In the early 90s, I lived & worked in Stamford Hill in London. I got to know the local insular Hasidic community there, & particularly the Lubavitch sect, very well. I also met people from the Satmar, Gerer, Bobover and the Belzer groups, all good people.
The Belzer Rebbe
This week, a number of British papers have published a story about the Belzer Rebbe Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who anyway lives in Israel, banning women from driving their children to Stamford Hill schools. In fact, the rebbe (rabi) had been asked for his ruling on an earlier ban already imposed by the rabbinic authorities in London. All he did was to agree in principle.
The Jewish Chronicle led the way in comparing the ban to a similar one in Saudi Arabia, where women can expect 150 lashes for driving. People defying the ban in Stamford Hill would see their children expelled from the two schools run by the Belzer Chassidim, the Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass and Beis Malka, both doing well in the community and already receiving a "good" rating from Ofsted.
While I disapprove of the driving ban, I can understand, in part, how it has come about. On one occasion, when I was given a lift by the mother of one of my students, there were complaints that she was in a closed vehicle with a man who was not her husband. Tongues began to wag. The traditional Hasidic costume, modest dress, full sleeves, and wig for women, lengthy coat and hat for men, marks out the community, but there are further distinctive differences between the various sects, most tellingly on Shabbos (Sabbath) when some men wear the Shtreimel or Spodik, a hat decorated with fox tails or fur. Some men have ringlets, often curled and pushed over their ears, but some do not. Some stuff their trousers into their socks – a tradition known in Yiddish as Huizen Zaaken.
What I find most interesting about this story is how the Belzer women acquired a driving licence in the first place, because modesty would forbid her from sitting in the car with an unrelated male driving instructor. That said, I certainly knew Belzer women who drove cars; they needed to in order to shop for the huge families.
The ban is described as draconian, "disabling" and "disenfranchising" women. One woman referred to the rabbis who signed the letter as hypocrites and power-hungry especially as some of their wives already drive.
The issue is not really about infringing the 613 mitzvot or laws fund in the Bible, but rather of avoiding any opportunity that a mitzvah might be compromised. In practice, this has led to a series of minor rules known as gezerah, a ring fence to ensure the more important laws are preserved. So, while the Torah talks about adultery, the ring-fence makes sure that a man is never in a closed room with a woman who is not his wife. For closed room, read "car".
In Stamford Hill, there are cautions against going into the newsagent, lest the eye wanders towards magazines on the top shelf; there are rules against the television – I remember one rabbi telling me that the TV was a "sewer flowing through the centre of the house." Most importantly, there are warnings about talking to strangers and to people who are not part of the community.
That said, I know many in the Hasidic community who watch TV, smoke like chimneys, drive interesting cars and can hold their own in any pub quiz about popular culture. Unfortunately, these people do not have the ear of the Belzer high command. #Religion