Why the letter, people have been asking. I don't have in mind those who see it as chasidim reverting to form or those who believe Isis to have started a chapter in Stamford Hill. I suppose I would be a prime candidate for decapitation and yet I can assure you that I sit here with my yarmulke some distance from my shoulders.
The question, however, is being asked within Belz and within Stamford Hill where Belz would not generally feature amongst the extremists. The regular litany of bans and strictures on wigs, tights, skirts, heels and anything else the vivid chareidi imagination conjures up will rarely if ever carry on them a Belzer imprimatur. Having supported eiruvs and their dayan having backed the breakaway milk and more recently the new meat, Belz is usually an advocate for change rather than one of the local extremist groups of which we are blessed with a broad range of shades and colours. So why this letter that has caused so much consternation within and without?
Well, to answer that, an understanding is required of the tensions facing chasidic communities worldwide and not just Belz in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that chassidim are scared. Scared stiff, in fact. Chasidim in general operate to a greater or lesser degree on the basis that authentic Judaism as we know it today was born in the Carpathian mountains in the 18th century and this is what we must and do maintain. We dress during the week like the Amish and on Holy Days like Polish counts circa 1780. East European Galicia may no longer exist on the map but its heart pounds vibrantly in various chasidic dynasties. And if we are to believe our elders and what the western media often tell us then this is what we have indeed accomplished and what would otherwise have been considered mission impossible is precisely the way we are.
But if that were true my soapbox would consist of vacuous bubbles rather than heavy suds. Because sorry to disappoint those believers who stumble along here in a moment of temptation but chasidim are nothing of the sort. We are all westerners ok. We engage in almost all the west has to offer bar that precious commodity of free speech, and especially on the printed page, and unfortunately we could do much better on the educational front. Yet notwithstanding our shortcomings we have proved very adroit in straddling the two worlds; in keeping largely to our traditions while enjoying the freedoms the western world has to offer.
Only this week Belzers across the globe watched their Rebbe's grandson's wedding live streamed through the otherwise banned you know what. For every odd flying chosid making the headlines in refusing to be seated near a female there are a dozen chasidim comfortably ensconced in club class and above. Those guys are turning left not veering to the right. And so it is on all fronts. Chasidim can't resist issuing bans but then break them almost before the ink is dry.
But beneath this shiny veneer, those in charge know that something deeper is taking root. Our youth are drifting and chasidic circles are feeling it most acutely. Youngsters in their fur hats and breeches discuss Big Brother and not in the context of a Bar Mitzvah or wedding. They talk about I'm a Celebrity and think, get me out of here; they pick up moves from Strictly and import them to our raucous weddings. And too many rather than import the alien ways export themselves out. It is this tide that the Belz spiritual leaders are trying to stem but which in this instance has unleashed a torrent.
This in and of itself may still not excuse the letter and anyway that is not my mission. Let the Belzers do as they wish and I simply want to set out the context. One must further consider how driving is viewed generally in Stamford Hill and amongst chasidim in particular. A family where the woman drives is a subset with its own characteristics and stereotypes. Remember there were few cars in Eastern Europe when this all began and what ever they did ride is unlikely to have been driven by a female, let alone a Jewish one. Thus ‘she drives' has become shorthand for a somewhat less traditional life style.
This is difficult to define to an outsider because it does not suggest being less Jewish or less frum in any way but it does imply being less chasidic of a certain schmaltzy type. It signifies being more relaxed about the yumminess of western culture, less minded about every uttering of the rabbis and points to having something of a mind of one's own. Not the woman driver in particular but the household she and her husband are leading. And if they are from a more stringent background then it implicitly represents a rejection of an element of our traditional values. It could even point to a closeted heretic, not necessarily of the mysterious ways of God but towards the movement and its mores.
When faced with these kinds of risks our gatekeepers would rather not delve into the details and reflexively resort to what they know best: banning. But alas such are the times that bans are not what they used to be. Banning smartphones has made not one bit of difference as Whatsapp may like to tell you. It has become impossible to enforce and too much of a necessity to too many people for it to be realistic to even try. Banning long wigs and sheer tights has not affected their ubiquity and banning the internet has just made more people sign up.
It is in this context that women's driving becomes an issue, not as a cause but as yet another symptom, and a very overt one at that, of the much feared downward spiral. What follows could be – for men - short sleeves, coloured shirts, a short coat and heaven forfend even a short suit, and once you reach there who knows where it all ends. If this sounds like madness then you are evidently not a chosid in any sense of the word and have never vacillated prior to the wedding of a second cousin thrice removed whether to wear a streimel or a hat. But as any self-respecting chosid will tell you, many an apostate started by twisting his peyos rather than curling them and when the woman starts driving then the proverbial has truly hit the fan.
But there is something more at play and even apostasy is not the entire truth. We are well aware that there are many good Jews who don't look and conduct themselves like us and are no less Jewish for that. For ourselves, however, we, by which I mean men and women alike, generally want to be the way we are because it's what we know, what we like, what we believe to be right and what we want for our children. Part and parcel of that is the standing of women in our society.
No one forces anyone to have large families and no one prevents those women who wish to work from doing so and indeed plenty do. But yet many women do have large families, out of choice or out of being conditioned to make such choices, and prefer to stay at home to raise their children and look after the home. And very many of these same women choose or have been taught to choose not to drive. You or I may not approve but then no one has asked us. God save us if we all have to live our lives in accordance with the latest headline of the Daily Mail or The Guardian, and when they start singing from the same hymn sheet it really becomes scary.
Yes there are women out there who would love to drive but their husbands won't allow them. But then there are men out there who'd love to trim their peyos and beards but their wives won't allow them. The comparison may be somewhat disingenuous but the fact is that a woman wanting to drive will be as anxious of the sisterhood's displeasure as she will be of her father's and husband's censure. As a woman from a prominent Belz family said to my wife, she would love to drive and there are other things in the system that she is unhappy with but she chooses to belong there and so must take the good and the bad. I might think that they often get a raw deal and if one side of the equation chooses to sit in the kitchen while the other gets the car I hardly need to tell you who's living the good life. You may also question how free such choices are but once again it's not what you think that matters. Trust me, being around when some of these women tell you that they can make up their own minds for themselves would put many a sturdy man to flight.
And to those wonderful Jews out there falling over each other to tell all who care to listen how this is not Judaism I say thanks but no thanks. If the Chief Rabbi, Board of Deputies, the JC and other bastions of Anglo Jewry would care to speak up on the parlous state of chasidic boys' education in general or the rampant cover-up of child abuse in the larger community I'd cheer them to the rafters. But that is where one barely hears a murmur. It is only when they feel the need to tell the wider world how Belzers do not practise the real Judaism that they suddenly find their voice.
Well, let me remind them of what we constantly hear from them when the boot is on the other foot, that there is no ‘real’ Judaism and yiddishkeit comes in all shapes and sizes. So you don't lecture us on ours and we will leave you alone with yours. Should they ever come to burn bras in Belz then an invitation will undoubtedly be extended to all those terribly nice people out there but in the meantime your chorus has that same self-righteous ring that you all too often accuse us of.
So raise a Lechaim to Belz for the simche in their Rebbe's court and for the all but signed peace treaty they reached this week with their lifelong adversaries. But you needn’t drive yourself to distraction by a ban which if it’s to be honoured will be only in the breach.