Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Modesty or Pride

Bruria Keren, the rebbetzin at the heart of the Jewish burka “movement”, has been burning up the JBlogosphere and the media. She appears to be less than totally sane, or at the least some kind of OCD (obsessive-compulsive); she “dresses” in so many layers of clothing, wraps, shawls, scarves, cloaks, that she cannot even stand up. She is described as a mound of cloth hiding in her apartment. Some of her followers even go so far as to cover their eyes, requiring their small children to act as guide dogs or seeing-eye people.

She has attracted over a hundred followers, to the point that they are becoming a visible minority in Bnei Brak and Meah Shearim (religious areas in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem). The phenomenon has been reported in the Israeli secular press, which admittedly likes to point out the sensational and extreme, particularly among the religious. The question one must ask is, if the halachic principle guiding Jewish women’s clothing styles is “modesty”, tzniut, is this truly modesty, or is it a proto-feminist sensibility exhibiting itself in a prideful (gaavah) manner?

What is tzniut? It comes from the verse “Walking modestly with your G0d”, and defines our attitude, both men and women , regarding our general comportment and mitzvah observance. Regarding clothing, it is taken to mean that one should not wear clothing that screams out “Look at me! Aren’t I pretty? Aren’t I sexy?” That goes for both sexes. Orthodox Jewish men don’t tend to go around in the fishnet basketball shirts, or very flashy suits, unless one is in a social context where that is the norm, e.g. at a formal dinner, or while playing basketball. Women similarly don’t wear very short skirts or sleeves, clothing which screams out “I’m Sexy, Look at Meeee!”. The basic idea is not to stand out, not to feed our pride, not to place ourselves above everyone else.

There is another verse, “Kol Kevudah bat melech penimah”, the King’s daughter’s glory is internal. This is an extra warning to women not to dress very materialistically, which is a recognized, and somewhat tolerated, temptation. E.g., the mishnayot (early legal code) regarding Shabbat observance allow women to go out in various kinds of jewelry, but not the most ostentatious kinds, even though they are in effect carrying, not wearing the jewelry, and carrying is generally forbidden on Shabbat. It is an extra piece of advice for women not to yield too much to the temptation to show off their dresses, jewelry, etc. Even for other women – as my wife says, women dress as much to impress other women, if not more so, than to impress men.

R’ Mordechai Torczyner and Chana Luntz, Esq., have an interesting exchange on the relationship between these verses.

It would seem, therefore, that this Rebbetzin Keren has taken the latter verse to such an extreme that she has tripped over the first verse. She is so anxious to hide her light under a bushel basket, her intelligence and charisma under a pile of cloth, that she has made a public spectacle of herself and her followers, thus likely running afoul of the virtue of modesty.

Now, Rabbanit Keren has been described in a not-quite-all-there manner, between the compulsive over-clothing and her claim to have spoken with God and been told to behave like this. OK, so she’s not quite sane. However, she still granted an interview to Maariv, an Israeli secular newspaper. She has no great modesty objection to being in the media, in the public eye – so is she modest or using modesty as a tool to feed her pride, her desire for recognition?

But what about the other women who are attracted to emulate her, and even to go beyond her, yet unlike her, take their excessive pseudo-modesty into the public sphere, into the street? I submit that they must have some kind of proto-feminist sensibility, as one of my more conservative correspondents describes it. OK, the Jewish world has defined “modesty” as the province of women, let’s go out there and show everyone how modest we can be! We’ll shove it in their faces, this modesty! We can wear our modesty on our sleeve, even if that sleeve is hidden under a dozen wraps!

In overemphasizing modesty, Rabbanit Keren has created a movement of completely immodest, albeit heavily clothed, women. When one’s “modesty” not only stands out, but imposes extra burdens on one’s children, is it not time to step back and say, “am I truly walking modestly with my G0d?”

It's like Chazal say, or at least imply in Pirkei Avot (and is brought out by the Tiferet Yisroel): making a big chumra in one area can lead to a kula in another area. Excessive pnimiyut (internalization, hiding) even in the name of modesty, can become gaavah, pride, its exact opposite.

(Hey, I can jump on a bandwagon with the best of them!)


Rabbi Charles Arian said...

This is a very astute observation.

In the mid-1950s, the late author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton attended a conference on Catholicism and psychotherapy -- it was his first trip out of the monastery since he had joined in the early 1940s. By the time of the conference he was an extremely well-known author but otherwise a complete mystery to people as a cloistered monk. Merton also had a strong desire for an eremetical life, something which was not at the time permitted under Trappist practice -- though this was later changed to accommodate Merton and is now permitted under certain circumstances.

At any rate, Merton confided to one of the psychiatrists present his desire to become a hermit. The psychiatrist responded, yes, you want to be a hermit with a hermitage in Times Square with a big flashing neon sign which says "Hermit Here!" Merton was cut to the quick, he himself reports in his diary, because he knew that what the psychiatrist said was true.

Anonymous said...

100 women is a tiny amount in a country of millions. Every society has extremes, our society has a free press that has found this story to be news worthy.

thanbo said...

My wife is wondering if this is yet another "make the religious look bad" hoax.

Fishy items:

1) the woman is named Bruria, who was not known for her modesty, so it's ironic to say the least;

2) she's into modesty, but she grants a newspaper interview;

3) she's into modesty, but is it modest to make a public spectacle of oneself, or is it yuhara or gaavah (as the post asks)?

4) she's supposedly a rebbetzin - where is her husband in all of this?

Anonymous said...

Nobody has considered in all this hysteria, the effect that living in today's highly immodest and even sexually aggressive societies has on women of sensitive temperment. This includes women who are unbalanced, of course, but also those who are just sensitive. They are the early warning system that something is wrong.

The drive to modesty, including extreme modesty is happening in multiple parts of the world and it's frequently centred on some of the most sexually aggressive societies. Not a coincidence.

Not to say there haven't always been shy, socially phobic, sensitive women who chose extreme modesty...or self-righteous, prideful women engaged in some sort of religion-centred estrogen driven competition with other women....but it's hard to miss the fact that as general immodesty and objectification of women increases, so does extreme modesty.