Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The Modesty Chase

Tznius sign in Bet Shemesh (Kikar HaShabbat)
A few years ago, a sect arose among Orthodox Jewish women that decided that they were going to observe modesty in dress to the highest level possible. Toward that end, they started wearing clothing modeled after the strictest Muslim modesty standards. Which takes the form of covering up the entire body including the face with a loose fitting cloak – leaving only the eyes exposed (for obvious reasons). These women came to be known as Burka ladies.

While the response by the vast majority of even Charedi Poskim - including the Eida HaCharedis - was highly critical of these women - some Poskim actually praised them for their sensitivity to Tznius even while being critical of what they were actually doing.

I mention this in light of how things seem to be progressing in the modesty department among Orthodox Jews. Which in my view is not progressing well at all. In fact I would call it regressing.  

There are 2 incidents of recent vintage that illustrate this. One in Israel and one in the US.

1) From Rafi’s blog, Life in Israel
The courts in Jerusalem have warned Iryat Bet Shemesh to remove the "tzniyus signs" from the streets within 30 days or else be fined to the tune of 10,000nis PER DAY!
The courts have already ruled that City Hall must remove the signs and this ruling comes as a result of City Hall Bet Shemesh not doing so. They are in contempt of court, according to the judges, and must remove them or be fined like this.
City Hall claims they cannot remove the signs due to the threat of violence that would be a result of their removal, but the judges reject that and said that leaving the signs up gives them legitimacy and puts women in danger. 
2) From JTA
The Chabad school Bnos Menachem in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, sent a letter last week to parents inform parents of the code, which bans denim, tight clothes and leggings, and requires nail polish to be in “conservative/soft colors,” wigs to not go past the shoulder blades, skirts to be mid-calf length, and elbows, feet and the neckline to be completely covered…
“Parents who adhere to these rules will be welcomed in Bnos Menachem School,” the letter later continues. It asks parents to sign a contract agreeing to follow the dress code. 
There is not a doubt in my mind that all three of these things are related. We are living in an unfortunate time with respect to modesty issues. In the ever increasing Chumra chase, modesty issues seem to be leading the way on the right. The Burka ladies were only the most extreme manifestation of it. It should have been a wake up call. But it wasn’t as these 2 stories illustrate.

The modesty chase didn’t begin yesterday. It has been going on for some time now. How does a phenomenon like this happen?  I can only guess at the answer. But I attribute it to the shrinking world in which we now live. No longer are we separated by boundaries. Although there are still enclaves that isolate and insulate themselves from the rest of the world it’s not like it used to be.

There has been a general integration of both worlds. We all live together in one big  submarine. We encounter each other all the time in public and in private. We know what the lives of others are like. So that if one segment feels it is the most observant – and yet sees another segment being ‘more’ observant, the only thing to do is adopt the stringencies of the ‘more observant sector’. There is no longer a Chasidic community that is separate and apart from the non Chasidic world as was the case in Europe just a few generations ago.

This is how separate seating at weddings in the US began. A custom that used to be almost solely in the province of Chasidim is now de rigueur in the Yeshiva world. The shrinking world has led to a whole series of other Chumros that have been adopted most of which have to do with assuring that women are dressed as modestly as possible. Which is a grossly unfair burden to women and hurts all of the observant world!

There are some Charedi ‘pundits’ that explain this as a reaction to the lowering of societal standards. They feel that they must counteract it by ‘going the other way’. That is a very poor excuse. You don’t correct one wrong by engaging in another.

What, one may ask, is wrong with adopting the practices that are acceptable to all? Plenty. It has resulted in creating an environment where women are seen only as sex objects – temptresses for all men by merely showing up anywhere in public - whether real or in an image. There may be a lot of denial by the right about that. But the facts speak for themselves. Here are a few examples of those facts – all of which have been discussed here before:

*Buses in certain neighborhoods are now segregated: men in  front – women in back. Violators can find themselves verbally and/or physically abused.

*Pictures of women that used to be common in many Charedi publications are increasingly disappearing in mainstream Charedi publications.

*Illustrations of families in books published in the Charedi world do not include mothers or wives at a Shabbos table.

*Working women in Bet Shemesh may not use pictures of themselves in advertisements. Men are permitted to do so – and do.

*Words like ‘breast’ cannot be used even in discussions of breast cancer. Some modesty zealots even erased the word ‘woman’ from a sign over a women’s health clinic.

*Some neighborhoods do not allow men and women to walk on the same side of the street.

*Tznius patrols are now becoming the norm in certain neighborhoods. A shop in religious shopping area in Jerusalem (Geula)  was torched a few years ago by one of these patrols for selling clothing they deemed immodest – even though the proprietor was the wife of a respected Rosh Yeshiva.

*Acid was spilled in the face of a girl jogging through an extremist Charedi neighborhood for wearing a jogging suit.

Women are being erased from society – all in the name of modesty.

There has to be a happy medium. Modesty in dress is clearly a positive value. But there is  such a thing as being too modest! I think we are seeing more and more of it these days.

What would be the optimum level of modesty in our world day? In my view it should not exceed the bare minimum Halachic level.  While some segments that have stricter standards, they should understand that not every Posek agrees with them. 

In their own communities they may dress the way they choose. But they should never be allowed to intimidate those that wander into heir neighborhoods but don’t have their standards. Or even those that may not dress according to the minimum Halachic standards as long as they are modestly dressed by conservative standards.  If for example a woman comes into their neighborhood wearing pants or a short sleeve shirt they ought to just ignore her.

The kind of thing that the one extremist suburb of Bet Shemesh is doing should not be allowed to continue.  They want to observe those standards themselves? Fine. They certainly have that right. But when it comes to imposing it on others. That’s plain wrong and it results in the kind of thing I described I a recent post. I therefore agree with the court ruling in the first case cited above. And disagree with the standards imposed on the parents in the second case.

It’s time to say no! We ought not to give in to the temptation to just go with the flow. It might be easier to just dress as modestly as possible in order to respect the sensibility of everyone. But the easy way is not always right way. And that is surely the case here.