Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Is This Where Black Hats Came From?

Despite the best efforts of the Chasam Sofer ("everything new is forbidden by the Torah") to freeze Judaism in time, our religion has evolved over the centuries. The only thing that hasn't changed over time is the desire for each generation to act like it hasn't, like what we are doing today has been Jewish practice from time immemorial.

Over the last few days, news about a new women's burka for Chareidi women has spread across the news and the blogsphere. At first, I thought it was a joke. Then I thought it was just a few nutcases who were doing it. Finally I learned from all my reading that it is a few nutcases but that the Chareidi world is so chumrah-conscious that it might soon spread to more normal parts of that community.

To recap, there is a woman in Ramat Beit Shemesh who is teaching her followers, some 100 women, that proper tznius requires a woman to be completely covered. Not the standard approach of halachah that mandates covering of specific parts of the woman's body and, in the case of the marriage woman, her hair. She is advocating such a total covering that some women don't even have eye slots in the shawls they wear over their heads! Naturally, this behaviour is accompanied by promises of great rewards from God and heart-warming stories of husbands who now refuse to look at their wives' faces directly since it's no longer modest.

The difficulty with this approach is the simplistic logic of its practitioners. If a little is good, a lot must be better. If tznius is a positive characteristic in the eyes of God, then doing it as much as possible must be a goal of any Heaven-fearing Jew. According to Rav Benjy Hecht of Nishma, if the opposte of tznius is brazen sexuality, then anything less than total modesty is the acceptance of something disagreeable in the eyes of God. How can one compromise on that?

This is a logic that is brought about from a fanatic and simplistic view of Torah and halachah. Some excerpts from an interview with Rabbanit Keren, from the Mom In Israel blog, are worth listing, if only to refute their assertions. The first contradiction is listed in the interview:

The rabbanit's followers don't see themselves as a cult. After all, each one wears a different number of layers, making them different from other types of chasidim. "Each woman and her own [level of] tzniut." [This last statement contradicts everything else in the article. Clearly Keren and her followers believe everyone should wear veils, shawls, capes, and several additional layers of clothes. The style or exact number of layers is beside the point.]

Here the definition of cult has taken on an extremely limited form, one easily put aside by the writer of the article. As the article goes on to describe, what Rabbanit Keren is doing is indeed forming a cult. What matters it that the colours of the shawls and capes are different (although I can see that ultimately becoming the next step in the evolution of this madness)?

"The rabbanit doesn't talk because of all of the bad things that can come from it such as slander, gossip, joking, and flattery; therefore she took silence upon herself. It also allows her to control anger."

Now, Avos does teach us that silence is indeed an important characteristic (see 1:17) but nowhere does it demand absolute silence from a Jew. Is there anywhere in the works of Chazal that decrees that a person who never speaks is on a holier level than one who does? On the verse in Bereshis that says that God breathed life into the First Man and he became a living being, Onkelos famously translates "living being" as "a speaking spirit". Speech is a gift given by God to man to use in proper ways. Just as there is kosher and non-kosher food out there, yet no one advocates living on a starvation diet because of the risk of coming across some pork, it makes no sense to take a vow of silence upon one's self because some forms of speech are harmful. It is a greater challenge to speak and work on one's self-control not to misuse this gift.

There is also a simpler matter to consider:

Ten thick skirts, seven long capes, six scarves tied in front of the head and three more in the back. And over all a shawl-- several thin veils, falling from the top of her head to her ankles, fluttering over a face covered by a crocheted cloth veil. Inside this pile sat the Rabbanit, bent by her load of wrappings, reading chapters of prayers.

The last time I checked, Israel was a very hot country. I can only imagine what the temperature would rise to under such coverings on a hot August day. This new outfit isn't just outrageous, it's a danger of life itself. Unless one of the Rabbanit's chumros is to always stay somewhere air conditioned.

The children of the veiled women have an important role. Some women "vitru" (have given up on) eyeholes in their veils, and their small children guide them in the streets.

I don't think I need to comment on the stupidity of this act. If this is indeed true, then it only reinforces the cultish nature of what the Rabbanit is doing. It is fanaticism in the guise of piety run amok.

They dress their daughters in "redidim" [this could mean veils, capes, or shawls, but usually means veils in this context] but only married women cover their faces.

