Sunday, December 16, 2012

In Support of Horseback Riding: Another Perspective on Rabbi Anemer

A few years ago I posted my personal eulogy for Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer ztl in which I praised him for being a community rabbi, something very rare in the United States today. In this spirit I would like to share an email that was recently sent to me, which the sender has kindly allowed me to post (names and identifying information have been changed), regarding a personal experience with Rabbi Anemer:

Hi, My name is Rachel Klein and looking for an email where to write a thank you letter to Rabbi Anemer I came across your blog. Of course I can no longer write to Rabbi Anemer, and decided instead, based on your posting of April 15th , 2010 write to you instead and tell you
another side of Rabbi Anemer. A side that perhaps has been lost. Of course we all know that R. Anemer was Yeshivish Orthodox and all that is inferred from that. One might think that he had a one sides view of things. I have a different experience.
A few years ago I was working in a Haredi institution and having an interesting experience because I was the only woman employee. Everyone was nice and polite and I had no issues even when I was Modern Orthodox, and very modern by their standards. One day my co-workers found out that my then 10 year old daughter was riding horses after school , and you can imagine the disapproving comments I had to hear. So, in order to avoid any issues I went to Rabbi Anemer and
explained the situation. After hearing the whole story and meeting my daughter his suggestion was to let her ride until she was bat mitzvah, at which point  two things could happen; either she was going to lose interest or she would continue liking the animals. If she still liked them as a teenager, he said to let her do so and make sure that she won her competitions and that she was making a kiddush HaShem.
So time passed. We live in New Jersey now. My daughter finished 8th overall in the country last year in the Hunters and Equitation divisions. She is training now for the next Maccabi Games.
Rabbi Anemer took the time to listen to something perhaps superfluous like horseback riding in a life of a 10 year old. Today Deborah is the top Jewish rider in the country.
How is this for a Haredi Rabbi?
I wish I could go back and tell him the result of his counseling, but I can't.

From a purely halakhic point of view, horseback riding should be a no brainer. Yes, people, including women, are allowed to ride horses; they used to be a common form of transportation. Even horseback riding on Shabbos, which was not the issue here, is only a rabbinic prohibition so it is not inconceivable to imagine an orthodox rabbi being lenient for a professional rider. The reasons why horseback riding could be controversial to some are that it the uniforms would likely violate Haredi standards of modest dress and is not something that people in that community usually do. The greatness of Rabbi Anemer here, as I interpret him, was that he was willing to rule on narrow halakhic grounds and not social policy. Laws of modesty certainly do not apply to minors and even for adults there are no firm rules for modesty disconnected from any community context. Obviously, just because something is not generally done does not make it forbidden. A trap that the Haredi community has fallen into is that, in  the absence of established communities and the presumption of traditional observance within the wider Jewish community, Haredim have turned to the stringent practice of halakha to form the foundation of their community and mark the boundaries from everyone else. The ironic unintended consequence of this tactic is that while the intention may have been to maintain the observance of halakha, the result of transforming halakha into community norms has been that the tail now wags the dog, community norms, and the particular thought process that goes into their creation, have replaced halakha and the halakhic process.

As a member of the Haredi community, I seriously doubt Rabbi Anemer would have approved of any of his own daughters taking up horseback riding. Such things are not done in that community and anyone who wishes to remain a member must obey its restrictions. That being said, Rabbi Anemer was willing to make a distinction between Haredi community norms and halakha. The person asking the question was a halakhically observant Jew, but not trying to join the Haredi community so he ruled solely based on halakha and not Haredi social policy. Implicitly he needed to recognize and accept the legitimacy of halakhic lifestyles that were not Haredi.