No, I’m not referring to Moslem women in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, London and Dearborn, MI. Right here in Israel, in places like Jerusalem and my town of Bet Shemesh, there are growing numbers of Jewish women who are draping themselves, and their daughters, from head to toe in layers of black. The modern, liberated Western mind naturally recoils at such a sight. That same mind also prides itself on tolerance of other cultures and religions. Yet, these women are excoriated across the board. They are lampooned as “Burqa Babes“, derided as “Taliban Ladies”, and even leading rabbis of some of the most fundamentalist orthodox organizations have publicly stated that the behavior of these women is beyond the pale of normative Judaism.
These women are basing their behavior on the Jewish concept of Tzniut. Tzniut is generally translated as “modesty”. At its core, Tzniut encompasses dress and behavior of both men and women. In more recent times, as orthodox Judaism has become more focused on details of observance and more concerned with the “dangers” of the “outside world”, Tzniut has claimed an increasingly important role in the psyche of many Jews. In just the past generation, the basic idea of dressing in a dignified, non-sexualized manner has morphed into a near hysterical concern with the allure of women and its effect on the men around them. It has gotten to the point where, in many cases, the very image of a woman has become taboo. Some examples:
– “Mainstream” news magazines, such as Mishpacha and Ami, that are meant to appeal to a broad section of the orthodox Jewish world have editorial policies not to show pictures of women. So, for example, there might be a well written article about the US political scene, but there would be no picture of any of the important women at the power base of US politics.
– In Jerusalem, buses carrying ads with pictures of women were being vandalized by religious fanatics. The bus company/ad agency at first removed any ads with pictures of women. A court ruling forbade this practice as discriminatory. So now, rather than risk damage, the buses don’t show any people in their ads.
– Ads for the Israeli health plans targeting certain “religious” areas are modified so as not to show even animated faces of women. A bizarre outcome is this recent ad showing a “family” with two fathers. Not something typically embraced in these communities.
– Sale circulars and labels for household products have had the faces of drawn images of little girls blotted out.
– In one of the most extreme examples, this iconic photo of the White House situation room during the Osama Bin Laden raid was edited to remove Hillary Clinton.
This is just a small sampling. Against this backdrop, let’s now address the title question.
In the study of Talmud, one of the most relied upon logical constructs for analyzing rabbinic discourse is called a Kal Vachomer. In English this is known as an a fortiori argument, or an argument that establishes a weaker proposition from a stronger one. For example, if two is less than 10, it’s a Kal Vachomer that 2 is less than 20.
Try to view the above examples through the eyes of a sincerely religious woman who wants to do what’s “right” in her religious milieu. The message is a crystal clear Kal Vachomer. That is, if we must blot out, cover up, and hide even the animated image of a young girl to avoid tempting men, how much more so, ie Kal Vachomer, must a live, 3-dimensional, fully grown woman completely “hide” herself! Add to this the fact that in many communities, especially when there’s a crisis of some sort, symposiums are often led by rabbis encouraging women to increase their level of Tznius observance to ameliorate the cause of the crisis or generally improve the community’s spiritual level.
Thus, based on the current mores of a large swath of the orthodox world, these Burqa Women have it exactly right! Some may aver that the rabbis, who are supposed to be the deciders of “normative” behavior, are opposed to this mode of dress. However, such protests ring hollow to the ears of sincere and logical people who also see these rabbis at the root of so many of these newfound restrictions. In other words, they can’t have it both ways.
In fact, the “modern” readers of the magazines mentioned above, who in buying and supporting their existence and implicitly their editorial policies, should be holding these Burqa Women up (figuratively of course) as ideals to strive for.
On the other hand, the dwindling numbers of people who are outside the orbit of ultra strict Judaism can only shake their heads as they watch yet another area of Jewish observance succumb to an obsession with paranoia and minutiae. Also, don’t think that this is only the purview of the “utlra” orthodox. Not long ago a leading “modern” orthodox rabbi in Israel disseminated Tzniut guidelines that were nearly pornographic in their level of detail.
Finally, even if the dress of Burqa Women is light-years from one’s religious outlook, whether accepted or not, it has the effect of “moving the goal posts” and causing a paradigm shift among everyone. After all, no matter how extreme a new stricture appears, the response can always be, “it’s not as ‘crazy’ as a Burqa”. If modern Jews wish to retain a semblance of normalcy, it must be maintained actively, as our recent history bears witness to the slippery slope of passivity.