This is the next phase in action. Currently the halachah demands hair covering only from married women. But not according to this group. Hair covering is now mandatory. Facial covering is what will set married women apart. At least until someone finds it too immodest to allow unmarried girls to show their faces in public.

They are quiet in the presence of men and communicate with the outside world through the husband.

Okay, so there are some positives to her approach. (Sorry, couldn't resist)

Rabbanit Keren has ten children and works as an alternative therapist. A large number of women make a living by selling organic food and nutritional supplements. "Modest women are clean inside and out." One woman says the Rabbanit saved her child's through an herbal concoction she prepared him. He began to breathe on his own despite having already been connected to an oxygen tank.

Although a detailed exposition about the uselessness of many "alternative" therapies isn't the subject of this post, I would briefly note that many of them are founded on P.T. Barnum's famous principle: There is a sucker born every minute. I only wonder: is the Rabbanit sincere in her bizarre beliefs or is there an ulterior motive behind her manipulations?

"Once I gave a lecture in a small hall. There were a few women wearing wigs instead of scarves. I stopped speaking and privately asked Hashem to give me strength, to help them repent. I began to speak in praise of covering one's head and face. Hashem helped and a commotion began in the hall. Women got up from their chairs, cried and threw off their wigs.

Praise J---s! (Sorry. Once again I couldn't resist).

I've never been a big fan of wigs myself. First of all, if a woman wants a good quality one, they become horribly expensive and this creates a terrible negative social pressure on women of modest means who can't afford the latest fashions. Secondly, and more importantly, a beautiful wig really does an end run around the point of the mitzvah of kisui rosh and destroys its spirit entirely. Having said that, there is nothing in halachah (outside of the wild and crazy world of Satmar/Neturei Karta) that says that a woman wearing a wig is violating halachah in any way, fashion or form. Thus this "bringing to the senses" testimony is further proof that this new movement isn't about halachah but rather chumros gone wild.

The holy matriarchs and the women of Jerusalem covered their bodies and hid their faces. Even in the Torah it says that Tamar didn't see Judah's face because she was covered.

This is not entirely correct. The only references in the actual Torah to women covering their faces are Rivkah Imeinu when she first met Yitzchak Avinu and to Tamar when she davka was trying to fool Yehudah into sleeping with her. True, there is a comment by Rashi regarding Avraham Avinu's statement about Sarah Imeinu, "behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon" (Bereshis 12:11) which he says means that until then she had always stayed veiled but that is implied from the text, not stated and there are other ways to interpret that statement which Rashi himself suggests (see there). Finally, there is the example of Leah being veiled at her wedding but this was done specifically for the purpose of subterfuge. So far, it's not looking good for veils.

There is also the matter of cultural norms. In those societies, it may have been normal for all women, house of Avraham or not, to be veiled in public. Back in those days, men wore flowing robes. Does anyone suggest that we adopt those garments again today?

In conclusion the Rabbanit distributes holy water from a container: liquid that she saved from the mitzvah of taking challah. The women swooop down over the water, fighting over every drop, but the Rabbanit tells them to give it to the men. "It's a segulah (charm) for learning Torah." She pours a few drops into the bottle of a baby who came with its mother.

If we saw any other ethnic group in the world doing this, we'd shake our heads and mutter "stupid goyim". Yet somehow here we're expected to nod and wonder at the high level of piety these women possess?

The Rabbanit thinks that blue is a modest color.

Ah, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Certainly they're a modestly achieving team this season.

At one stage she had doubts, so the Rabbanit sent another student to fetch her. Miriam told the rabbanit that she felt like a "Fatima." The Rabbanit said, "Why does it matter? There is your will, and there is God's will. And God's will is what counts, not yours."

Really? The Rabbanit knows God's will? Statements like this always anger me. Great Jews over the millenia have desperately tried to understand God. Moshe Rabbeinu came closer than any to visualizing, as it were, what He is yet even he had his limits, yet she claims to know God's will in this case? This is no longer piety but self-righteous arrogance.

The Rabbanit emphasizes that each of them is an example to others, and if they regress in their level of modesty, they will cause 300 other women to sin [i.e. those women will continue to dress as they do].

