Anyone who enters the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) neighborhood Mea Shearim in Jerusalem can see big signs demanding women not to enter the streets immodestly. In the 1940s the Modesty Patrols were created by Neturei Karta, the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox movement headed by Rabbi Amram Blau, in order to keep the streets modest. How were the Modesty Patrols established? How did they operate? Newly discovered documents from Amram Blau’s personal archive, which is currently located in Boston University’s archives, tell the story of the modesty campaigns. These patrols function until today, and the concept of patrolling the Haredi enclave to make sure women are modestly dressed was adopted by other ultra-orthodox communities in Israel and the US.
The earliest evidence of the existence of modesty patrols can be found in an anonymous letter from 1938 preserved in the Amram Blau archive. The letter reveals that once a week people would pass through the markets and distribute propaganda on the subject of modesty. A notice from that period written by Blau complained that women were deliberately walking through the Haredi neighborhoods in immodest dress and that there was no-one who could oppose this. A few years later the term “modesty patrols” appeared for the first time in a letter written by Blau, in which he demanded that guards be placed on the streets of Meah She’arim on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.
An important milestone in the elaboration of the function of the modesty patrols came in 1945, when the Beit Din Tzedek [the Court of Justice] of HaEdah HaHaredit, the Haredi Community of Jerusalem, issued a warning to the residents of the Haredi neighborhoods to pay strict attention to the dress of their daughters and wives: “With heavy, sad, and broken heart we turn to you, our dear ones, with a merciful request and plea. Our hearts have been broken with shame to hear and see how far we have deteriorated and how, in many homes of those who keep the Torah, the impure plague of immodesty, Heaven protect, has spread in indecent clothes, short dresses, failure to ensure long sleeves, and so forth. This hellish custom corrupts from tip to toe and removes the Divine Presence from Israel, G-d forbid, and the spiritual woes bring in their wake physical woes, Heaven protect.” The leaflet carried a warning to the residents of Meah She’arim to pay attention to modest dress, including the threat of sanctions. The call was for the husbands to be responsible for their wives and daughters’ behavior. The declaration echoes Maimonides’ ruling that it is the male’s responsibility to supervise women and children in their household.
In order to enforce the rules of modesty it was first necessary to determine what constituted desirable dress. To this end, Amram Blau formulated a dress code including a series of stringent conditions:
- The dress of a Jewish woman must be long, reaching at least to below the knees in such a manner that even if she is seated her knees will not be visible.
- The dress must be wide and not excessively tight on the body.
- The sleeves of the shirt must be long and reach almost to the hand.
- The dress must not be made from transparent or red cloth.
- Slippers must not be transparent or flesh-colored.
- The obligation of modesty applies to girls from the age of three.
- A married woman must cover her hair with a head kerchief. In May 1964, a prohibition was added to the modesty code forbidding the wearing of the “peruk”-type wig, with hair that appears natural – “which desecrates G-d’s name, so that many cannot distinguish between immodest hair and a wig, causing many improprieties.”
Blau explained that the reason why Jewish women must cover their bodies modestly is in order not to lead men to improper sexual thoughts. He argued that a Jewish woman who dresses immodestly causes the public to fail and is considered a “pursuer” (rodef); as such, according to the Halakhah, she is liable to the death penalty imposed by God. Moreover, immodest dress constitutes a “turning of the back on the Holy One, blessed be He”; “a public desecration of G-d’s name”; and a phenomenon that will lead “to the removal of the Divine Presence from above the Jewish people.” Thus Neturei Karta’s regulations were aimed first and foremost at ensuring men’s moral conduct, guarding them against any possible temptations. The easiest way to do so was by restricting women’s behavior. Women’s code of dress was established in order to prevent any chance that men’s desire might be aroused.
Since Haredi society views itself as the guardian of righteous traditions dedicated to the worship of God, modesty became as one of its outmost values. According to their perspective, a woman wearing immodest clothing was committing not only a personal offence but also a public one. Since the Divine punishment for immodesty will be imposed on everyone, it is a communal duty to fight it.
Establishing Modesty Committees
In July 1950 the subject of the modesty rules gained further prominence after Blau convened a special gathering of Jerusalem rabbis to discuss the problem. During the meeting a clear and binding code was drafted for setting and enforcing standards of modesty. The code served as the foundation for a protracted modesty campaign that was not confined solely to the Haredi community but extended to other parts of the city without any Haredi presence. It also consolidated Blau’s position as a leader in the Haredi community: He determined that the community would be mobilized on this issue; he pressured rabbis, who needed only to support his work on this matter of principle; and he even dared to engage in an offensive relating to the character of Jerusalem as a whole, rather than confining himself to maintaining modesty within his own neighborhood of Meah She’arim.
