"Such evil deeds could religion prompt." Lucretius - Roman Epicurean poet and philosopher.
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to attend a staged reading of a play at a local community theatre (part of the local JCC - Jewish Community Center) that I have acted with in the past. They are not a typical community theatre in that they have professional production standards and is a wonderful place in which to act. They also have a play reading series throughout their regular season that is essentially a forum to test out certain plays that they may wish to develop as full productions at some point. Essentially, the actors are on stage with script-in-hand, minimal props or costumes, (or none at all) and minimal rehearsal time.
The play I witnessed was "The Women's Minyan" by Israeli playwright Naomi Ragen. I say witnessed, because one could not simply "watch" this piece performed without it stirring up such strong emotions. The audience becomes voyeur to the closed society of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, though in all honesty, this could have taken place in any ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, anywhere in the world. We peer into a closed society that brooks very little affinity for those who are not frum. We also see the cloak of religion being used to justify the brutal oppression of women in a society that, is supposed to hold women in high esteem.
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is no different than any other patriarchal society. Men want to keep control over women, so they devise interpretations of religious texts in order to justify their positions. This play covers these points quite nicely, as it tells the story of Chana, a mother of 12 children caught in a 20-plus year abusive marriage. It is not just physical abuse that she endures, but emotional, psychological, and financial abuse as well.
Chana finally musters up the courage to leave her husband, and with the help of a close friend, is able to flee from her home. The price for this freedom is that she would need to leave her children behind, who range in age from teenagers to toddlers. She makes it her objective to not only secure a get - a religious divorce - but to also see her children again. This is not so easy in her world, as her husband, as well as other family members have effectively turned the children against Chana. The community as a whole has shunned her, abusing her with epithets that suggest she is not only a whore, but a pervert. It seems as though the community has come to the conclusion that she is a lesbian, as she sought refuge in the home of a female friend, and has been lving there ever since leaving her husband and family behind.
A minyan is religious term in Judaism that refers to a gathering of 10 men. This is the minimum that is needed in order to conduct such things as a public prayer service, most notably on Shabbos (Sabbath). There are also other functions that require the presence of a minyan, but they are too numerous to list.
The title of the play refers to the gathering of 10 women at Chana's home on the day she returns with an official order from the rabbinical court; she has been given permission to see her children. Her family however, is deeply divided. What follows is not only the exposure of the abuse that she suffered under her husband's thumb, but a stripping away of the veneer of family life in this very insular society.
I found myself seething by the end of the play, not only for what happened to Chana, but for the hypocrisy inherent in those that proclaim their piousness so loudly, only to use it as a disguise for their own ends. I witnessed this firsthand through the experience of working in Brooklyn all those years, right near the Hasidic community. I would often watch the throngs of men going to shul on Friday nights, or the occasional Saturday morning, dressed in their most somber religious garb. Pious men they were indeed - unless of course their own pleasure needed to be satisfied. This is why one would see these same pious, learned Talmudic scholars underneath the Willamsburg Bridge on a weeknight, haggling with the hookers as though they were purchasing jewelry on 52nd St. Never buy retail when you can get it wholesale.
There was a talk back session after the play, (which had several actor friends as part of the cast) and there were several women in the audience that bravely told their own stories of abuse and escape. It was also noted, and rightly so, that while Chana's situation is not necessarily endemic to the ultra-Orthodox community, it is certainly not infrequent either. What is endemic is the position of "blaming the victim," something that extends not only out to other fundamentalist religious sects, but even into our own secular society as well, though we have certainly seen a change in that in recent years.
This play however, was not about religion, but about violence perpetrated in the name of religion. Religion served in many ways as a back drop for a larger issue. It also served as a smokescreen for the denial on the part of those that simply had problems facing the reality of a horrific situation. If denial is after all, a God-given survival tool, most of the women in this play use it in spades.
People ask me why I turned away from my faith. This was part of the reason; not the abusive part of it, as it was not something I witnessed in my own home, but rather the hypocritical nature of what I witnessed in many situations. So often, we see those who proclaim their righteousness with such fervor, only to be poor examples of it themselves. I would rather live my life as an atheist, and do what good I can, than wear my religion on my sleeve while I cut off the other sleeve in the process.