When Piety Becomes Foolish

There is a famous anecdote recorded in the Gemara (Sotah 21b) that tells us about the concept of Chasid Shoteh (a pious fool). It goes something like this: What is a Chasid Shoteh? If a man sees a woman drowning and says ‘it is improper to gaze at her and save her’ thereby letting her drown – he is a pious fool.

This seems to be the direction the most pious Jews among us are moving. They are willing to let women ‘drown’ if it means ‘gazing at them’.  An example of this kind of attitude is the fact that the word ‘breast’ is considered Nivul Peh even in the context of breast cancer. Increasingly in many right wing circles this disease is called ‘the woman’s disease’.  From a blog post in the Times of Israel:

Because of this extreme take on modesty, women are less aware, get fewer mammograms, and often do not do breast exams. The rate of death from breast cancer is estimated at 30% higher among Charedi women who also have the lowest life expectancy in Israel.

I would call this attitude an expression of the concept of Chasid Shoteh. And we are not talking about one individual here. We are talking about the fastest growing segment in all of Orthodox Jewry, Charedim of both Chasidic and Lithuanian Yeshivish extraction. The extremists in those communities are growing and expanding their reach. The Charedi world is moving to the right at an alarming pace. And increasingly adopting these attitudes.

Now more than ever, women are being systematically erased from Charedi society as though they do not exist. Which is what has generated a new political party of Charedi women. I guess if there is such a thing as Charedi feminists, these women are it. More about that later.

The above mentioned article was written by Shoshanna Keats Jaskol, who describes herself as ‘an American Israeli… and seeker of truth’ And she loves her people enough to ‘call out the nonsense’. This is my kind of Jew. She has written one of the best descriptions and critiques of this phenomenon I have ever read. It is hard hitting and true. It should be read by everyone, especially by Charedim.

Mrs. Jaskol begins by saying that the practice of erasing women from the public eye is a fanaticization of the concept of ‘guarding your eyes’ which means that we should take care to avoid looking at things which may lead us to sin. But instead of making their community more holy:

(I)t instead has the opposite effect, making every interaction between genders a potentially sexual -and thus sinful – one and effectively renders any normal interaction between the sexes impossible.

The influence this community has goes far beyond their own world. Pictures of women are increasingly disappearing in magazines, books and periodical at an alarming rate. Magazines whose publishers may not be as extreme nevertheless cater to those segments that are and have made it their own policy to not publish any pictures of a woman. The most extreme examples of which were in the recent photo-shopping out any woman that participated in that protest march in France.

Here are a few more examples from her post about this phenomenon that when taken in the aggregate should make moderate Charedim furious. From that article:

In some communities, women’s names are not printed. Not in publications and not in announcements such as wedding invitations.


Posters, campaigns and billboards with women on them have so regularly been defaced that advertising companies stopped running them due to financial losses, which is exactly what the extremists wanted.


A baby formula even stopped printing an outline of a mother holding her baby. Booklets put out by certain cities have zero women or girls in them. To the point that the city actually looks like a city of homosexuals and pedophiles (not to equate the two) — with nary a female in sight.


Pamphlets published by health care providers within these neighborhoods also exclude women and girls. One recent booklet showcased four neighborhood doctors- the men having pictures next to their next to their profile. The female? A large white blank spot stands where her picture should be.


Books have also begun excluding females. A book we received as a ‘gift’ from a local organization depicts a Shabbat table- completely female free. The entire book dedicated to the Shabbat- a day of family and Torah- is devoid of even one girl or woman. Where is the Ima??


An entire generation is being taught that women and girls should not be seen because seeing them can lead to sin. Women and LITTLE GIRLS are being objectified- sexualized- and erased.


When a little girl is told that her picture cannot be shown because it is not proper, she learns she is an object. Something that by nature can cause sin and so she must be concealed.


When little boys hear that they must not look at girls, they learn that girls are for one thing –sex and that men are incapable of controlling themselves and so cannot interact with a female without it being sexual.

I don’t usually excerpt as heavily as I did here. But this is an important message. Which brings me back to the new Charedi women’s party in Israel. From Ha’aretz:

Heading the party, called “B’Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change” is Ruth Colian, 33, a veteran social activist and feminist who declared that this was a “historic” step in a mission to “guarantee representation in the Knesset for ultra-Orthodox women.”

To say I support it is an understatement. The exaggerated and extreme measures increasingly taken by the Charedi world in this matter has to be countered. Enough damage has been done.

It is so sad that these pious Charedi women had to resort to taking matters into their own hands at the risk of being ostracized. Which I am sure they will be if they haven’t been already. But they had to take this step in my view. Apparently not a single Charedi party has paid any attention to the negative effects the growing extremes of modesty has had on women. Except to proactively and tacitly support it.

Is the high mortality rate for Charedi women in Israel not enough to move them away from such extremes? I guess not. It seems as though the opposite is true. The more extreme the measure – the better they like it.

The chances of this new female Charedi party winning even one seat in the Kenesset is low. But if enough people vote for them, they may actually reach the required threshold for a seat. These women have a right to be heard… and heard as Charedim! It may not be a bad idea for some in the National Religious community to vote for this party. Let them have the power they deserve and are unable to get.

It is time for the Charedi world to stop being so pious in this matter at the expense of their women – and in the end at the expense of their children as well. Both male and female.  Because such piety is foolish.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.