Saturday, February 04, 2012

Gur Hasidim and gender separation 

One day in 1976, a student entered our classroom at Beit Yaakov Seminar in Tel Aviv, weeping passionately. She informed us that the revered Gerer rebbe - the so-called Beis Yisroel - Rabbi Israel Alter, had died. Classes at the seminar, which was affiliated with the Gur Hasidic sect, were suspended immediately, and all of us, including girls from the Lithuanian community (those ultra-Orthodox Jews historically opposed to Hasidism ) to which I belonged, bawled our eyes out.

The Beis Yisroel, who ruled Gur Hasidism from 1948 to 1976, was a dominant leader who revolutionized that sect, which in those days won admiration in the ultra-Orthodox world - even though, or perhaps because, it had always been steeped in secrecy when it came to relations between men and women. Over time it emerged that the unusual Gur customs in this realm are tied to the concept of kedusha (sanctity ), from which stems the unique attitude to sexuality and conjugal relations within the sect. (Much of our understanding of the topic is the result of the research of Dr. Benjamin Brown of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem over the last few years ).

A new study that focuses on the private and public lifestyle of Gur Hasidim lifts the veil further on sanctity in the sect. "Sanctity is the ideology of the art of drawing apart," says Dr. Nava Wasserman, whose study of private and public life among Gur Hasidism was the subject of her doctoral dissertation (which she wrote under the guidance of Prof. Kimmy Caplan, at Bar-Ilan University ).

According to Wasserman, "This view dictates the strict separation between the sexes in this Hasidic sect, and primarily the practices of prishut [separation] that guide the relationship between spouses in this society, which is unparalleled in other ultra-Orthodox groups. Hasidism is doing more than is demanded by Jewish law. If in the Western world sexuality is a constant presence, it is precisely against this that Gur Hasidim fight. They don't want to get anywhere near the atmosphere and tension of sexuality, even if matters do not reach the level of prohibition. This is the fulfillment of Hasidism: Separation beyond that which Jewish law requires."


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