Sunday, August 16, 2015

Making Chumros the Minimum Standard

Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll has hit the nail squarely in its head. Writing in the Jerusalem Post (in an op behind a premium pay-wall) she speaks of the negative effects of erasure of women from all manner of religious society. And she could not be more right.

This is a subject I have dealt with many times. It isn’t only about mainstream Charedi magazines and newspapers refusing to publish pictures of women, it is about erasing them completely in any form outside the home, as though they do not exist.

Examples of this should be familiar to most regular readers of this blog, but Mrs. Keats-Jaskoll  has listed a number of the more common ones. Among them are the following. 
B’Hadrei Haredim, altered a photo of the new government so that the faces of the female ministers were either pixellated or removed entirely.
Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of late Shas spiritual adviser Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, expressed horror: “I fear that if this continues, we will have to veil our faces.” She recounted how her father reacted with shock and anger upon seeing a published family photo with the faces of his wife and mother blurred out.
(A)n increasing number of women (are) wearing “shawls” – a poncho-like piece of fabric worn over clothing so as to conceal any suggestion of the female form.
 (In) hassidic communities in New York and London, women are expected to refrain from driving – an unofficial ban. Even world tragedies are blamed on women’s supposed lack of modesty: It is not uncommon to see signs correlating a house fire, a natural disaster or the number of ambulance calls (this in Lakewood) with wigs that are too long, skirts that are too short, or nonexistent socks. As rockets rained down on Israel last summer, a New York camp for young girls ran a modesty contest for its participants, claiming that covering their bodies would protect Israel. 
These examples only scratch the surface. The negative fallout of treating women this way is that it can cause an inability to develop a normal healthy relationship with a woman. Which comes in handy when one gets married. A Charedi therapist interviewed in that op-ed said the following:
“I recently treated someone who could not have marital relations with his wife. He described growing up with men eating in one room and women in the other; men received double portions. All his life, he saw women as ‘less than,’ as unworthy. Suddenly he was expected to marry and be intimate, yet he didn’t know how to see a woman as desirable. Clearly this is an extreme case, but it illustrates where we are going with this erasing of women.”
This is no anomaly. I was told similar stories by a Charedi friend that made Aliyah. He was a clinical psychologist (now retired) in Israel.  Many of his Chasidic clients came to him because they had no clue how to have an intimate relationship with their wives. And this was in the 70s!

The basic Halachic issues are clear. As Mrs. Keats-Jaskoll point out: 
Jewish sources that discuss the idea of shmirat einayim (guarding one’s eyes) make several points explicitly. The obligation to guard one’s eyes is incumbent on men… 
This means that women need not go to extremes of modesty to prevent men from erotic thoughts. They are not required to be erased from the public square.  The Gemarah clearly points out that it is incumbent upon men to actively avoid such situations. Not upon women to make themselves invisible in that regard.

So, why is there such a push in these extremist right wing circles? It is based on the religious principle of avoiding erotic thoughts generated by images they see. (Sometimes referred to as Shmiras Enayim – guarding the eyes.) Halacha requires men to avoid such thoughts, since it can cause them to be Motzi Zera L’Vatalah, (waste seed). Their solution is to avoid all possibility of encountering an erotic image.

But, how for example does the word ‘Isha” (woman) cause an erotic thought? A while back that word was defaced by religious extremist zealots on the sign on a building indicating that it was a woman’s clinic.

The answer is that it is all about what one is used to. In these communities they are not used to seeing women in any state publicly.  Even in the most innocuous state of dress. Unaccustomed to encountering a woman, her image (or even a word) – encountering them may cause an erotic thought. This community’s obsession with Shmiras Enayim  feeds off of itself -  increasing prohibitions against innocent images as they become newly erotic objects. Until even the word ‘woman’ becomes a source of an erotic thought.

This is not what the Halacha calls for when it tells us to stay away from erotic thoughts. But that’s what happens when one takes this Halacha to an extreme, well beyond the norm of the mainstream.

But still, the extremists argue that when there are many different types of religious Jews in one community, each with their owns standards, the community standards should be such that will make everyone feel comfortable walking the streets. Thus only the most extreme standards should be the rule.  Mrs’ Keats-Jaskoll reports that there is at least one Posek in Ramat Bet Shemesh that feels that way.

But it is not fair to impose such strictures on those who do not have they create unnecessary hardships as Mrs. Keats-Jaskoll demonstrates in her op-ed..  In a mixed religious community like Bet Shemesh where there are various standards – all of which that are in accordance with Halacha - the extremist Charedim do not have the right to force their standards onto everyone else.  

What about cities like New Square and Kiryas Joel? Do these communities have the right to have observe the modesty standards as they see fit, no matter how extreme, as long as they all agree? It is an unhealthy psychological state for any Jew to be in.

They will of course strongly dispute that saying they have a right to interpret Halacha the way they see fit... and in any case claiming their way is the most spiritual way to live. (I question whether extreme standards of modesty is all that spiritual.)

It may be true that they have the right to live as they choose without any interference from anyone else. But some of those Chasidim pay a price. So, although no one has a right to impose their views on a self contained community who voluntarily abide by its strictures, I think we have an obligation to tell them our views – even as we understand that they will ignore us.