When Modesty and ultra-Orthodox Jews Collide

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, wrote that where our quest for piety conflicts with innate morality, we should reexamine our religious principles, for they have almost certainly been corrupted.

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Jews around the world have been shocked by the story of Na'ama: the eight-year-old girl from a religious family in Beit Shemesh who was spat on, cursed and insulted by religious extremists as she made her way to school.

While Israel's leadership has condemned the violence, members of the local ultra-Orthodox community justified the attacks, claiming the child was immodestly dressed. Journalists reporting the story have been repeatedly attacked and pelted with the eggs by ultra-Orthodox Jews who are also trying to impose segregated streets in the city.

A sign cautioning women to dress modestly hanging on a building in the town of Beit Shemesh, December 25, 2011.Credit: Reuters

Assaults on vulnerable young girls or grown women are outrageous. Such attacks are not the work of modest people. Genuinely righteous people devote their energy to mastering their own passions; not to assaulting others. Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, wrote that where our quest for piety conflicts with innate morality, we should reexamine our religious principles, for they have almost certainly been corrupted (Orot Hakodesh volume 3, p. 27). The attacks on women and children are a perfect illustration of this. They are outrageous criminal acts whose perpetrators should be punished with the full force of the law.

In this tense atmosphere, we need to consider what standards of dress are appropriate in a modern, democratic Jewish state and whether one segment of the population has the right to impose its views on the rest of society.

Parallel debates took place in England a number of years ago regarding Britain's most popular newspaper, The Sun, with its daily photographs of topless models. Many considered these images offensive and degrading to women, but when a group of parliamentarians attempted to have them banned, they were ridiculed in the press, mocked in Parliament and their efforts defeated.

Apparently, many Englishmen considered it their right to gape at these pictures. Attempts at censorship of this soft-pornography were viewed with the same resentment that many of us view Haredi efforts to enforce their standards of modesty on the rest of Israeli society.

Following the failed campaign, one Member of Parliament published some of the letters of support she had received from women across the country. Some of the most moving communications came from elementary school teachers who described innocently asking their pupils to bring old newspapers to school to cover their desks for art lessons. When the children unfolded their newspapers, the teachers found that their classrooms were decked out with pictures of semi-naked women. "How can we educate our daughters to respect their own bodies in this climate?" they lamented. Some suggested that the high levels of anorexia nervosa and teenage pregnancy in Britain are due in no small measure to the overly sexualized society and particularly the media.

Judaism teaches that sexuality is sacred and beautiful, but that its beauty is preserved by cloaking it in modesty including modesty in dress which enables men and women to live with self-respect and respect for one another.

In the Talmud (Kiddushin 82a), we find that rabbis adopted a wide range of standards of modesty. Some felt comfortable chatting to women outside the bathhouse and dancing with brides on their shoulders, while others eschewed even the shortest conversation with women. The medieval Talmudic commentator the Ritvah explains these apparent inconsistencies by suggesting that some of the laws of modesty must be dictated by self-awareness. Each person should know what boundaries they need to ensure that their behavior conforms to Jewish standards of decency and holiness.

While classic Jewish sources assert the need for modest dress, the nature of the requirements is not precisely defined. The result is that even within the religious world; different communities have adopted varying standards of acceptable dress.

Despite our differences, somehow, we all need to live together. In the Diaspora, the need for this tolerance is obvious. Jews of all types share the streets with gentiles and no one dares to force their sartorial requirements on others.

Observant Israelis should proudly preserve their halachik standards and traditions while exemplifying the highest moral and ethical standards which earn the admiration of others, rather than bringing contempt upon our faith. We must all learn to talk to people with different beliefs so that we can live together and build the State of Israel as a model society for all its inhabitants.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel and directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



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