Friday, May 23, 2014

Extremism in Defense of Tznius

Not that beautiful? Halle Berry with a short haircut
People often ask me what I consider extreme Charedism. The answer is not really that simple. I’m tempted to use Supreme Court  Justice Potter Stewart’s response to a similar question about pornography:  I know it when I see it.

The reason I find it difficult to define is because extremism is sometimes defined by context. In one environment a certain activity might be considered normal while in another it would be considered extreme.  So when I use the term extremist or extremism, it has to be taken in the context of the post.

But as the retort by Potter Stewart indicates, there are times when extreme behavior is such in any context.

One of the things I constantly advocate here is normalcy. I am a firm believer in leading one’s life in ways that are considered normal by 2 measures. One is Halacha. And the other is by societal standards. Obviously Halacha comes first. But often Halacha has broad interpretation. And it is sometimes interpreted by societal standards. One Halacha that is a prime example of this is Tznius. Or more precisely modesty in dress. 

I believe that modern psychology accepts the notion that there are generally (there are always exceptions) differences in how men and women are sexually aroused. Without getting into long detail, men are aroused by the visual.  Women... not so much. Halacha recognizes this. So men are commanded not to gaze at women for purposes of enjoyment. Women are asked to dress in ways that will not initiate thoughts of arousal in men. That is what the laws of Tznius are based upon. One can see expressions of this not only in Judaism, but in the 3 major faiths. The most extreme example of this is Islam. The more religious sects ask their women to wear face covering Burkas that are basicly tents that cover the entire body.

Where does Judaism come in on this? Well that’s where local custom comes in. There are basic laws that require certain parts of the body to be covered up called Erva (nakedness). The rest depends on the culture in which one lives. For practical purposes, then,  Iran or Saudia Arabia might require a Jewish woman that lives there to wear a Burka in accordance with the modesty customs of those countries. In the United States, I think it is safe to say that the modesty standards do not go beyond the minimum standards of Erva.

I should add that there is a requirement for a married woman to cover her hair because  ‘Erva’. But the Erva in the case of hair is a horse of an entirely different color. The reasons for which are beyond the scope of this post. But the accepted Halacha is that the uncovered hair of a married woman is considered Erva. And most if not all of it must be covered.

So how should Jewish women in this country dress in order to fulfill the laws of Tznius? One would think that no matter what faction of Judaism one is from, the customs should be the same. But that is far from the case. If one travels to Williamsburg, one will see one style of dress for Orthodox women. And if one travels to Teaneck, one will see another.  But I think it is safe to say that in the vast majority of cases there is a lot of overlap. Most Orthodox women in America dress by covering just below the neck line, covering their arms at least 3/4s of their length and wear skirts that cover the knees .  And most cover their hair.  Those are the basics. There are of course variations of this theme

How should an Orthodox married woman cover her hair? That is a dispute among the Poskim. Some say every strand must be covered and a wig cannot be used. Others say a wig can be used as long as it covers all the hair. Still others allow some hair to be shown as long as most of it is covered. Why these differences? The answer is based on how it affects men. Or more precisely how Poskim perceive that it affects men. There is a variety of opinion about that among the Poskim.  And therein lies the controversy. Which has most recently been demonstrated at a gathering in Lakewood (which was addressed by “The Rosh Yeshiva and the Mashgiach”).  And the calling posts (robocalls). One announcing it and another commenting afterwards.

Here are the issues as discussed by Eliyahu Fink on his blog
Apparently, the rabbis suggested that the teachers of Lakewood shorten their wigs to make them look less alluring…
 Rabbis are instructing women to cut their $2000 wigs. The wigs are expensive because they look nice. So the rabbis say that the women should chop the hair that won’t grow back on their costly wigs which look nice so that the women won’t look as pretty 
A robocall congratulated the women who attended the (gathering) for cutting their wigs to a shorter length. The voice announced that because of the great merit of the righteous women who shortened their wigs to the new appropriate lengths there were (Baruch Hashem) no Hatzalah (local ambulance corp) calls in the entire Lakewood. This is truly historic as it was the first time ever that there were no Hatzalah calls for a few days…
(But the problem is that) there were Hatzalah calls in Lakewood this week. Several calls in fact. Some of them were rather serious too.
Rabbi Fink and many others were appalled by this for two reasons. One is the very demand that women are asked to not to look too good. That’s right. A woman may not look too beautiful lest she sexually arouse men. A wig that is too long is deemed sexually arousing.

In my view, these men are paying much too much attention to women. I guess if you live in a bubble like Lakewood something like a long haired wig can turn a man on. But for those of us who live in the real world, wigs are not a turn on. A beautiful woman that is dressed modestly by American conservative modesty standards will not turn on a man in America even if she doesn’t cover her hair at all. That is even true in Jewish law. Because Jewish law allows beautiful Jewish woman that are not married to not cover their hair at all.

I strongly protest the message that a Jewish woman is not allowed to look beautiful within the letter of Halacha in this country. Of course she can. In fact she must. It might even be a Chilul HaShem for a religious Jewish woman not to look her best in public. What isn't permitted is for her to look sexy in public.

Now I’m sure that the retort to that would be: We are not asking women to be ugly. We are just asking them to not be too beautiful.

 Really? Where do we draw the line? There are some very beautiful women in the world with short hair that are quite ‘alluring’. The physical beauty of anyone is based on their total appearance. It is not reserved only for wig length.

What makes this even worse is the complete lie these organizing Kanaoim told in order to encourage women to look ugly. Telling them they saved lives by doing it when this was shown to be false, undermines any credibility they might have had for their cause. People with a righteous cause do not have to lie to make their point. In fact truly righteous people do not lie at all in order to get their way.

I am surprised at the participation by the Rosh Yeshiva and Mashgiach at this gathering. I am even more surprised that here has been no reaction by them to these lies!

This is not Judaism. This is extremism at its finest. It is not much different from telling women to wear Burkas because without that - the mere fact that you can tell the person you are looking at is a woman and it will sexually arouse you. This is the rationale of the Burka Ladies in Bet Shemesh.  It is why Lev Tahor requires their women to wear Burkas.

With this kind of thinking - the next thing you know, Burkas will no longer be considered modest. After all, you know there is a woman under there. Who knows what lurks in the heart of a man when he sees that?