school is.

Far be it from to advocate any kind of violence or harassment in such a situation, but let's try to get the facts right when smearing an entire segment of the Jewish community.

Actually, if you watch the video, the interview asks the man exactly this question and he confirms, emphatically, that he is in fact referring to the little girl. Sad but true.

He was asked specifically about the 8 year old girl. And even if he wasn't, and was actually referring to adult women, his response is still scary. A man has to insult and debase a woman because he's too weak to control his impulses? This is not Torah and this is not Halacha. Modesty applies equally to men as it does to women. And this man, and his disgusting cohorts, are not modest. When the Haredi leadership fails to denounce this behavior in the strongest terms, they are bringing the smear on themselves.

This is not a stupid article, and you haven't been following the news. The man in the interview was being asked specifically about little girls, and when questioned, he repeated that he felt it was appropriate to spit on girls as young as seven if they don't dress modestly. You can see the interview with English subtitles here: http://www.amotherinisrael.com/channel-2-documentary-on-beit-shemesh-school-battle/. Maybe then you will understand better what is going on in Beit Shemesh.

He was referring to the girl. Watch the videotape and stop underestimating the sickness of this society.

With all due respect - and you are absolutely entitled to defend this man if you believe in what he is saying - it is undeniably clear that the 8-year-old girl is EXACTLY who he is referring to. See 2:45 of the now famous clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5HKtaaws-g

Thank you for your exceptional editorial. I have shared it privately with many family members and friends, both here in the U.S. and in Israel.

Gitty, that was very well said. You may want to look at a pledge I wrote up a week ago regarding tzedaka and this very issue: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/stand-against-intimidation/.
Kol HaKavod for the article - it takes a lot of strength to take such a public stand.

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