In Praise of Naomi Ragan: An Israeli and Orthodox Rosa Parks

This story is somewhat dated, but most of the readers probably are unaware of what actually took place in Israel regarding a brave and outspoken Modern Orthodox feminist and famous authoress who dared to stand up to an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) juggernaut in a bus heading toward Israel.

In American history, every citizen knows how Rosa Parks made history on Dec. 1, 1955. This brave woman got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a municipal bus to a white man. This incident sparked the famous Montgomery bus boycott. Today, Israeli women wish they had an Orthodox “Rosa Parks” to lead them in their fight for equality in the Haredi Jewish communities.

Well, actually Orthodox novelist Naomi Ragen did exactly that a few years ago not far from Jerusalem.  No, she didn’t deliberately set out to become a Jewish Rosa Parks. She just wanted to get home. An observant, Orthodox Jew, Ragen was on the No. 40 bus line, headed to her house near Jerusalem, when an ultra-Orthodox — or Haredi — man told her to move to the back. She recalls, “I was astonished . . . And I said ‘I’m not bothering anyone. You don’t have to look at me, sit next to me — but as long as this is a public bus, I will sit where I please, thank you very much.'” Ragen says the harassment grew worse at every stop. Soon an even more aggressive, bearded ultra-Orthodox man got on and commanded her to move. He weighed about 300 pounds and hovered over her like a sumo wrestler, she says, his long, black frock and wide hat in her face.

“And he started screaming and yelling,” she said, telling her to “move to the back of the bus — or else.” “My reaction to that was I looked him in the eye and said ‘Look, you show me in the code of Jewish law where it’s written that I’m not allowed to sit in this seat and I’ll move,'” Ragen said. “‘Until then, get out of my face!'”

Pretty gutsy.

Naomi was lucky; other women haven’t been so fortunate.  At one recent incident, five Ultra-Orthodox Jews assaulted a woman and an Israel Defense Forces soldier Sunday for sitting next to each other on a bus bound for Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the civil rights movement in Israel has yet to really get off the ground. Prominent Israeli politicians are afraid to stand up against the Haredi centers of power. Even the Israeli Supreme Court has failed to grant the necessary changes to ensure equality for all its citizens. In fact, the social trends look bleaker than they did when Naomi Ragan stood up for women everywhere in Israel.

If you think about it, doesn’t it seems that misogyny might be the “Original Sin” that is behind much of the religious fundamentalism of our age?  This concept might bear looking into at another time.  Naomi Ragan represents the kind of Modern Orthodox woman who deserves our respect. I pray that more Modern Orthodox leaders show the courage to speak out against the moral and spiritual hijacking of their faith.

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