by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
In what must be one of the biggest ironies of this moment, we find within the Jewish religious communities that the Internet has become a primary channel for promoting Chumrot, religious stringencies.
In Jewish religious life, Jewish religious practice is set down as “religious law”. Religious law is broken down into two parts. The first is Torah m’Sinai, meaning religious laws that are explicitly stated in the Torah (example: G-d said to Moses, speak to the children of Israel and tell them ….), those that are derived from statements of G-d in the Torah, and those that were passed to Moses as explanations or binding practices by G-d (the Oral Torah, later codified in the Mishnah). The second is m’da’rabbonim, meaning the Torah explicitly states the leaders (leading religious authorities) of the generations have the authority to apply additional “fences around the Torah”, additional practices to prevent one from overstepping the bounds of the Torah. Over generations when such practices are accepted and practiced by (most) religious Jews, they take on the authority of religious law.
Yet there’s something that goes beyond this. We have the letter of the law (of both types), religious custom, religious culture, and chumrot – extra stringencies.
A Breslev blogger, a wonderful young man, that I know sent me this today…
There have been many signs put up all over the Mea Shearim area of Jerusalem (perhaps the most insular and ultra-orthodox Jewish community in the world) expressing the calls from many of the Gedolei Yisrael for more modesty.
To our great sorrow, matters of modesty on which the resting of the Shechina (Divine Presence) and the holiness of Am Yisrael are dependent on have fallen greatly. Specifically in the areas of shortening the length of the clothing which is a precursor to immoral and forbidden relations.
The severity of causing others to sin is already known, as Rabbenu Yonah writes in Iggeret Hateshuva,"A woman has to be modest and cautious to not cause others to stare at her (attracting attention to herself) etc. And those who stare at her will descend down to Gehenom and in addition she will receive the same exact punishment as each and every single one of them for it was she who caused them to sin by not being modestly dressed, and she was a stumbling block to them."
We have already made our opinion known that the length of a skirt must come down to at least halfway between the knee and the ankle.
The second sign is pretty similar in nature and the third one makes many praises to women who have taken on the original custom of the previous generations and are following the Rambam’s ruling that a woman should not go out into the public areas without putting on a covering (shawl) over her body.
It’s not the point of this article to argue religious issues of female modesty. The halacha, Jewish religious law, states a woman must cover to her elbows and to her knees. Anything beyond that is…going beyond the letter of the law.
There is, however, communal custom and culture. Further, Jewish religious law (specifically the Shulchan Aruch) does NOT go into any details of female clothing. No discussions of fabric, colors, styles, etc. The simple reasoning for this is these things constantly change, and the rabbis of each community have to make appropriate decisions in setting local community standards.
So for the rabbis of Meah Shearim, perhaps the most insular and ultra-orthodox Jewish community in the world, to recommend a community standard to match the local culture of going beyond the letter of the law in modesty is perfectly acceptable and normal. Even pushing for a community standard of “covering with shawls” is well within their role and is in line with the standards of THAT community.
But when signs from Meah Shearim are picked up and transmitted as a standards recommendation to every other Jewish community, it’s inappropriate. First because that community may not be experiencing such a problem. And second because a standard for Meah Shearim may not be appropriate for another Jewish community. Even more so, bringing such a recommendation to another community may be destructive, both to the people (who may feel such a standard is not achievable, which may be true in their communal context) and to the kavod of the gedolim, as people may feel such a pronouncement is so out of line with their communal reality as to make the gedolim making it appear to be completely out of touch.
Female modesty in Jewish religious practice is a serious issue. It requires a delicate balance for our rabbonim and tends to be a very community local issue, dependent on the local level of religious intensity, local styles, local culture, even the local climate. When it’s being picked up via the Internet to be shared with other communities, it’s more damaging than valuable.
A final example. The letter below was given to all elementary school girls at an ultra-orthodox girls school in Lakewood, New Jersey, USA (another ultra-orthodox enclave). The story is taken from the Shomrei Emunim (Toldos Avraham Yitzchok), an ultra-strict chassidic-like group now based in Israel. This is a group that lives by chumrot, extra stringencies. Sharing it in Lakewood, an ultra-orthodox non-chassidic American community, specifically to elementary school age girls, created an uproar…