There are two ways an observant Jew can go if he abandons the golden mean in his personal practice. One way is to "the left" by adopting secular practices and starts rearranging his Jewish ideals to accomodate them. The other is to "the right", adopting chumrah after chumrah in a new-ending quest to add what he perceives as additional sanctity in his life.
The way these two deviations are characterized is quite different. Become more secular and people tut-tut disapprovingly. You're perceived as less religious than you used to be. Become more strict and people nod approvingly. How frum you've become. You've added real piety to your life.
A variety of reliable Jewish sources, from Chazal down to the Rambam, emphasize the golden mean. In Avos, Rabbi Levitas tells us that the only quality a person should possess in extreme is humility. Otherwise, we should always strive for balance in our lives in order to maintain a sustainable worldview and peaceful relations with our peers.
Unfortunately, some people can not be content with being average. Give them a standard and they will plant themselves to the right of it every time and then portray themselves as being the true expectation, the old standard being decried as far too lenient. While many may not like this practice, they will still nod approvingly if you suggest that those practising the new chumrah are being more frum than otheres.
The problem with this attitude is that its logical conclusion is the fanaticism that governs the inhabitants of Meah Shearim and parts of Ramat Beit Shemesh, an belief that you can never be too frum and that the more chumros you inflict on yourselves and others, the more you are doing God's will.
This is possibly the only way to explain this article from The Jewish Chronicle:
In the past few months, reports have emerged of more than 100 Orthodox Israelis who have taken to wearing a Muslim-style burka, in the belief this will bring about redemption. They can be seen in Orthodox areas of Tiberias, Safed and even Jerusalem, and are mostly followers of Rabbanit Bruria Keren, a mother of 10 from Ramat Beit Shemesh.
According to excerpts from a recent interview in Maariv, this Rabbanit (no sign of a Rabbi Keren yet) is, to be kind, a nutcase. She preaches the burka as the appropriate outfit for today's Jewish woman. She speaks minimally, prefering to communicate by writing. And her followers, still small in number, are loyal to her foolish ideas. But you will not hear a word of disapproval eminating from the Chareidi world. After all, given their standards:
Firstly, standards of modesty are becoming increasingly stringent and require increasing effort to follow. A CD recording by a top rabbi from Lakewood, New Jersey, for example, reportedly asks women not to swing their arms while they walk and not to allow their daughters to wear colourful banana-clips in their hair. Women know that if they wear skin-coloured stockings, they must include a seam so it is clear they are not bare-legged. Schoolgirls do not wear shiny shoes that could “reflect their underwear”.
Open a Charedi newspaper, and there are either no images of women, or they are blacked out. In the past few years, several women have been beaten up in Jerusalem because they would not move to the back of the bus in Charedi neighbourhoods; a top rabbi in Bnai Brak asked women to leave before the end of shul so they did not mingle with men following davening; that same town has a street with separate sides for men and women; separate shopping hours are not unknown.Just last week, a sheitel shop in New York was boycotted for refusing to remove headshots of women wearing wigs from its window.
Indeed, the burka is the logical extension of those obsessed with piety at the expense of reason and understanding. If long sleeves are good, burkas are better. Yet all this is only the penultimate expression of religious idoicy. This ultimate will be the declaration that women cannot appear in public, cannot drive, cannot speak except in the privacy of their own homes when they are alone with their husbands, assuming they're not niddah.
I sometimes wonder if this trend isn't partly influenced by the increased exposure Islamofascism received in the popular press after 9/11. Before the bombing, the Taliban were poorly known fanatics running a poorly known country. Suddenly women with burkas started appearing on television and in newspapers everywhere. Is it too hard to believe that some Chareidim saw these images and were envious that somewhere out there someone was doing tznius better than them?
And these same people will still nod approvingly at Keren and her crazies: Psssss, how frum they are!