Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Of Modesty Squads and Sexual Abuse

On the surface one might think, why not? Why not have Hechsherim for clothing stores? After all - isn’t modesty in dress one of our religious mandates? If food needs a Hechser – why not clothing?

The problem is that Tznius in women’s clothing seems to be the primary focus of the extremist type religious Jews of Meah Shearim who are behind this new Hechsher. That makes me wonder about what is really occupying the minds of these people.

One should remember that it is from this segment of religious Jewry that some of the most extreme violence against other religious women comes from: Beating up women for sitting in the wrong section of a bus, or attacking a married woman for merely speaking to a man who was not her husband, or attacking a Dati teenager who was passing through one of their neighborhoods in Bet Shemesh, or throwing acid in the face of a religious jogger in the Jerusalem suburb of Beitar because she was wearing a jogging outfit… and on and on ad nauseum! There are far too many incidents to mention.

Clearly most of these incidents are carried out by thugs and not the Meah Shearim mainstream. But the fact that they more or less all come from the same demographic group means that there is something about them creates this particular type of monster. I believe that this new clothing Hechsher might shed some light on the issue.

For most Orthodox Jews, including the vast majority of Charedim, there is no such thing as a Tznius Hechsher. No Gadol of the past that I am aware of ever decided that clothing stores catering to Orthodox Jews needed a Hechsher. And it’s not like today’s clothing is any less modest than they were during the late 60s.

Back then mini-skirts were all the rage. Skirts and dresses were very short. It was nearly impossible to find a dress or skirt whose hemline was below the knee. Hemlines of the skirts and dresses worn by most Orthodox women of that time barely covered the knee - in many cases just barely touching the upper part of it. That included most religious teenagers (with the exception of those in Chasidic schools like Satmar).

My wife who attended Beis Yaakov in Detroit (Class of 68) has a picture in her yearbook where one of her teachers, Rabbi Schloss, sat on a chair on top of his desk because the hemlines of the girls in his class were so high. This is how he taught his class every day! Back in the 60s Detroit’s Beis Yaakov was one of the most Charedi girls high schools one could find – certainly outside of Brooklyn.

This is the way it was then. The 60s was an era where Gedolim like Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky were in their prime. And although there was plenty of Mussar on this subject – appropriately so - never was there ever any suggestion of a Hechsher organization for clothing by anyone. No Gadol that I am aware of approved of people going around to stores and checking women’s clothing to see if they were Tznius.

But today not only is that a reality in Meah Shearim and its environs, there is also a Tznius Beis Din, Tznius patrols, and much violence in the name of Tznius carried out by renegade members of this community.

I have to wonder whether the reason for this is an unhealthy obsession with sex. An obsession that is repressed by the extreme sexual mores of an extreme group. All that sexual repression has to come out one way or another. The focus on women’s clothing is just one way – a kosher one. Another way is the kind of violence I described above carried out in the name of Tznius by their renegade thugs.

This makes me wonder whether sex crimes are a much bigger problem in this community than in any other Orthodox community. I don’t know what the actual statistics are. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the occurrence of abuse is much greater than any available statistics would indicate. I'm sure that if any statistics exist at all they would indicate a very low incidence of sex abuse.

That’s because denial or hiding it where it is discovered it is how they seem to deal with it. And the Meah Shearim community is not alone. Witness the recent delegation of Rabbonim in America visiting a man convicted of sexually abusing his daughter for many years. They called him a Tzadik – denying that any of it ever happened.

The book Hush depicted the ‘deny and hide’ mindset of these kinds of communities. The priorities seem to be about maintaining reputation. And that camouflages a problem that could be far greater than we know.

I could be wrong but I see the obsession with Tznius as a form of sexually repressed energy being redirected into matters dealing with female clothing. And in some cases that same repressed sexual energy manifests itself in deviant and violent acts of sex abuse on the most vulnerable among us. Which breeds even more abuse since abuse victims often become abusers themselves with the potential of increasing exponentially with every generation.