At the beginning of June 2015, the Belz sect of Hasidic Jews in London issued instructions that their women were not to drive cars.

In fact, Belz rabbis said that mothers would be prohibited from dropping their children off at the sect’s schools starting in August. The Jewish Chronicle reported:

According to the letter — which was signed by leaders from Belz educational institutions and endorsed by the group’s rabbis — there has been an increased incidence of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” which has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

They said that the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has advised them to introduce a policy of not allowing pupils to come to their schools if their mothers drive.

Whilst this is serious — more about which below — the head rabbi of the Belz sect, Belzer Rebbe (his title), gave these instructions to female adherents in 2014:

“You should shave your entire head and not leave even one single strand of hair,” Rokeach thundered.

“You should not eat at a home in which the woman does not shave her head because the food is not kosher,” Rokeach added.

Rokeach also prohibited women from applying makeup.

“The only makeup that is allowed is that of a natural color, and any eye makeup is prohibited,” the rabbi said during his speech.

The rabbi said that women should not use any perfume.

Rokeach did not forget to attack women’s shoes. 

“You should not wear any shoes that make noise while walking, as noisy shoes was the reason God destroyed ancient Israel,” he said.

It is difficult to know whether that is a satire. However, an anonymous commenter wrote that the rabbi is in competition with others to make sure one of them is the most observant — ‘frum’ — as ‘kosher’ refers to food laws. Emphases mine:

This time you are exaggerating,
I have the letter in front of me. What he actually did was put all the rules in writing. Belzer women have been shaving their heads for years and years as do all women from Hungarian, Galitzianer and Yerushalmer Chassidus. Only Russian Chassidus does not do this. He said that this is perferable and no hair should be sticking out of their tichel. If they need to wear a shaitel they should also wear a hat or headband on top so that it is obvious that it is a shaitel … for the word loud regarding the shoes, he meant not noisy but loud colors that attract attention. What bothers the women is that all of a sudden clothing that was permissible for their mothers and grandmothers became forbidden, as for makeup this was always his rule, he just never was strict about it but all of this was taught in his girl’s schools for years
You need to be accurate and not go overboard even though you and most others find his “takonos” ridiculous. Don’t forget he is in competition with his brothers in laws the Vizhnitzer Rebbes, The satmer Aharonis and Skver as to who can be the frummest!

However, another controversy in the Hasidic community arose in London — once again in 2014. Stamford Hill’s Shomrim group help to patrol the area. Posters suddenly appeared telling women on what side of the street they should walk (photo courtesy of the London Evening Standard via Twitter) . The Shomrim reaction was that the public overreacted:

Chaim Hochhauser from the Stamford Hill Shomrim group, whose Jewish volunteers support policing in the area, said …

Everyone knows this story has blown everything out of proportion. I have spoken to the organisers of the parade – they have apologised [for the signs]. They did not think it would get so public. It was just a misunderstanding.”

Thankfully, this did go public. A 26-year old filmmaker Sam Aldersley put up signs saying:

WOMEN

PLEASE FEEL FREE TO WALK WHEREVER YOU WANT ..

IT’S 2014

Stamford Hill West councillor for Hackney, Rosemary Sales, deemed the Shomrim posters ‘unacceptable’ and Hackney Council removed them.

However, Sam Aldersley’s posters telling women to walk freely through the borough were also taken down (see the photo of the young boy on a bicycle). He would have said the posters were up for a Torah procession which, for some sects, demands a segregation of the sexes.

That said, are private citizens allowed to dictate how the public byways may be used —  where people can walk — even in religious processions? It seems unlikely. Why did Hackney not see this sooner?

Now back to the driving controversy. Not all Hasidic — or mainstream Orthodox — communities forbid their women to drive. The Jewish Chronicle explains:

One Stamford Hill rabbi said that it had “always been regarded in Chasidic circles as not the done thing for a lady to drive”.

But although some Chasidic sects discourage women from driving, others such as Lubavitch have no such policy. The wives of some senior non-Chasidic strictly Orthodox rabbis drive.

One local woman said that the policy “disables women. The more kids they have, the more they need to drive.” But she believed that some women would take no notice of the policy. “They say one thing, they do another,” she said.

A Briton writing for the Daily Kos adds that there is a practical basis for Hasidic women to drive:

Stamford Hill is, well, hilly. It is built on part of the escarpment of the Thames’ river valley and as such is quite steep. For mothers with large families, the use of a car eases the burden of taking children to school, especially if the children’s ages mean they go to several different schools or nurseries (kindergarten) or to separate boys’ and girls’ schools.

Some of us will wonder how the women obtained permission from their husbands to get a driving licence in the first place. Now, all of a sudden, it’s forbidden. Hmm. There’s a story here. When an update is available, it will appear here.

At the moment, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said any move to ban women drivers would be illegal.

Some readers might say, ‘This is a Jewish problem’. No, it is not. It is a universal issue of faith. If some are reminded of the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia, they would not be wrong. More mainstream Jews have objected to the Belz ban on women drivers.

I bring this story to Christian attention to warn against the dangers of insularity and extreme views. May we not fall into the same trap.

I have said in the past that a great danger faces Christians in that we are easily slipping into the mores and legalism of our brethren of other world faiths. Let’s look more closely before we then refuse to leap.

More on the prohibition of Belz women drivers:

‘London Rabbis run women off the road’ – Daily Beast

‘Orthodox Jewish school that bans women from driving seeks state funding’ – The Hackney Citizen

‘Minister to investigate …’ – Daily Mail

‘Orthodox Jewish Hasidic sect ‘bans’ women from driving to school’ – Evening Standard

‘Ministers probe Orthodox Jewish sect’s ‘bid to stop women driving to school’ – Evening Standard

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