One Shabbat many years ago, I was walking through the Haredi neighborhood of Geula on my way home from a meal. As I crossed a street, the sound of a hiss suddenly pierced the afternoon quiet.
Startled, I turned to see where the hiss was coming from. There was no one in the immediate area except myself and a teenage girl with a baby carriage. As I stood there, uncertain whether to approach, the girl glared at me and hissed again. Perplexed by her hostile behavior, I walked on.
A similar incident happened some years later. There’s a place in Geula where people can take their kitchen utensils to be kashered — made fit for use in a kosher kitchen — every Friday. When a friend of mine relocated a few years ago, she gave me some high-quality pots and pans as a parting gift. I took them there for kashering one hot Friday morning and watched the process, which took some time and was fascinating.
When the work was finished and it was time to go, I turned to the young woman on line next to me and said, “Shabbat shalom.” She didn’t seem to hear me, so I smiled and said it again. She frowned at me and turned away.
That seemed to be a replay of the hissing incident from years before, and again, I was perplexed. I hadn’t broken any of the rules. In the first incident, I’d been dressed modestly, and in the second, I’d come there on a hot Friday morning to have my kitchen utensils kashered. I’d never met either girl before in my life. So why did they behave toward me with such hostility?
Eventually, I figured it out. I had broken a rule — the most important rule of all. I wasn’t a member of their tribe. Although I’m Jewish and observant, I wasn’t one of them. I was an outsider, a foreigner. A threat.
As far as these girls were concerned — said their behavior — I did not belong in their neighborhood, not even if I went there for a reason connected with strict Jewish observance. It didn’t matter how much of my body I covered or how many kitchen utensils I brought to be boiled or blow-torched. I was committing the worst crime of all. I was different.
In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, the well-known psychologist and author Dr. Phyllis Chesler wrote: “Often, envy of a girl’s beauty or brains, but just as often, the slightest difference (whether someone is new, an immigrant from another country, or school) will be seized upon by a female clique and treated as a high crime, an opportunity to tribally bond with one another — and as permission to torment the chosen outsider” (emphasis mine). Dr. Chesler’s statement seems to apply in both instances I’ve just described.
Her statement also seems to apply to the recent controversy over Women of the Wall. It seems that to some of WOW’s opponents, if a woman wears a tallit and tefillin when she prays, if she reads from a Torah scroll as part of the service, if she doesn’t accept restrictions on female behavior that aren’t even part of religious law, then it doesn’t matter matter how learned, sincere or devout she may be. She’s an outsider. She’s different. She’s a threat.
In these politically-correct times, it’s not acceptable to admit to feeling hostility toward a person or group just because they’re different. So the opponents need a more compelling reason: they have to make the different person or group into the enemy.
These women are not harmless, WOW’s opponents say. Their motives are ulterior, impure. They’re too political. They have an agenda. They care about publicity, not prayer. They look down on us. They want to take something valuable away from us. And because they are a threat to Judaism, we’re exempt from the commandment to judge them favorably.
It appears that the current opposition to WOW is being led by women who want to create positive change in the Haredi community from within. But in conservative communities, change — indeed, anything less than full conformity — is seen as threatening and carries negative social consequences. Also, such communities often see women who join them later in life as “less than,” if not as downright suspect, because of the foreign, “impure” ideas and influences they were exposed to earlier in their lives. So what better way for women in this situation, who want to work for change or who don’t conform entirely, to show their bona-fides than to bash a common enemy — in this case, the nasty feminists?
What I’ve written above may seem extreme to some. But unfortunately, it’s what I see among some of WOW’s current opponents... and it’s nothing new in the Jewish world. Consider the case of the hasidim against the mitnagdim, with mutual accusations and excommunications that went on for centuries.
Consider also the case of Sarah Schenirer. Seeing the rising rate of assimilation among young Jewish women in Poland, this Jewish seamstress from Cracow founded a kindergarten for girls in 1917 that grew into the Bais Ya’akov educational movement. Schenirer’s idea to found Jewish schools for girls was so radical for her time that she was almost put into herem — the most severe sanction the Jewish community can impose — for her work. Even after her schools received approval from religious authorities, some parents still forbade their daughters from playing with girls who attended them.
Today, most religious Jews regard Sarah Schenirer as a heroine.
“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized,” goes the quote attributed to Schopenhauer. “In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident.” I take comfort in that sentence, no matter who wrote it. I look forward to the day when women’s prayer groups, whether affiliated with WOW or not, routinely hold prayer services, with tallit and a sefer Torah, in the women’s section of the Western Wall with as much fanfare as daily afternoon prayers at the local synagogue. I hope that by then, the idea that anyone ever opposed such services will seem a historical curiosity, as odd and distant as the fact that women in Western countries were once denied the right to vote.