Hat tip for both referenced articles: Failed Messiah
On one hand, there are halachos on how to dress. The written Torah describes rules regarding tzitzis and shaatnez. The idea of modesty in dress is further expanded upon by Chazal and the later authorities. There is the general idea that Jews must look different than idol worshippers if the idol worshippers' clothing has ritual significance. What one does not find, however, is an obsessive approach to dress, that is that you must wear a specific colour or type of hat or you're a bad Jew.
Yet in this day and age, many sectors of the Orthodox community have become defined by that very concept. For a man, it's not enough to wear a suit and shirt. The suit must be black, the shirt must be white and a black fedora must top the outfit or you're somehow religiously deficient.
In the Chasidic communities, the uniform is even more detailed. The type of hat, whether the brims are up or down, the shtreiml style, the caftans, bekishers, belts and vests, are all meticulously detailed for the loyal. Forget tocho k'varo. What's on the outside is the first and best indicator of one's religious level. Thus the panic over Israel's new anti-fur law:
A bill meant to protect animals from abuse and cruelty that was passed at the Ministerial Legislation Committee on Monday has outraged ultra-Orthodox Knesset members who fear it could severely affect the local shtreimel market.
According to the motion to amend the Cruelty to Animals law, which was submitted by Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh, the importation from East Asia (and mainly China) of fur or textile products made out of the hair of dogs, cats or rabbits will be banned and punishable by a one-year prison sentence.
Tirosh wrote that about 2 million animals are slaughtered each year for the sole purpose of skinning them for their fur and they sometimes get skinned alive. "We as a society must try and prevent this unnecessary murder," the motion stated.
Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, whose office is in charge of implementing the law, even recommended expanding the bill to include fur of wild and domesticated animals from around the world.
The ultra-Orthodox factions are worried that such legislation could put an end to the selling of shtreimels – the traditional Hasidic fur hats worn by haredim, in Israel.
Far from being a genuinely Jewish garment, shtreimls are actually relics of the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe. The leaders of the Mongols wore fur caps. This was copied by the Slavic nobility after the invasion ended and eventually by the Jews. There is no intrinsic holiness to them, no kabbalistic meaning. The main reasons a Chasid wears one is because his father did and because failure to do so gets one kicked out of one's clan. Hardly the stuff of deep religious significance. Yet the threat to the supply of shtreimls threatens to lead to accusations of anti-Semitism:
At a coalition administration meeting held Monday MK Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism) said that "it would be unthinkable to support a bill that forbids the import of products for such important, clearly religious purposes.
"We are not in the Middle Ages, when wearing pronounced Jewish symbols was prohibited, and I call on Tirosh and the Ministerial Committee to grant my request and amend the bill accordingly."
Naturally the law doesn't forbid shtreimls, just the support of cruelty to animals that the current supply chain maintains.
For women it's become even more onerous. There are well-defined rules of what's considered tznius for women but there are also clear areas where the concept of community norms is authoritative as well. In a community where all women wear socks or stockings, that's a norm. In a community where no one has a problem with women barefoot in sandals, that's also an equally legitimate norm.
A couple of years ago I went through this with my wife's mother. It was a hot July Shabbos day and I was about to leave for shul with my 5 year old daughter who was wearing sandals and no socks. "No, she can't go out like that," I was told. "She has to wear socks."
"No," I responded, "our community doesn't insist all women have to wear socks. Going barefoot is fine here."
"No it's not," came the response. "I went to a shiur and the rabbi said all women have to wear socks all the time."
At which point I pulled out the Mishnah Berurah and showed her exactly where it says that one is obligated only as much as their community standards demand. But it's this attitude: the rabbi somewhere else said it so it's obligatory elsewhere, that drives me crazy.
Unfortunately knowing the actual halacha has been forgotten by the Orthodox community that too often equates adding superficial chumros to one's practice as a sign of increased religious commitment. It may be okay for women to gobarefoot but you're more frum if you wear socks, goes the thinking. Hence the new pamphlet circulating in Beit Shemesh:
A rabbis' committee in Beit Shemesh distributed over the weekend a detailed booklet instructing female residents to dress modestly in the city's ultra-Orthodox areas. In the pamphlets, women are ordered to keep their hair tied and their shirts buttoned up to the very end and to wear long sleeves.
The "chastity squad" pamphlets were distributed in mailboxes in the city's religious and secular neighborhoods. They start off with some rhetorical questions: "You don't want to hurt people, right? You're a considerate person, right?"
Next, the booklets elaborate on the demands for a modest appearance: "Your neck must not show from all sides. On the front – from where the rib bones start; the shoulders – from where the neck slope begins; on the back – from the first bone of the scruff." Each instruction is accompanied by a drawing.
Additional instructions state that the shirt must be wide, long and nontransparent; the sleeves must be long enough so as "not to reveal the elbow in any form or movement"; and the skirt must be long, wide and without a slit.
The rabbis explain in the booklet that "entering a haredi neighborhood obligates us (from a moral aspect) to be considerate of the place's nature and not to hurt the residents' feelings, and to be seen in modest clothing only.
"A modest garment covers every place in need of covering. In addition, it conceals the body's shape. Thus, a tight shirt and a narrow skirt or trousers are considered immodest."
The sad thing is that anyone who actually takes the time to read the primary sources on modesty quickly realizes that most of these requirements are optional chumros that are being presented as basic minimums. Are there some communities where these are standard? Of course there are and women entering those communities should show respect for their surroundings by dressing appropriately. But it is wrong for self-appointed zealots to take their extreme position and present it as the norm everywhere.
Sometimes I wonder if the Chareidi community understands the negative impact this chumra-of-the-week attitude has on our spiritual standing. Consider the following: women are obligated in less mitzvos than men. The reason given is that women have a naturally higher spiritual standing and therefore require less rigid rules to climb up the ladder to God, as it were.
In simpler terms, if you have two children, one of whom is naughty and one of whom is well behaved, who are you going to keep on a tight leash and who are you going to let roam freely? The answer is obvious.
By creating all these excessive rules, perhaps out of a sense of Taliban-envy, the Chareidi community is saying something significant about their community's spiritual standing: it sucks. Its members are way down the ladder and need more and more rules to rise up. Not exactly the most encouraging way to motivate someone to be a better Jew.