Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Climate of Chumros

According to a story in the Jerusalem Post* a mother of 12 was arrested for the severe abuse of her own children. This woman has been subsequently identified as Rabbanit Bruriah Keren of Ramat Bet Shemesh.

She is the woman who has developed a cult of followers whose focus is on extreme Tznius. In her view the best form of Tznius observance is to cover up as much of the female body as possible, including the head. Thus when one sees her or one of her adherents in the street, one will see the equivalent of a Muslim woman who wears a Burkha.

How does such an insane woman develop a religious following?

For any human being to do that, they must have several things going for them. They must appear to be very spiritual. They must be very persuasive in their rhetoric. Their words must be based in Halacha. They must also appear to be of exemplary character… I would think almost saintly in their demeanor. And most of all they must be charismatic. Apparently Rabbanit Keren was all or most of these. I don’t know how many adherents she has but she more than a few. They followed her and adopted her standard of Tznius by wearing this Burkha type clothing.

One can thus easily see how a legitimate Halacha can be taken to extremes. Especially in our day where Chumros seem to be popping up all over, many through the use of rabbinic bans and edicts.

Here are some examples:

There are books on Tznius that tout Chumra as Halacha. Separate seating concerts are banned. A Beis Din of Tznius exists that grants certification to clothing stores upon approval of the Tznius level of the clothing. Much of which are clearly based on Hashkafa rather than Halacha. It is therefore not that great of a leap to see a Rabbanit Bruriah Keren arise and take advantage of that climate. And end up with a following.

It’s just a variation on a theme. Other people who have taken advantage of this climate have committed all kinds of atrocities in the name of their Chumros or their Hashkafos. Like beating up women in public buses, or trashing a restaurant, or trashing the streets of Jerusalem… all in the name of God!

This is just another offshoot of that. We end up with a scenario where seriously religious women looking for guidance and a role model find it in a Rabbanit Bruriah Keren. But what they did not know is that instead of following the holy dictates of a righteous woman, they were following an evil and mad woman who persuaded them of her righteous ways.

It doesn’t matter that even the most right wing of Charedi Rabanim opposed her extreme clothing requirements as not in concert with any Torah Hashkafa. They created the climate. Where some misguided women have come to see Tznius as the most important feature of their lives and found a woman who they thought exemplified it. And they followed her.

Some people who are serious about their religion can easily be convinced to go to absurd extremes in an effort to observe Halacha not just in a minimal way but in the highest way they can. They have been taught that there are levels of observance, and that the highest level is the most stingent form of observance. So it is not too much of a strech for a woman to be persuaded to wear a tent that covers every inch of their body. It is that attitude which gave rise to this phenomenon. There are enough people in this world who suffer from various degrees of obsessive compulsive disorder that will find Rabbanit Brirual quite appealing.

Rabbanit Keren has created this following for herself taking advantage of the current religious climate. She uses it as a tool for recruitment.

It is of course obvious to all that she is a very sick woman. The descriptions about her private life are beyond that of any description of any child molester. Pick the worst molester you’ve read about. She’s worse. The children have admitted committing incest with their siblings. In the case one of her sons, he had sexual relations with both a sister and a brother. Age didn’t seem to matter either! And according to at least one early report, she has been accused of having forced her children to do it!

She also physically abused them:

The mother is also suspected of breaking one daughter's nose with a rolling pin, leaving her children to sleep outside in a locked shed when they came home late, and preventing them from receiving medical treatment for their injuries.

One can obviously not make any generalizations about sick people like this to any religious community Sick people exist all over… in every civilized society on the face of the earth. Nor can you blame anything any rabbi ever said or did for her behavior. She is depraved.

But what one can say about this new climate of Chumros, I think, is that opportunities now exist for any human being with a motive to do what Rabbanit Keren did - and thrive. They take advantage of it and use religion as a tool for their own purposes. The personal motives may range from a psychotic and twisted sense of religion to a nefarious motive of feeding their abnormal desires.

I think we ought to take note of that and next time there is a call for additional Chumros beyond basic Halacha, and think twice about taking them on. Because by doing so we contribute to a climate that enables all kinds of crazy people to use it as their means to achieve their perverted ends.

*Some information in this post comes via Rafi's blog, Life in Israel

Updated: 3/8/08 5:57 AM CDT