Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Monday, 4 July 2011

When A Story Doesn't Make Sense

Every so often a story appears in the Israeli secular press about religious Jews, usually Chareidim, that is outlandish and briefly garners attention before being debunked.  A few years ago there was a story in The Jerusalem Post about Rav Aharon Shteinberg contacting Muslim leaders to declare a ceasefire not between Israel and the Arabs but between religious Jews and Muslims.  No attributions, no proof and the story soon disappeared afterwards when it turned out to never have happened.
A few weeks ago we were treated to another example, that of a dog which was supposedly ordered stoned by a religious court after the Chareidi judges declared it to be the reincarnation of a notorious anti-religious lawyer.  The story spread quickly and was the source of much mirth at the expense of the Chareidi community, only it also turns out to never have happened.  Closest to what I can tell, it seems someone commented on the dog which had wandered into the court building that it was like the animal was a reincarnation of that lawyer and someone said jokingly "Yeah, we should stone it or something".  In other words, routine trash talking no different than what happens everywhere all the time only in this case it morphed into a story about those crazy religious and their whacky legal decisions.
Now comes this story from Ynet:
Three weeks ago, Rabbi Zilberstein, the the son-in-law of prominent Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, received an inquiry from a women's college coordinator about a student who is growing increasingly religious. The student said she wanted to dress modestly but her parents were preventing her from doing so, because they were not religious.
"The young woman is facing a difficult challenges from her family members, who forbid her to dress modestly," the college coordinator wrote in the inquiry.
 "The young woman thought that if she inflicted wounds on her legs she could tell her parents that she is wearing a long skirt to cover the wounds," the letter said.

Rabbi Zilberstein's reply came shortly after, with an unequivocal answer: "She is allowed to inflict wounds on her legs in order to dress modestly and evade sin."
 In his reply, the rabbi commended the student's initiative, saying "the blood from the self-inflicted wound will atone for the people of Israel," adding that the coordinator should allow the student to commit the act.
What are the problems with this story?  Well let's start at the top.  Here we have a woman at the college level and we are expected to believe that her parents still control how she dresses.  What's more, we are to believe that her parents want her to dress in an immodest fashion and are offended by the idea of her covering more of her body.  Right, because there are responsible parents out there telling their daughters "Hey cutie, change the outfit.  You don't look enough like a whore for us."  Am I the only person thinking "Huh?" right now.  
Then there is the manner of the remedy.  In most parts of the world, self-inflicting wounds on one's body is a sign of mental illness, not a coping method for overcoming the desires of controlling parents.  In addition, inflicting damage on oneself without it being for an important purpose like maintaining health or treating illness is generally frowned upon.  Rav Zilberstein would certainly be aware of this.
Like many other stories that come out of the Chareidi community, I am  reasonably certain this one is either false or a very twisted version of the true occurrence.  While I have noted before that there is lots that can be criticized about Chareidim it is too easy to stereotype them into a dysfunctional caricature of themselves and then condemn them for behaviour, usually imagined, that one disagrees with.
When dealing with stories like this, a shaker full of salt, not just a grain, is what is needed.

11 comments:

Bob Miller said...

Nowadays, it's especially necessary not to take stories about anybody at face value unless these are really traceable to an trustworthy source.

The idea that an account that "might have happened" to those named in it can be believed might have worked once, but it doesn't now. Too many people have become too adept at generating fiction and calling it fact. This is not about one group (such as the group we don't belong to!); it's pervasive.

Bob Miller said...

s/b "a trustworthy" above. Sorry.

Benjamin of Tudela said...

I love your blog, but I think some of your arguments here are wrong.

In Israel "modest dress" is basically code for Haredi style long dresses. It makes perfect sense for parents to not want their daughter to dress in a Haredi style clothing. "Immodest" dress probably only means skirts that only go up to the knees...hardly "Immodest" by anyone else's opinion.

Additionally "College" can mean anything from some Haredi Michlala to a real university. The girl may be just around 18, so I can fully understand her parents having quite a bit of control over her. This is especially true in Israel where kids are far more dependant on parents, and even more so if she got a charedi education.

As such, I'm not quite ready to put this story in the "clearly false" category.

Dr Mike said...

Here's another possiblity. Remember a few years ago that a secular reporter found some posek and asked him "Say, what would happen if the wife of a kohen had sex with a non-Jew?" And the response was "Well she'd have to divorce her husband."
Out of that came a "newstory" about a wife of a kohen who was raped by foreign workers one night on the way home from the mikveh and how she was subsequently forced to divorce her husband and leave the kids with him, ruining their lives, etc. and here was another "example" of how crazy the religious were. Only the truth eventually came out that this never happened and he made the whole story up.
I'd bet that someone asked Rav Zilberstein "Hey, if a girl wanted to wear a long skirt and her parents opposed it, would it be okay to cut her legs so she'd have to hide them under the longer skirt?" And he probably said something like "Well clearly she has a strong feeling for Judaism and I have to commend her for that" and this story came out of that.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I seem to remember that it's much more common in Israel for college students to live at home, which would give their parents more control over their day-to-day actions.

MiMedinat HaYam said...

college students in israel are post army, so they are very independent.

(of course, some do their sherut leumi while attending college; or is it vice versa) so they are deoendent on their parents for $upport.

Benjamin of Tudela said...

This girl has gone Haredi - Haredi girls don't do army or shirut Leumi. As such she can be as young as 17-18. \

No one does sherut Leumi while attending college.

Benjamin of Tudela said...

I was expecting an update from you, now that this story has been proven to be true!

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

I've been away for a few days. Can you post a link?

Benjamin of Tudela said...

http://menachemmendel.net/blog/2011/07/06/rabbi-zilberstein-on-girl-cutting-herself/

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all, thank you for the quick reply.
I wonder if things are being lost in translation. My impression from the recording isn't that the mother isn't so against dressing more modestly but dressing in an identifiably chareidi fashion which is quite different. Now there are some who might hold that "tznius" and "chareidi fashion style" are the same thing but that's not true. Could this be the actual conflict?
Second, with regard to injuring himself, the analogy brought doesn't quite fit. It's one thing to blind yourself in order not to perform a huge aveirah but the scale of the aveirah here is completely different. In addition, there still has to be an answer: isn't self-mutilation forbidden? Again, there's the story the Rav tells but these stories are to teach us something, not set standard halacha for the ordinary individual. So I still have a problem with the story as seen in the English press.