Monday, September 06, 2010

Standing up to Unnecessary Chumros

There is a fascinating Gemarah located in Mesches Avodah Zara (20a-b) . It recounts the story of the Tanna - Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel who once encountered a gorgeous non Jewish woman in the street. Upon seeing her great beauty he praised God by saying, ‘How wonderful are thy works O’ Lord!

The Gemarah then goes on to explain that Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel was not in the habit of gazing (staring with lascivious intent) at gorgeous women since that is a forbidden act lest one come to be physically aroused. He merely encountered her by accident at a blind corner as the two of them approached from different sides.

Aside from this point I think one can learn a very important lesson here. When encountering a physically beautiful woman, one need not run away from it in shame. One need not curse his bad luck in being forced to see such a thing by accident. Instead of running away from it - one should praise God for creating such beauty.

This lesson seems to be lost on some rabbinic leaders in our generation.

A couple of years ago there was a woman in Ramat Bet Shemesh Israel who started a movement for women who concerned themselves with dressing in the most Tznius (modest) clothing possible. Her name was Bruria Keren. She actually succeeded in getting some very seriously religious but naïve women who had been indoctrinated to believe there is no such thing as covering up too much - to cover up too much! The mode of dress that they chose was the Burqha. That is a Muslim piece of clothing cover that is basically a tent worn over the body – from the top of the head to the bottom of your toes. The only way to see out of it is a slit near the eyes.

That caused somewhat of an uproar among even the most ultra of Orthodox circles. The Burqha was discouraged as not being sourced in any form of Halachic Tznius. Not long after that event hit the media, Bruria Keren was convicted of abusing her children - some of whom were involved in incestuous acts. But that has not discouraged her followers. One can still find women in Ramat Bet Shemesh walking around like that. I saw one during my recent visit there.

Lest anyone think that no ‘Gadol’ would ever approve of such behavior… think again. Rafi’s Blog, Life in Israel, has a photo of a 2 year old poster being put up all over Jerusalem that encourages women to wear shawls that cover their upper bodies - even though the clothing the targeted women tend to wear is among the most modest type of clothing one can find.

The shawl is needed literally as ‘an extra layer of protection’. The ‘look’ is very much like the Burqha (see photo). The poster is signed by none other than Rav Tuvia Weiss the head of the Edah HaCharedis (among others). Apparently the real objection to the Burkha was not that it was too modest. It was that it was not a Jewish desgined piece of clothing but a Muslim one! But the look itself is quite appropriate and even laudible. This is what some rabbinic leaders think women should look like in public.

As if that weren’t enough, Sephardi Gadol, Rav Ovadia Yosef has nearly ‘decreed’ that Sheitels (wigs) should be banned. Accroding to Rav Ovadia - women who use wigs to cover their hair are not acting in accordance with Halacha. From VIN:

The Rav singled out women of Gerrer Chassidus saying, “A women wears a sheitel. Why? There are Gerrer Chasidim who are lenient in this issue, as if Gerrer Chassidim are the whole world. This is not correct. Poskim have specifically said that wearing a sheitel is forbidden and is a very serious matter.”

To bolster his point Rav Yosef quotes a story about a married couple who came to Rav Yisroel Abu Chatzeira, the Baba for a Bracha:

The Baba Sali asked the husband, “Why is your wife wearing a sheitel?”

“This is what people do,” responded the husband.

“This is what people do?” retorted the Baba Sali incredulously.

He turned to the woman and said, “Listen to me. When you get to the next world, they will burn you. They will start to burn you from your sheitel and then they will burn you completely.”

Had Rav Yosef been speaking only to Sephardim, I would understand. They do not believe wigs are sufficient coverage of a married woman’s hair. But he was speaking to all Jewish women quoting both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Poskim! True – he was probably telling people to be more stringent during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva (The 10 days of penance starting with Rosh HaShana and concluding with Yom Kipur). But sending the message that women who wear wigs will burn in hell goes a little bit further than that!

When is someone going to stand up and say, ‘Enough!’ I don’t mean me. Nor do I mean laypeople with common sense. I mean someone with stature… with enough clout that will make it a wake up call as to what some rabbinic leaders are trying to do to Klal Yisroel. What have we wrought in our time with this attitude that women should kept literally and completely under wraps?

I realizew that various segments have the right to dress they way they want. Their Poskim can legislate for them any Chumra they want.

But I do not agree that this should not be criticized by rabbinic leaders with common sense. The message must be sent that these kinds of Chumros are not normative at all… but extreme measure by extreme sects (in the case of shawls) - and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with married women wearing a wig to cover their hair.

Why should they dsay anything? Why create controversy with public statements like this? Because of something I would call ‘Chumra Creep’. If nothing is said there ultimately will be some people that will opt to imitate their Israeli counterparts and before your know it, shawls may become normative in certain circles here. What Chumros will be adopted next?

The pull to the right is very strong now. What was perfectly normal Frum behavior a few short decades ago is today considered almost anti-Frum behavior. Gedolim of great stature used to sit with their wives at weddings. Those Gedolim were so superior to anyone we have today that there is nothing to talk about. No rabbinic figure alive today would dispute that. But today in many cases, if someone makes a mixed seating wedding - some rabbinic leaders will actually boycott it and not attend. I know at least one like that.

It is time for someone of stature to say ‘Enough!’ …and just say no to Chumros!