Why Pick on Tzniyus?
My wife and I recently spent Shabbos in Tiveria at a Shabbaton for close to 150 female university students who have been studying weekly for the past few months under the aegis of the Nefesh Yehudi organization. The question-and-answer session on leil Shabbos lasted until 4:00 a.m. To my surprise – this was the same week Yair Lapid's Channel Two piece on Ramat Beit Shemesh went viral – the first question asked was: Why do most chareidi women wear sheitels? Mrs. Miriam Kosman, a veteran of many such Shabbatons, told me that is almost always among the first questions.
What the students wanted to know was: Why if the point of covering one's hair is to signal one's status as a married woman and to avoid attracting male attention, is so much money lavished on sheitels that look "natural" and, in many cases, far better than most women's real hair? (I should add that many interesting responses were offered to the students' question about sheitels, and it is by no means my intention to enter into a halachic discussion of preferred forms of hair covering.)
Behind the students' questions lay a perception that finally helped me understand a phenomenon that has bothered me for some time: Why does it seem that after every communal tragedy, the inevitable response is to call a tzniyus gathering for women, with proclamations about sheitels? Gedolim past and present have attributed various tragedies to failures in mitzvos bein adam l'chaveiro, and Rabbi Ahron Leib Steinman has called many times for strengthening of ourselves in this area? Surely failures in tzniyus cannot be the source of every communal tragedy.
Even the greatest figures rarely have the clarity to link a particular tragedy. Tragedies are at most occasions to reexamine our lives and ask how we can become more worthy of Hashem's protection. So again, why the stress on tzniyus?
What the students intuited is that tzniyus is an area in which hypocrisy is rife. Or to put it another way, it is an area where the lack of congruity between outer conformity to rules and the inner state of the one following the rules is most obvious. Modesty cannot be reduced to only a matter of rules that can be objectively measured. When the subject is presented in terms of dry compliance with rules, without conveying the inner dignity and sense of self-worth those rules are meant to enhance, the results can be dangerous.
What the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in a different context – "I know it when I see it" – applies well to modesty. We all recognize genuine modesty when we see it. I can remember sighting a young chareidi couple in the Zurich airport a few summers back. After five or six hours at Ben-Gurion Airport and in transit, I felt like I had just laid eyes on human beings after too much time in the zoo. The inner refinement proclaimed by their dress and carriage stood out like an oasis for a thirsty wayfarer. So too does a lack of refinement proclaim itself, even when hemlines and sleeve lengths are all according to the rule book.
The goal for every Torah Jew, men and women equally, is to ensure that our mitzvah observance is not a matter of rote performance --mitzvos anoshim m'limuda -- and that our external mitzvah observance is either the outgrowth of our desire for closeness to Hashem or intended to awaken that sense of closeness. When there is no connection between the external and the internal, and the former is merely a matter of conformance to social norms with which we have grown up, we obviously cannot expect our mitzvos to arouse much Divine favor.
The focus on tzniyus, in this view, is not to the exclusion of a hundred other areas in which most of us could use improvement. It is but the most useful way of illustrating the distance that we all have to travel between external observance and true avodah she'belev. And it applies to men as well as women. Most wives dress, first and foremost, to please their husbands, and if there is something amiss in a woman's dress, the problem is as likely to start with her husband as with her.
Beit Shemesh Metaphor Alert
Many metaphors have been offered in recent weeks on the question of whether chareidi Jews should dissociate themselves from the actions of various zealots, whether in Ramat Beit Shemesh or Meah Shearim. One brilliant talmid chacham asked: Can anyone imagine all Jews being asked to apologize or dissociate themselves from Bernie Madoff or all Italians from the latest mob hit? Two weeks ago, I joined the metaphor sweepstakes in a similar vein.
The foregoing metaphors now strike me as inapposite. Bernie Madoff never claimed that he engineered his Ponzi scheme in order to maximize his federation giving or to buy a couple of nuclear submarines for Israel. And few mob hit men proclaim that they have rubbed out someone who stepped onto their turf in order to obtain a more prestigious seat at the next Columbus Day Parade. But the crazies in Ramat Beit Shemesh cite the Torah as the justification for their actions, and claim to act as they do to uphold Torah values.
