Saturday, November 12, 2005

Of Supermarkets, Tzni'us and Shmattes

Returning from the US (and the conference on the Protocols) and after spending a wonderful Shabbat at Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck (N.J.), where I was privileged to serve as Scholar in Residence, I discovered the Israeli blogosphere convulsing over the draconian rules of modesty that are imposed upon women who don't meet the dress code at supermarkets in Nahlaot or Agrippas Street. It appears that an increasing number of stores are banning women who are wearing slacks or 'unacceptable clothing' from shopping. OTOH, they are offering shmattes to serve as ersatz skirts to allow both shopping and to preserve Haredi sensibilities.

Predictably, and understandably, this has produced furious responses from some bloggers. Rinat Malkes of Balagan is typical (though a bit more shrill than most):

People here lost their sense and I can't stand this anymore! I can't! Now this is the supermarket. Tomorrow the buses. What the hell are these ultra-orthodox idiots thinking? That we are in Iran? We have to respect them all the time and they cannot respect us, secular people, jews like them!!! That's one among the million reasons I got to be ANTI! Yeah. I became ANTI after I came to live here. I can't stand them. This post is gonna cause polemics, I know. However I can't be quiet! Say whatever you want, but I swear just wanted these people to disappear from earth. They're destroying the jewish people! I myself and many others, all around the globe, are very happy we are different from them! Argh! I'm writing this a couple of hours after the whole thing happened, but my blood's still boiling. It's just a shame!!!! Wish I could tell this in Portuguese or Hebrew. I guess in English I cannot express myself properly. When I say I'm angry it's because I really am!

Heady Stuff. When I read it (and the comments), my first reaction was, 'Ugh! Another unnecessary Hillul HaShem.' What is it about Haredi (and Hardali) society that everything comes down to female modesty? How come, a few years ago, when there was a drug problem in Har Nof, local rabbis attributed it to the fact that women weren't covering their hair? Recently, the suggested cure for another societal ill was traced to skirt lengths. {Never mind that radical separation of Orthodox singles is a major factor in impeding dating and marriage, but that's a different post. See here.] What the blazes has one thing to do with the other? It reminds me of my friend Judy Miller's book, God Has Ninety Nine Names. She describes how in every country where Islamists take over, the first thing they do is to throw a shmatte on the women. So my first thought was to think that there was something to Malkes' intemperate tirade (though she clearly has a dogmatically secularist, anti-religion agenda, and her comment about the abandonment of Tradition by secular Israelis is misinformed, gratuitous and wrong. See the Guttman Report and the Kabbalat Shabbat Programs at Tzavta and Michlelet Alma.)

The important question, however, is what lies behind this clear trend? What motivates Orthodox society to push its religious policy (and its envelope) beyond the limits that Halakhah sets? The matter clearly lies beyond the confines of a posting (and a good start was made by a student of mine, Dr. Ora Cohen, in her MA thesis.] In this context, it is worth noting an observation that was made to me by a psychologist friend, who is one of the most perceptive people I know, Dr. Giti Bendheim ( I hope she doesn't mind being cited). She once offered that the rush to halakhic stricture (humra) is a direct response to the collapse of clarity and absolutes that characterizes Post-Modern society. I think that she is absolutely right, and fits in well with Prof. Jacob Katz' idea that traditional Jewish society possesses a certain 'ritual instinct' that leads it in directions that defy or at least are not consenant with the obvious upshot of halakhic research (though her comment should be complemented by Prof. Haym Soloveitchik's observations in Rupture and Reconstruction.)

Dr. Bendheim's comment helps explain the expansion of sex segragation and modesty regulations in the Haredi and Hardali world. The Liberal West has effectively dispensed with any and all restrictions on sexual behaviour, and traditional modes of modesty. (Wendy Shalit is not wrong on this score.) Instinctively, religious communities are responding by raising the fortifications and lowering the hemline. Essentially, there are salutary aspects to this move. The problem is when thing run amok (as they admittedly have). Where are the lines? When do things get too rigid or ends in themselves? When they lead to humiliating someone else, when they ignore other religious values, when they violate the sacred rule of: צו פיל איז אימגעזונט.

Update: Gil Student (indirectly) confirms my last point.

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