There is a principle of all Jews being responsible for one another but to threaten followers like this is a sign of the weakness of her position from a standpoint of actual halachah. It ranks up there with statements from other Chareidi authorities explaining that tragedies that happen to Jews in one place are because of the sins of Jews in another. Who can know the mind of God? Who can see all the intricate patterns He has woven into Creation and make sense of them?

She doesn't talk to men, but she chastised a pair who made fun of her on a bus, asking them whether their wives' wigs were better, and whether "pritzut" (licentiousness) was preferable. That shut the men up

Possibly because they realized they were talking to a complete wingnut.

What's interesting in the response from the outside Chareidi community. Instead of flocking to the trend, many seem quite bothered by it. There are mentions in the interview of people throwing garbage at these women and mocking them. Then there's this quote:

Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, says. "I have seen a few in Safed, and I think they are crazy. Their extremism causes different type of distortion. Extremism is not healthy. There is no commandment to cover the face with a veil and to wear dozens of layers of clothes. This I say as a rabbi."

The problem is that this rejection may not last very long. Consider this woman's concerns:

N. says that she and other haredi women reject this trend because they are afraid. Ten years ago no one put tights on girls under twelve. Then a few began to dress that way, even at the height of the summer. Now all haredi girls over two must do so or face rejection from the community.

This is an extremely valid point. Dig into the archives and pull out pictures of Torah observant jews from a century ago. Other than certain groups of Chasidim, and usually only on Shabbos or when visiting their Rebbes, most observant Jews dressed in a conservative and modest fashion. One does not see throngs of matching black suits and hats like one does nowadays if one attends an Chareidi shul. At some point, the black hat was meaningless. Now it has become a standard of Judaism. Where does it all end? At what point will mainstream Chareidi women beging wearing shawls, one at a time at first? At what point will they look at non-Chareidi but Torah observant women who walk around in head scarves and sheitls and accuse them of pritzus?

The Rabbanit has also covered her bases when it comes to objections from people who know what they're talking about:

The Rabbanit Bruria says that if a woman dresses modestly and her husband gets angry, it's her own fault. She must pray to Hashem to remove the objection. Husbands aren't always right. Sometimes they are worried about society, about what the people in the synagogue will say. Hashem help them if they care more about what people will say, and prefer a woman who is attractive but immodest."

In other words, no matter what people say, their concerns will be twisted to mean that the woman isn't being modest enough!

But what of the original concern? If some tznius is good, then more should be better, right? Except that this goes against demonstrable positions that the Torah and our halachah have taken. I will mention three.

The first is the mitzvah of giving charity:

"If there be amongst you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land with the Lord thy God giveth thee, then should shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother, but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth." (Devarim 15:7-8)

Our Sages tell us that the mitzvah of giving charity to the needy is very great. The Shulchan Aruch, following most of the earlier codifiers of halachah, specifies the amount, 10% of one's income (which income, before or after tax, etc. is a very long discussion). One might ask another question, however. Why only 10%? If this is such a great mitzvah, why is there a limit to it? Indeed, there should be no halachic limit as implied by the first mishnah in Peah stating that amongst the things that have no measure are deeds of lovingkindness and leaving the corners of the fields to the poor.

Then there is a second example, that of terumah(Bamidbar 18:12). The Torah tells us quite simply that the first tax on crops in Israel is given to the Kohen but never actually fixes an amount, unlike the various Maaser tithes. Again our Sages have set an amount to this: 1/50 (with certain variations for generous or stingy people). But if terumah is a gift to God via his servants, the Kohanim, why a limit? Why not give much, much more and thereby increase the mitzvah performed?

Finally, there is the example of the nazir (Bamidbar 6:2-21) who takes a vow to scrupulously avoid, amongst other things, all wine and grape-products. At the conclusion of his vow, he is required to bring sacrifies to the Holy Temple. One of them is a sin offering. Why is this when he has not only not committed any sins but he has consecrated himself by upping his level of observance for a period of time?

The answer to all these points is that the Torah is telling us that even though a little may be good, more IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER! One performs the mitzvah of tzedakah by giving 10% of one's wealth. Handing over 95% and living in penury does not make one a bigger tzadik. The nazir, Chazal tell us, is considered a sinner, hence the offering, because he has denied himself something that God permitted him to have.

