Following the collapse of a 12-story residential tower in south Florida, prompting a desperate and fevered effort to dig survivors out of the rubble, a flyer began circulating on ultra-Orthodox WhatsApp groups in the United States.
Echoing a theme which has been sounded in the wake of several other recent tragedies, it called on women to “cover to uncover,” or in other words, to assist in efforts to rescue victims buried under the rubble by covering up more of their own bodies.
“Join us in a movement to cover, as a merit for those still not uncovered in Surfside. By making the commitment to improve in a small area of modesty, we can make the difference,” it declared.
The flyer was only the latest in a series of signs, posters and advertisements linking women’s dress to widespread misfortune and suffering, from the COVID-19 pandemic to Hamas rocket fire.
“We see these things all the time,” Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll, co-founder of the Orthodox feminist group Chochmat Nashim, told Haaretz on Sunday. “I can send you at least 10 examples [of] ‘If you just take off your wigs or put on longer skirts, [the coronavirus] will go away.’”
Keats-Jaskoll added that "putting the responsibility on women’s heads and shoulders is not new, unfortunately, and it’s devastating and just adds a tremendous level of guilt and shame to Jewish women who are already carrying so much.”
Not only do communal leaders take advantage of tragedies to push a “hyper-modesty” agenda, but female members of the community “have been conditioned to see their religious worth in physical terms," Keats-Jaskoll said, adding that for many, Judaism has become “all about modesty.”
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“The establishment emphasizes skirt length and hair covering instead of learning and spiritual growth, so it's an outcome of the policies of the establishment,” she said.
After 45 people were crushed to death during April’s mass Lag Ba’omer festivities at Mount Meron in northern Israel, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, leader of the “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox community, declared in a public letter that "women should be more modest" in the wake of the disaster.
The tragedy occurred after visitors to the site began slipping on a metal ramp passing through a narrow, overcrowded passageway. The passageway had been illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect to enforce gender separation.
Another public letter, written by Rabbi Shlomo Kohn of Melbourne’s Adass Israel Hasidic congregation, described the Mount Meron tragedy as a divine call to introspection, emphasizing the importance of modesty and declaring that so-called “lace sheitels” (a type of wig worn by some ultra-Orthodox women to cover their hair) were “strictly prohibited.”
Similarly, in early 2020, a flyer distributed in the United States called on women not to wear “lace top” wigs manufactured in China, stating that they were forbidden by Jewish law and that refraining from their use was “our protection.”
“Every new fashion brings a new disease. If the fashion is created in China, then the coronavirus starts in China,” the flyer stated.
“The world is now on HIGH ALERT to prevent any remote connection with China. Should we not also be on high alert to protect ourselves? [Physically and spiritually] is there perhaps a connection? Let us take this strong message from heaven, and God will protect us from all dangers,” the flyer read.
As the COVID-19 pandemic washed over Israel last year, Yiddish and Hebrew street posters (known as pashkevils) linking female immodesty to COVID-19 were plastered on walls in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. One such poster claiming that the Hebrew phrase “corona pandemic” had the same numerological value as “lack of modesty" called on women and girls to repent and observe the laws of modesty according to the Torah.
This approach was also seen during the recent conflict with Hamas, during which thousands of missiles were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip. One poster shared on Facebook by the Orthodox feminist group Chochmat Nashim appeared to blame the flare-up on a failure of lax women, stating: “Righteous daughter of Israel, it is in your strength to stop the missiles and prevent all of this suffering if you accept upon yourself to strengthen yourself in modesty.”
“At this point, it’s a trope. It’s almost instinctive as a go-to response to anything,” said Yoel Finkelman, a curator at the National Library and author of “Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.”
According to Finkelman, the concept of modesty seems to have gained an unusual theological importance, becoming “one of the building blocks or glue that holds the world together” in the ultra-Orthodox worldview, with anything related to dress taking on “outsized significance.”
“The very attempt to figure out why God is punishing us is both deeply grounded in the [Jewish] tradition and highly problematic simultaneously,” he said.
Ultra-Orthodox modesty standards have changed significantly in recent decades. While mainstream Haredi groups used to publish pictures of women in official publications, the majority of print and online outlets in the community now eschew such images.
Last month, Behadrei Haredim, one of Israel’s leading ultra-Orthodox news sites, blurred out the face of Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli in a photo of the heads of the incoming government.
Following a public backlash, the magazine said it had abided by “the rules set by Torah sages,” according to whom “photographs of women may not be shown in our newspapers. We try to do this respectfully, without blurring the images of women.”
The site’s main competitor, Kikar Hashabbat, publishes pictures of women.