The Paradox of Female Knowledge

by Tamar El-Or; translated by Haim Watzman [Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994, hard $42, soft $17.95]

Tamar El-Or’s ethnography of Gur Hasidic women begins with a yearning for connection. Encountering a Gur woman in a doctor’s office, El-Or, an Israeli anthropologist, enters a tentative dialogue that eventually leads her into the uneasy embrace of a Gur Hasidic development near Tel Aviv. In a slim book translated from the Hebrew, the secular El-Or conveys her reading of Gur Hasidic society, with the premise of focusing on the paradoxes inherent in Hasidic women’s education.

Setting out to study the phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox women spending their precious free time attending classes, El-Or seems to be hankering after the answers to a few basic questions: What is these women’s attitude towards their own capacity to learn? And what do they indeed learn? The first step for El-Or, of course, is gaining admittance into Gur society. The stories of the women she encounters along the way read like myths to the secular eye: There is the woman who was expelled by her family for marrying someone from a different sect, the man who agreed to marry a woman after asking her responses to three carefully chosen questions. Indeed, the ways in which El-Or’s subjects conceptualize and phrase their own lives alone make Educated and Ignorant worth reading. The insularity of these lives is astonishing; it is common, for example, for women to grow up in one Israeli city and never see any other.

El-Or’s central argument regarding Gur women’s education is based upon a quotation from the late Rabbi Avraham Yosef Wolf, founder of the Beit Ya’akov College for Girls in the Israeli town of Bene Brak: “If we succeed in instilling in our girl students that the purpose of their studies is to aspire to emulate our matriarchs, who did not study, then we have succeeded in educating our daughters.” Pivoting off this unusual concept, El-Or argues that, in order to accommodate the paradoxes of Gur life, “Educated women are taught to be ignorant, so that they may succeed in living as educated and ignorant.”

Where precisely El-Or intends to take this argument is often a bit hazy, but the experiences she reports are certainly fascinating. Some of El-Or’s most interesting source material is drawn from a haredi newspaper which regularly features extensive write-in debates on the advisability of educating women. (Opinions range from vociferous statements that the education of women is fundamentally harmful and that study during the time of menstruation is clearly improper, to arguments that education is beneficial in that an educated woman will have a greater appreciation of her husband’s learning, and therefore will be more willing to make the financial and social sacrifices necessary so that he can devote himself full-time to his studies.) The newspaper is full of moralistic tales about the decadent lives of secular Israeli women—exaggerated dialogues meant to hammer home the absolute moral corruption of a woman who attends a health club and uses a microwave to heat store-bought dinners for her husband.

And from the women themselves? El-Or attends some of the women’s classes in the Gur community, and records the exchanges. “How will we actually study, given that we are women?” asks one teacher rhetorically of her students. “We will be like poor people given permission to walk through the court of a king. We will gather up the leftover food, enjoy the splendor and beauty of the garden, pick up what we find in the courtyards.” ‘Ask your husband’ is one of the most persistently heard refrains. Most lessons begin with a disclaimer: “We do not study in order to make rulings, that’s for men, and we want that to be clear.”

One of El-Or’s most interesting observations has to do with the content of women’s classes—the preponderance of practical lessons (like how to remove worms from cauliflower to prevent accidental transgressions of kashrut) seems to indicate a deliberate avoidance of deeper issues. Abstract discussion is blocked by teachers. “During the course of lessons, interpretations become ever more insistently simplistic,” notes El-Or. “Women’s education levels questions of morality, faith, and justice into instructions for action in daily life.”

El-Or notes intriguingly that when haredi society is threatened by outside attractions, it often turns to the education of women as a means of strengthening community solidarity. But during times that haredi life in Israel is relatively secure (for example, now) the focus turns to men’s studies. In the early state period of Israel, women’s education was used as a tool to compete with Zionism and Socialism for the hearts of idealistic Jews. Today, however, El-Or tells us, “study by women must be kept under control.”

Indeed, the Gur women we encounter in these pages seem on average more than reconciled to their restrictions; the extent of their agency, it appears, is to try to ascertain where limits are so that they can be better watchdogs over themselves.

Among the frustrating elements of Educated and Ignorant is the fact that even in this ethnography devoted to haredi women, the majority of opinions we hear are those of men—whether through newspaper editorials or by way of wives who quote their husbands. The language, too, is at times stiflingly technical for the lay reader.

For readers seeking a personal reaction to the situation of haredi women. Educated and Ignorant will disappoint; El-Or’s academic stance cannot compete with the richness of Vanessa Ochs’ Words on Fire or Lis Harris’ Holy Days. We never know how El-Or experiences her time as a secular Israeli woman in the Gur community. And after seeing El-Or’s subjects silenced by rabbinical discourse and watching them repeatedly silence themselves for the sake of ‘modesty,’ it is disturbing to read on as their voices are further muffled by the very anthrolopological framework that intends, ostensibly, to showcase them.

Still, Educated and Ignorant contains a wealth of information on a community that seems exotic to the secular reader, while it explicitly avoids voyeurism. (For this El-Or is to be commended.) There are lively and interesting segments on the economics of the haredi family, on the encounters of the haredi community with secular Israeli police, on the fractured politics of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox world, and on the increasing uses of ‘modesty’ to chastise women: to “turn each woman into a target of evaluation and judgement, and [expose] her to the danger of slander.” In a final statement on Israeli society, El-Or issues a challenge to secular Israelis to reclaim religious culture.

All in all, this book provides an important, much-needed perspective from an Israeli academician.