The summary of this meeting is a fascinating document. Decisions were taken on a range of subjects:
- Avoiding the immodest: The community was urged to supervise women and girls in order to ensure that they dress and act modestly to the highest possible standards; to distance women from their friends who do not observe these rules and who visit theaters and cinemas – behavior considered indecent for religious women; to distance women from any place where there are immodestly-dressed women; and to bring together women who dress modestly in order to strengthen them in their modesty.
- Reproach: On the High Holy Days, after the reading from the Torah, a special blessing was to be recited for women who dress modestly; reproach must be used to create social pressure – each man must be urged to scold his brothers, neighbors, and relatives; in the case of the ‘offenders’ themselves, the reproach should be indirect, through a parent or relative or person able to exercise influence.
- Protest and support: The community must protest and take a scornful and humiliating attitude toward “these wild hussies (prutzot mitpartzot) who darken the world through their arrogant and ugly dress.” Conversely, ways must be found to strengthen the “might and force” of those who dress modestly.
- Public protest: The community should take to the streets and proclaim, “We do not wish hussies and wild and naked women, Heaven protect, on our streets.” Notices should be posted bearing slogans against immodest dress; educational material should be published to alert the public and recruit it to public protest.
- Implementation: A committee dedicated to improving modesty standards should be established in each neighborhood; women should be recruited to the committees to encourage and connect modest women and to distance the immodest; educational means should be used in the women’s galleries of the synagogues.
- Worthy proposals: The gabbai (the rabbi’s assistant) should make “pleasant” comments to those whose daughters and wives fail to conform to the modesty rules; all invitations to celebrations should emphasize that women must come in modest dress and that the immodestly-dressed are not invited.
In order to enforce the modesty code gabbais were asked to announce the code in the synagogue and to organize elections for modesty committees. The gabbais also raised funds for this purpose. A group of twenty to thirty young men went from one synagogue to the next in the city and helped organize the local committees. In the short term it was agreed that propaganda and notices should be used to recruit public support. In order to mobilize the community around the campaign a mass petition was launched and the campaigners decided to organize “noisy protest marches of ‘brigades of demonstrators’ to parade through the streets of the Haredi neighborhoods from time to time shouting slogans against immodesty.” The ultimate purpose of the campaign was to prepare the foundation for demonstrations on this issue.
The establishment of the modesty committees in the early 1950s was the first time that women were recruited to participate in a public campaign. Women have only rarely participated in the campaigns of Neturei Karta. Women’s participation was intended to create social pressure and to present a united community stance on the issue.
The Modesty Police
It is unclear at what stage the modesty patrols began to use violence in order to secure their goals. During the British Mandate it seems probable that Neturei Karta activists preferred to turn to the police in order to solve modesty issues that it could not resolve without recourse to violence. An example of this appears in an incident described in Blau’s archives in 1938. After learning that a home in Meah She’arim was being used as a brothel where prostitutes met with their clients at night, Blau asked the police to close the place before the matter “leads to public outrage.” By contrast, in a testimony from 1966, some thirty years later, concerning an incident in which merchants from Meah She’arim asked Blau to “purify their neighborhood” of Mandel Green, they claimed that the soda salesman was a secret missionary who placed crosses on the walls of his shop and publicly desecrated the Sabbath. By this time the modesty patrols had come to resemble an internal police force that did not confine its attention solely to modesty issues.
As the leader of the modesty patrols Blau was able to achieve an authority that placed him on the same level as the spiritual leadership of the Haredi community. Whereas the rabbis gained their authority from their rabbinical knowledge, Blau gained his power from his activities in the field of inspection and enforcement.
This modesty campaign emphasized that the supervision of clothing of Jewish women is a collective duty, and women’s dress, ostensibly their private affair, came to be considered a communal symbol. Therefore women’s modest garbs were to be considered for the entire nation’s sake, while immodest cloths were viewed as a desecration of God’s name that might bring God’s punishment. Haredi women were a weak force in the community, and modesty prohibitions were strictly enforced upon them. Therefore they were vulnerable targets for Blau and his modesty patrols. Since the Haredim view themselves as embodying a unique spiritual nature, they were willing to accept more restrictions and regulations.
The modesty campaign of Neturei Karta under Blau’s leadership is consistent with the efforts of fundamentalist movements in general to restrict the status of women. The campaign began as a response to increasing laxity and openness; it strengthened male authority within the family unit, since the man was defined as responsible for the modest appearance of the women in the household; it imposed severe restrictions on the external appearance of women in order to prevent externalized manifestations of sexuality; and it established a strict system of enforcement in the form of the modesty patrols. Neturei Karta adopted an extreme position regarding modesty rules and other authorities were unable to challenge these without weakening their own leadership position. In such conditions, there was no incentive for Blau and Neturei Karta to halt or moderate the modesty campaigns. This can explain why modesty campaigns inside ultra-Orthodox communities never rally stop.
Motti Inbari is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke and the author of Jewish Radical Ultra Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women’s Equality.