Since I’ve had a lick at Catholics and Muslims this week, it’s only fair to go after the religion of my ancestors—the Jews. Or at least one branch of Orthodox Jews, the Hasidim, a sect that started in Eastern Europe in the 18th century.
It’s a scandal among Jews— traditionally reputed to put such an emphasis on education—that some Orthodox sects often discourage any but religious education for men, and any education for women. The results: undereducated women, unsuited for many jobs, and families forced to rely on welfare since men spend their time in religious studies while women, who are largely breeding stock among Hasidim, have to stay home with the children. You can read more about the dire consequences of these practices, which of course come directly from religious tradition, in a recent New York Times article by Gina Bellafante, “In Brooklyn, stifling higher learning among Hasidic women.”
In Brooklyn, one sect of Hasidim, the Satmar, have recently made their little-education policy toward women even more regressive:
Among the Satmar in Brooklyn, use of the internet is condemned and secular education is considered of little use. In recent years, though, it became the fashion among some Satmar women to pursue special-education degrees after high school, typically online or through religious colleges. The women often go to work not in philosophically suspect places like Greenwich Village, but in schools within their community. Now, even that minor advance has been rolled back; some Satmar leaders issued a decree proclaiming that the practice would no longer be tolerated. A letter from the United Talmudical Academy, the governing body for a consortium of schools, meant for girls entering the 12th grade and their parents, stated that they “shouldn’t God forbid take a degree which is according to our sages, dangerous and damaging.”
The letter went on to say that girls shouldn’t learn college subjects and that those who refused to obey would be denied positions as teachers. Leaders, they said, had a responsibility to protect the religious educational system from outside influences. The notion is not an invention of the Hasidim, Allan Nadler, the director of Jewish studies at Drew University and a scholar of Hasidic practice, explained. The Mishna, a multivolume compilation of Jewish law that predates the Talmud, contains a prohibition against “external books.” Still, Mr. Nadler maintained, the recent decree reflects what he has observed over the years as a deepening fear of wider society.
The Talmudical Academy did not return calls seeking comment. [Surprise!]
That’s ridiculous, and they should be embarrassed that their “sages” stifle women’s ambitions in this way. It’s even worse because New York politicians cater to this enforced ignorance because they need the support of the powerful and numerous Jewish voting bloc. Here’s just one of thousands of stories in the Naked City (my emphasis in the following):
Many of [the Hasadim on welfare], Libelle Polaki, an exile from the ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, told me, will resort to selling things online, which must be regarded as its own kind of sacrilege given the prohibitions against certain technologies. At 28, Ms. Polaki expects to graduate from the Borough of Manhattan Community College in December. This semester she is taking six classes and auditing two others. At a cafe in Williamsburg psychographically distant from the Williamsburg in which she spent part of her life, she spoke of the hard work it took to get where she is.
Having suffered through an arranged marriage, she said, she was forced to pay off her husband, with a sum of approximately $18,000, to get divorced; a philanthropist helped her come up with the money. She held several menial jobs after high school that made her miserable, one working for Satmar leaders doing secretarial work; one in a matzo factory; and another in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities, where she was fired, she told me, after reporting abuses by the staff.
“They didn’t teach us anything in high school so I didn’t know anything, no Shakespeare or anything like that, no science,” she said. “I felt like a loser and I felt I wanted more out of life.” Growing up she was told not to go to libraries but she sneaked away to them anyway and at home read anything she could, including cereal boxes and junk mail because there was little else. At 26, she got her high school equivalency diploma and began her college studies. Over the summer, she studied philosophy in Greece. Two of her grandparents speak to her; two don’t. The friends she left behind, she said, are jealous of her freedom.
Ms. Polaki plans to apply to four-year colleges and hopes to attend an Ivy League school.
Polaki, at enormous financial and psychological expense, managed to free herself from this repressive community. But most other women are trapped, shackled by religious dogma and the passel of children mandated by that dogma. The story of Polaki reading cereal boxes and junk mail because she was denied education almost brings me to tears.
All the Abrahamic religions repress women’s ambitions to some degree, but we usually think of Islam as being the most repressive. Don’t forget, however, about some sects of Orthodox Jews, whose denial of education to women is ignored to nearly the same extent as are the restrictions imposed by Islam. I can think of few worse things in life than to have your ambition smothered by blankets of scripture.