If all this is true, then all the statements of piety from the Rabbanit and her followers are foolishness and empty. By forbidding themselves what is permitted, they make a mockery of halachah. By then casting aspersions on those holy Jewish women who observe the halachah in a reasonable fashion they commit a great evil and distance people from God.

They cannot claim to know God's will. No one can know what is more infinite than the universe. We can only pray that this craziness remains confined to a handful of maladjusted people and does not become the new "minimum" standard for the Jewish world.


mother in israel said...

I enjoyed reading your comments.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Well, truth is, I always did feel a slight religious taunting when I saw the Muslim women, especially in Israel, all neat and modest with their light, modest, and free flowing clothing, and their head coverings (Palestinian women don't cover their faces, it's more of a shi'i thing), that bring out the inner modesty of a woman, in comparison to the Jewish 'ultra-orthodox' with their wigs, and tight skirts, and jewelry and their makeup. You start to think 'how are the religious more religious than the secular? Because they look 'hotter' wealthier and more feminine?'

Though it's true, this is very much not a simple topic, and it takes much pondering.

Nishma said...

It is not enough to simply point out that the Torah places limits on activities that we associate with piety such as giving tzedakah. This recognition in Torah demands of us to think and study Torah to understand the very value that the Torah is imparting. It is not just okay to spend money on oneself but the Torah, in placing a limit on tzedakah, is identifying a value in this. In telling women not to dress in the manner of the burka, the Torah is stating that there is also a positive halachic sexuality that must be extant in the reflection of self. These views from the extreme negate the depth of Torah and the demand by HaKodesh Barudh Hu to delve into His Wisdom to understand true values that are much more sophisticated and deeper than the simplistic vision of non-Torah individuals. This Rabbanit has taken the description of values of the non-Torah world and has applied them to Torah. That is a simplistic and non-halachic way to understand tzniut. Its time to start thinking within the definitions of Torah and stop copying the simplistic visions of the nations around us.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Anonymous said...

Well said. The Torah of groups like this is very two dimensional. Those in the group are "good" and those outside are "bad". It makes for easier understanding and self-justification but abandons the rich depth the Torah offers us.

The guy with the Hebrew name offers an even better thought to ponder: Yes, techinically speaking, a Chareidi woman with a great $3000 wig and a nice, slender but long-sleeved outfit is technically being modest, but with all the makeup and tzatzkes is she really fulfilling the intent actually BEING modest?

Anonymous said...

Very nicely stated.

If I may say so, I think the root of the problem is the misuse of the word "tznius" in the first place. As Rabbi Hecht has pointed out elsewhere, the only place where the Torah commands us on "tznius" is to walk with "tznius" before G-d (the end of the book of Yoel). According to Rabbi Hecht, this word would be better off translated as "with grace" - and clearly this makes more sense when one considers the verses themselves.

Somehow though, this has become translated as "modesty" and made into one of the 613 commandments (if not the most important one!). We all know what difference a word can make (e.g. "he's a freedom fighter, not a terrorist"). While I think modesty of dress is a virtue, and clearly, the halacha mandatescovering a certain amount of one's body, I can't help but wonder why we don't use the term "tznius" in relation to a person's ACTIONS, rather than dress code. Maybe that would stop some of the fuss right there.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

ah, mr. count, well said! that is the true essence of modesty; actions! Now, I'm only going to mention him because he's well known; If you really want to see a modest person, it's Osama bin Laden. It's easy to see the fear of G-d on his face, and that all his actions are done for the sake of heaven...I'm serious! He fulfills in himself all the lessons Nahmanodies (ramban) taught us in his letter to his son. Now, it may be that he has a difference of opinion from some other people, but try to find such a fragile soul in America!

[And there is very little evidence that he, and not Dick Chaney purpotrated the 9/11 attacks..]

Batya said...

"Chareidi world is so chumrah-conscious that it might soon spread to more normal parts of that community"


Well, outside of the cult's schools, those women won't find work, which will restrict the followers to those either with financial means or willing to starve. The Chareidi sector is based on the wives' working.

And I'll also add the following to my post about it:
Chareidim demanded tights on little girls even in the summer over 30 years ago, when my daughters were in Gan Ruti, Bayit Vegan. Not that she threw them out for not complying. It was a private gan, and she needed every kid to make a living.