William Kolbrener lives in an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel. Writing in the Forward he expresses his frustration that his neighbors are not polite to him. In his essay, "When Women Can't Even Say Thank You," he is surprised, and he is sad, and finally he decries that the, "Stifling Modesty Code Prevents Everyday Acts of Civility."
As his article explains further, "No Contact Allowed: Ultra-Orthodox Israeli women are taught to avoid all contact with men, even if it involves something as simple as saying, ‘Thank you.’"
Kolbrener laments that "Common sense civility in the public sphere" is missing from the Ultra-Orthodox. He concludes that "chivalry is dead" and worse, that women in that community live in a "repressive culture of silence."
Bill, we all have repressive rules. There is no place that we know of where you can walk up to a woman on the street and ask her if she would like to have sex with you (well maybe in some parts of Hollywood, but that is another story). The question is where you mark the ball on the field, how far away from the goalposts.
Bill, you do not like the Ultra-Orthodox rules. You find them to be rude and insulting. That's fine. You are entitled to your opinion.
But you also need to look more analytically at the culture in which you live. Distinctive rules of conduct for women are essential to that culture, not accidental. Women are valued tribal territories. They are protected by strict fences and borders. Bill, you see this, but you do not like it. So you insult it, calling it names like, "repressive" and "stifling."
Make your value judgments and move on then, Bill.
But others may want to understand how deeply rooted is this rabbinic code of conduct for women. It is old, and strong, and influential within the religion of the rabbis and the Talmud.
The stories and traditions about one famous woman named Beruryah encapsulate some of the basic attitudes. In one anecdote, she mocks a rabbi who asks her directions, telling him not to ask her which way is it to Lod, just to say, Lod?
But in that story you can see a castigation of Beruryah's mockery, not of the rabbinic code of conduct.
True, in other places Beruryah is depicted as emotionally sensitive, shielding her husband from grief, and morally superior, urging her husband to reconsider his anger. Yet, these too are easily seen as aspects of the code. Women must learn to recognize and manage their husband's moods.
Finally, when a student of her husband seduces her on a dare, this just proves that all women are sexually flighty, even the wife of the great rabbi, and that the rabbinic code must be rigorously enforced.
See the texts here, they are worthy of some close study. And they constitute the entirety of the "Beruryah code."
The upshot for us in brief here is that the Beruryah code of conduct for rabbinic women is old and venerable and influential. It did not just start yesterday on a bus in Jerusalem. We see these facts in front of our eyes. For many Orthodox, these rules of conduct for women are essential to their definition of religion, even if many other Jews believe that they are based on false, outdated and rude premises.
Kolbrener, if it hurts you to be subjected to the rudeness of a neighborhood, don't go down that street. As the New York City Police tell people who get beat up at the local tavern, learn to recognize which bars are too rowdy for you and do not ever go in there for a drink. It's a rough city. If you do go in and you do get beat up, don't come crying to the police.