Rabbi Heidi Cohen
What does a 15-year-old girl living in Beit Shemesh have to do with this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo?
Ki Tavo is one of the final Torah portions we read before entering into the High Holy Days and before concluding our yearly cycle of Torah reading. It is in this portion that we are reminded of the many blessings we will receive if we choose to follow the laws of Torah, and the curses that might befall us if we don’t. We are told that we are to carry out the laws and social ordinances given in the Torah. However, nowhere does it say that men are supposed to spit and curse a 15-year-old girl because she refuses to sit in the back of the bus.
Ariella Marsden is that 15-year-old girl. One day, riding home from school on a public bus, Ariella took an open seat toward the front. A few ultra-Orthodox men also boarded the bus and insisted that she move to the back of the bus. Recently, the ultra-Orthodox have decided that women should sit in the back of public busses so that they do not distract the men – just by being a woman in their presence.
Ariella herself is Orthodox and dresses in long sleeves and long skirts. She attends an Orthodox school in Beit Shemesh and believes in s’nee’oot, modesty. However, on the bus the sign read that passengers are allowed to sit anywhere on the bus they want. Ariella, outraged that these ultra-Orthodox men were insisting she move to the back of the bus, decided to stay her ground and did not move to the back. Instead, she endured 45 minutes of the men spitting at her, cursing her and yelling at her. The bus driver did nothing to stop them nor did anyone else come to her aid.
Shaken by the incident but not crushed, Ariella took matters into her hands and approached the Israel Religious Action Center, run by the Progressive movement in Israel. It might seem unusual for an Orthodox girl to approach the IRAC, but more and more Orthodox women are turning to the IRAC for legal advice and support in similar cases. And the IRAC is helping these women and others win in the Israeli courts.
Ariella took the driver and Egged bus company to small claims court and won the maximum settlement of 16,000 shekels ($4000). This was a brave stand for her and others like her to say, this behavior by this very vocal and growing group of ultra-Orthodox is not what is meant in Torah as to how the Jewish people should behave as God’s people.
Ki Tavo reminds the Israelites that they will be a holy nation to God and before all the people. But how can we be a holy nation when within our own nation there are those who insist on drawing such lines that only divide? The only way to be a holy nation is to end these episodes of hate and discrimination. There is already enough of this in the larger world that we should work to repair, but to have it amongst our own people is disturbing and sad.
We are grateful to a 15-year-old girl who was brave enough to stand on her own mountain and call out against injustice and the rights for those who have no voice. May each of us channel that voice within us so that, as we read in Ki Tavo, we might hear and experience the blessings of truly being one people, a holy people.