Can ultra-Orthodox Culture Go Overboard in Its Quest for Modesty?

I bristled at first, but then realized how much I loved the warmth and holiness I experienced. I unexpectedly began to see virtues in gender separation.

Robin Garbose
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Robin Garbose

The other day, during a meeting at a coffee shop, I showed the producer I was meeting with a newspaper article about my latest Haredi film. The movie, intended for viewing by women only, had recently premiered at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. Suddenly a man at the next table barged into the conversation, launching into a scathing diatribe: "These Haredim don't serve in the army and they live off government money! And this insanity about not hearing women sing is primitive. They're crazy!"

My colleague, who is Jewish but not Orthodox, looked bemused. I could barely get a word in edgewise. Did I mention we weren't on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street but in Beverly Hills?

An ultra-Orthodox girls high school in Jerusalem.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

For those of us steeped in modernity, it is often impossible to see beyond the seductive bubble of popular culture. I wanted to tell this man that the headlines from Israel that had so enraged him, sensationalizing events perpetrated by extremists, were eliciting vicious and unwarranted attacks against all religious Jews, resulting in the proverbial baby thrown out with the dirty bathwater.

Although I didn't grow up Orthodox, I came to embrace religious values as an adult. Some 20 years ago, while a rising theater and film director, I experienced a profound sense of cognitive dissonance in my world. On the one hand, I yearned for spiritual meaning, inner wholeness and a lasting relationship, yet I was bombarded with advertising images depicting female beauty as utterly flawless and female pop stars performing sexually explicit acts peddled as women's liberation. The feminist in me wondered: What's wrong with this picture?

These dehumanizing images with their subliminal messages and digital augmentation (supermodel Cindy Crawford once quipped, "I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford" ), only made women feel bad about themselves, ashamed, insecure and much less sexy. And it made men judge real women more harshly. Was the erotica purveyed by the Material Girl really enhancing relationships? Most of my female friends weren't married and many, under the duress of sexual permissiveness, had suffered pointless affairs and abortions, scarring them ineradicably. Upon further reflection, it became clear that the insidious force behind prevailing trends was a multibillion-dollar industry whose sole intention was to send us out to shop in the hope of remedying our gross inadequacies.

While seeking to transcend this toxic cultural climate, I had an opportunity to step into the mysterious and remote world of Haredi Jews. I appreciated that tzniut (Jewish laws of modesty ) shifted focus from the body to the person, from objectifying and sexualizing women to valuing inner beauty. Though I didn't own a long skirt, I saw these ancient concepts as a refreshingly counterculture expression of female dignity and, ironically, I decided it was time to go shopping.

True, many Haredi traditions were more difficult to understand. I remember a Shabbat kiddush where the women sat in the kitchen while the men occupied the dining room. I bristled at first, but then realized how much I loved the warmth and holiness I experienced. I unexpectedly began to see virtues in gender separation. In my Hollywood world, where Jen's husband, Brad, goes off to make a sexy movie with Angelina and never comes home again, it doesn't take a genius to see that glamorizing society's lack of gender boundaries doesn't promote healthy marriages or family values.

True intimacy, as Torah tells us, can only be built on a foundation of inviolable trust. A Haredi woman would be horrified if her actions or appearance were to attract another woman's husband. I could embrace such sensitivity.

Can Haredi culture go overboard in its quest for modesty? When women are denied a voice or when intimidation is used to hinder critical thinking, there is a problem. And assaulting women, either physically or verbally, in the guise of enforcing tzniut is unconscionable. As Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recently asserted, "The exclusion of women from the public domain violates Torah. Halakha treats women with the utmost respect."

Halakha treats human beings with the utmost respect. Haredim understandably want to protect their children from corrupting influences. But when this pursuit leads to treating outsiders with contempt, there is a violation of a fundamental Torah principle to love your fellow Jew.

On a recent trip of mine to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Rebbetzin Dusia Rivkin recounted to me a visit to her son, a Chabad emissary in New Orleans. At their Shabbat table sat several colorful, non-Orthodox students from Tulane University. Mrs. Rivkin, appalled by their unseemly conversations, voiced concern about the negative impact on her young grandchildren. Rabbi Rivkin responded, "The Lubavitcher Rebbe promised that if I took care of his children, he would take care of mine." Mrs. Rivkin, regretful of her judgmental attitude, understood that it was incumbent upon Haredim to impart the beauty of Torah, especially to those who have never experienced it.

Orthodox Judaism is a treasure trove, but it's the middle road, what King Solomon called "the path of pleasantness," that doesn't impose strictures on others or reject those with differing views. This is what will inspire the world toward a more civilized and harmonious future.

Robin Garbose has been directing theater, network television and film for nearly 28 years.



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