Sunday, February 06, 2011

Of Tznius, Taliban Women, and Tragedies

Sigmund Freud was right. At least if one judges how Tznius has been the focus of so many of the problems plaguing Orthodoxy. One of the principles Freud devoutly believed in is that the sex drive – which he termed the libido – guides everything we do. Even those things that have nothing to do with sex outwardly. He called it sublimation. The sexual energy generated by the libido is redirected into other areas.

Of course Freud believed that this applied to all areas of human endeavor. I’m not sure that is any longer accepted doctrine in the world of mainstream psychology. But it is certainly undeniable that sex seems to be in the forefront of much that is going on in the world. One need only look at the entertainment industry. Virtually everything on TV and in the movies involves sex at some level. Advertisers are increasingly using sex in their TV ads to sell their products. The same is true in the print media.

This obsession with sex is not limited to ‘the outside world’. The Orthodox world has much the same obsession albeit from an entirely different angle. It is in their constant focus on how to deal with the libido.

I understand that in our day with so many sexual taboos broken and becoming part of the culture, there needs to be some way to combat the constant bombardment of improper sexual messages in our culture.

On the other hand it is also true that the numbers of Orthodox Jewish women who adhere to Halachic standards of modest dress is unprecedented. And yet every time there is a tragedy in the world, it seems that the first thing done is a community-wide Tehilim is called at which rabbinic figures addressing the crowd always turn to Tznius as the one thing that needs rectification as a community.

This is true even of the relatively moderate Charedi enclaves in America. It is however doubly true in Charedi enclaves in Israel. In places like Meah Shearim the obsession with sex (via a sublimated obsession with Tznius) seems to be at a fever pitch. That was most recently demonstrated by the implementation of a new Hechsher organization designed to approve women’s clothing stores.

This leads me to an article in Ynet that is perhaps the ultimate result of this kind of thinking. Here is an excerpt:

So far, one has only heard of "Taliban mothers," haredi women covered head to toe, including a headscarf, much like Afghani women living under Taliban rule. But now one finds little girls too, the daughters of these "Taliban mothers," walking around outdoors in full body coverage.

It is true that this is a phenomenon that is limited to a very small group of women, many of whom are described as newly religious. It is also probably true that there may be psychological issues with many of these women. But the source of this behavior cannot be denied. It is their community’s obsession with Tznius as a response the the male sex drive. In this case these women have taken teachings about the way female dress affects the male to an absurd extreme. Their reasoning is as follows. If men are attracted to the female form, the more they cover themselves up the less likely that it will be an issue for men who encounter them. Thus covering even the face is a logical extension of that.

Should anyone say that even the most extreme of Charedi leaders would never agree to something like this – they’d be wrong. The idea of a woman covering up as much as possible was at first embraced by some of these leaders:

This initiative was received positively by many haredi circles and was even accompanied by an enthusiastic letter of support signed by Badatz rabbis, the ultra-Orthodox court of justice, and Eda Haredit leader Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss.

It was only after complaints from husbands about their wives denying them sexual relations that things began to change:

A Neturei Karta delegation approached haredi rabbis and presented them with findings regarding the "Taliban women." They said these women refused to have sexual intercourse with their husbands or take off their head covers even when they walk around the house or in the mikveh.

Well… at that point these rabbinic leaders did a 180 with a vengeance:

Religious neighborhoods all over Israel were filled with harsh letters condemning the cult. "You must beware not to dress in odd and peculiar clothing (including veils), especially if the husband is against it, because it's also against halacha. All the more so these changes should not be applied in cases of young girls"…

The same rabbis who once praised the veils, now realize the situation has gotten out of hand. Recently signatures of 13 more rabbis from Beit Shemesh were added to a petition protesting the new dress code.

So strong is the opposition by even the extremists of Meah Shearim - the children of these women are denied entry into their schools.

Obvioulsy these Burka women are rejected by even the most right wing radical rabbinic leader of Meah Shearim. That this community is now protesting louder than any other is - I believe - because they realize that the women who they teach these kinds of attitudes about Tznius are the most vulnerable to this phenomenon.

There is an obsession with Tznius/sex in virtually all segments of the Charedi world. It seems to be only a matter of degree. And this begs the following questions: Is it possible that the all this over-emphasis on Tznius is backfiring? Is it possible that the more people Tznius is emphasized - the more it will cause some people to go too far? Or as is often the case some people will pushback and go the other way - completely ignoring these admonitions - seeing them as too oppressive?

Wouldn’t it be better to not always focus on the lack Tznius in women’s dress as the source of all the tragedies in the world?

Maybe there are other reasons for those tragedies? Maybe God is trying to send a different message than improving Tznius women clothing? How many more tragedies will it take to realize that maybe just maybe Tznius in not the issue God wants us to focus on.