Frum Signalling

Exciting news from the ivory tower as emerging academic research in Jewish studies takes hold.  Drawing on the nascent field of virtue signalling, the discipline of  ‘frum signalling’ is showing promising results in the measurement of both piety and the long term sustainability of the Orthodox community.  James Bartholomew, writing in the The Spectator, a UK publication, coined the term ‘virtue signalling’ in 2015 to describe ‘the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous.’ Obviously it’s being anti-Trump, but other examples include fundraising campaigns like the ‘ice bucket challenge,’ wearing wristbands for a particular cause and using recycled shopping bags that announce you’re buying organic food.

First adapted to the field of Jewish studies in my peer-reviewed article for the Journal of  Modern Jewish Behaviour, the research shows that frum signalling is an effective psychological mechanism and without it, our capacity to define, categorise and demonise others is in jeopardy.  Doctoral students are developing research projects that reflect contemporary phenomena and currently, the most well studied topic is that of a man or woman refusing to shake the hand of someone of the opposite gender. The recalcitrant hand-shaker who does not accept the halachic rulings permitting handshaking is frum signalling that his or her honour is more important than embarrassing the other person.

Kashrut is a swamp of frum signalling. The quality of the hechsher, the propriety of the caterer, the assumed level of observance of the baker and the willingness to eat in someone’s home are just some mechanisms for signalling a level of frumkeit (noun) and how a person wants to be perceived.  And as Pesach approaches, frum signalling goes into overdrive with much sanctimonious handwringing and extra stringencies that create a culture of fear of ‘doing the wrong thing.’ Frum signalling also has the knock-on effect of increasing the financial burden of maintaining religious rituals and economists are just beginning to explore complementary research.

Women’s dress is frum signalling par excellence.  Denier thickness, hem length, collarbone exposure, colour loudness, body snugness, heel height and hair covering are the basic points of reference.  Much continues to be written about the modesty movement and its paradoxical nature as women experience modesty as liberating and empowering, but also controlling and restrictive. Who has the more powerful frum signal – the woman in a coiffured wig and tight skirt just to the knee, or a woman in a beret with her fringe showing and a loose-fitting mid-calf dress? The work on fashion by the pre-eminent semiotician Roland Barthes is most helpful in understanding observant women  who are frum signalling from the moment they wake up and decide what to wear that day.

Frum signalling comes into its own in the synagogue – deference to rabbinic leadership, the type of mechitzah separating the men and women,  and the sort of educational programming on offer gives very clear frum signals. An Orthodox synagogue that only allows Artscroll editions of the Torah is frum signalling something very different to one where a Hertz or Soncino edition is available. With the development of partnership minyanim, frum signalling demonises those who are seeking to expand the opportunities for women to participate in communal prayer within halachic boundaries.  Interestingly, those in support of more inclusivity are frum signalling in reverse – wearing their badge of modernity proudly in a way that technically smacks more of virtue signalling.

Chessed, those acts of kindness that shape a community such as visiting a shiva house, cooking meals or shopping for a home-bound elderly person, are all frum signalling fodder when the person doing these kind acts is quick to tell everyone.   Quiet, anonymous acts of kindness by definition defy frum signalling because there is no public accolade in the offering, but when one seeks to be known as such a good person, they are definitely sending out frum signals asking to be noticed and rewarded.  This is an area where those in Jewish studies would be best advised to consult with colleagues in psychology and sociology to understand the complex relationship between giver and taker.

Some rabbis live by a code of frum signalling that includes smashing the smartphone, regarded as the golden calf of our generation, creating additional barriers to marriage, divorce and conversion, and suggesting that certain prayers combined with a donation to the rabbi’s favourite cause will bring salvation. Maintaining rigidity in the face of modernity is the height of rabbinic frum signalling and in a world where religious education and knowledge are venerated,  frum signalling denies children and yeshiva students a decent secular education that will eventually allow them to be self-sufficient.  An esteemed colleague has highlighted the additional challenges faced by baalei teshuvah (those who become Orthodox) when it comes to frum signalling.  She suggests that their desperate need to fit into a community and be accepted into the ‘right’ school leads to self-infantilising and obsequious behaviour, masked as frum signalling. Behavioural theorists may have insights to contribute to our understanding of social conformity that seems to underpin frum signalling.

Academics are actively debating the policy implications of these initial findings and everyone agrees on the need for more in-depth research before the evidence can be relied on for long-term projections regarding the type and structure of orthodoxy. In the interim, communal leaders need to consider all the indicators highlighting the rise of frum signalling as without constraint, it may evolve into a full-blown international and cross-denominational phenomenon.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly prize, which reflects on raising her daughters while straddling the tensions between Orthodoxy and modernity. First published in 1997, it is being reissued in the summer of 2019, with an extensive update reflecting on the changes in Orthodox women's lives over the last 20 years.
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