In that situation, is it so far-fetched to argue that those who believe that their actions represent a ziyuf (falsification) of Torah values should say so? That doesn't mean apologizing for them – one can only apologize where one bears some kind of responsibility. But it does mean decrying the distortion of Torah.
For decades, The Jewish Observer highlighted every new deviation from historical Torah Judaism of the Conservative and Reform movements. And today, the American Yated Ne'eman publishes extensive investigative journalism pieces on the "innovations" of the Chovevei Torah yeshiva. At least with respect to the heterodox movements, the chances of anyone mistaking their practice for normative halacha was rather remote, and yet the distortions were noted and decried. When those dressed in chareidi garb act in a certain fashion, there is more chance of them being mistaken for "super shelanu," and therefore more reason to protest the distortion.
Feminists against women
One thing that the feminist groups protesting this year's Puah Conference obviously do not care about is the well-being of women, and certainly not their reproductive health. They remind one of the feminists who fought tooth and nail against New York City's efforts to create an all-female public school in East Harlem, even though such schools represented the one hope of teenage girls in Harlem being able to concentrate on school without being forced to constantly defend themselves in the school hallways.
The Puah Institute was a pioneer in counseling for infertile couples, and provides free counseling for thousands of couples from all sectors of Israeli society. Puah's protocols for ensuring the integrity of the process for IVF and IUI treatments are employed in all Israeli hospitals and over fifty centers abroad. (Interestingly, research shows a higher incidence of success of IVF and IUI when there is such hashgacha.)
The Puah Institute's annual medical and halacha conference draws close to 1500 men and women, including many leading rabbonim, from across the religious spectrum. Among over twenty topics scheduled for this year's conference of great practical interest to women were: the use of epidurals, new treatments for varicose veins, preparing for the birth of a handicapped child.
Prior to the first Puah Conference twelve years ago, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu paskened that there should be no women speakers in order to ensure that rabbonim from all Orthodox sub-communities feel comfortable attending and the information transmitted receive the broadest possible distribution. The purpose of much of the medical information made available was to provide rabbonim with new information of potential halachic application. The sessions both sensitized rabbonim to the needs of couples experiencing fertility problems and doctors to the needs and halachic concerns of the Orthodox community.
Kolech (an "Orthodox" feminist group) and Am Hofshi, both of which are funded by the New Israel Fund, mounted a determined campaign to force this year's Conference to have female speakers. Doctors scheduled to present were subjected to phone and email campaigns pressuring them to withdraw. The protestors urged the government to cut off all funding to Puah. (The Puah Institute works closely with many women doctors, and sponsors many other programs in which women doctors speak.)
Seven of the nine doctors and professors originally scheduled to speak withdrew, many of them on the grounds "it's better to be smart than right." In the end, however, the conference went on as scheduled. Other no less distinguished doctors replaced those who had dropped out, and attendance remained at previous levels.
One final addendum: Kolech and Am Hofshi have been pressuring speakers not to appear for four years. Only this year did their efforts gain traction. That is mostly attributable to the NIF and the media's success in pushing the so-called "negation of women" to the top of the national agenda.
But most articles on the controversy surrounding the Puah Conference mentioned that a few months ago, at a Health Ministry awards ceremony, a woman prize winner did not go on stage to receive her prize personally, allegedly because the Vice-Minister in charge of the Health Ministry is chareidi. That incident demonstrates the inevitable tensions facing chareidim in high positions. (Rabbi Uri Lopoliansky struggled with these issues his entire term as mayor of Jerusalem, with the constant guidance of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.)
Any chareidi who ascends to such to a high public position, however, must realize that he cannot impose the standards of our bar mitzvahs and weddings on public events. If he feels incapable of making the distinction, he should try to find a family simchah that, regrettably, makes his attendance at the public event impossible.