When 'modest' becomes extreme

When the 'Taliban women' phenomenon finally reached Mea She'arim, the rabbis of the extremist Edah. Haredit took notice and condemned it. But what was it that initially drove ultra-Orthodox women to cover themselves up almost hermetically?

Haaretz, Israel/December 2, 2011

His tall stature and dress - the striped robe customarily worn by men in some streams of the Edah Haredit - made him look older than his age, as if a venerable member of society. But his face is that of a boy. The young groom, whose wedding was the reason for the harsh and unprecedented condemnation that the Badatz, or ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court of the Edah (one of the most extreme of all Haredi communities ), issued last week against the group referred to despairingly as "the Taliban women," to which his mother and wife belong - seemed at a loss this week as to what all the fuss was about. Yoel Krois, one of the unofficial spokesmen for the extremist factions within the Edah Haredit, said with a smile, once the teenager was out of sight, that the groom had achieved a Guinness record: Before his 18th birthday, and only months apart, he was married twice within the same year. But evidently today in Mea She'arim nobody else finds that joke funny.

In a neighborhood where rumors spread like wildfire, it came to light a week ago, and after the fact, that the young man in question had secretly wed a second time, without having arranged a get, or bill of divorce, from his first wife, whom he had married just a few months earlier. She had refused to divorce him for several months, and had also moved back in with her parents. The community was horror struck.

After the scandal erupted, the young man's family initially claimed he had been given heter me'ah rabbanim (literally, permission by 100 rabbis ), a license to marry a second wife that is granted in rare cases and acceptable according to halakha (traditional law ): for example, when a wife is not capable of accepting a get, because of a medical or mental condition (say, if she is comatose ), and on condition that 100 rabbis sign the authorization. But there is hardly a rabbi to be found who is willing to declare publicly that he signed such a permit, and not one single rabbi who will admit to having officiated at the couple's second wedding.

The reason the marriage between the 16-year-old boy and his 21-year-old mate foundered is not their age gap, rather the fact that the latter, whose mother also belongs to the group of women wearing burka-like shawls, would not consent to the ritual immersion in the mikveh. The allegations against her maintain that this was because she did not want to remove the shawl she wears over her clothes, and immersion in a ritual bath must take place without any barriers, in other words in complete nakedness.

The accusatory finger was not pointed at the groom at all, but rather at the rebellious bride, at the groom's mother for allegedly "stirring" the wedding pot, and more generally at the group of women that has been isolated and singled out in the Edah Haredit in any case for the way they dress.

"Not going to the mikveh is a violation of the essence of the purity of the people of Israel," pronounced Rabbai Shmuel Pappenheim, formerly a spokesman for the Edah Haredit and editor of its mouthpiece, Ha'Eda.

"He [the groom] said that he received permission from 100 rabbis. But there are not even 10. This way creates an opening to permitting all marriages among the people of Israel. A wife burns the cooking at home one time - you can marry another. Who officiated at the wedding, nobody knows. There has to be a minyan at a wedding. It is impossible that here in Mea She'arim you could keep secret who the 10 people were who attended the wedding," Pappenheim added.

Another case that involved another family of shawl-wearers was reported last week on the Haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat. It reported that a young woman from the same extremist group of women who went into labor delivered her baby at home, because the family does not go to the hospital for reasons of modesty. Things got complicated when the premature baby went into fetal distress during childbirth.

A man from the emergency medical organization Hatzalah who lives in the same neighborhood was called to the scene, and he took the preemie to the hospital against the parents' wishes. The hospital called the social services after several hours, when the newborn's parents failed to appear. They eventually did, and the newborn survived.

It is hard to ignore the sense that part of the impetus for the Badatz condemnation of the group known as "Taliban women" derived from the men's feeling of intimidation by those women. Fathers of daughters who joined the shawl-wearers in spite of the stated objections of the men, among these some well-known rabbis, as well as displeased husbands, testified for several hours at the Badatz about what is going on within their homes. The women were vilified for not accepting rabbinical authority; for taking their daughters out of school to be educated at home; and most serious of all, for disobeying the most stringent rules of halakha.

The fact that there are husbands who support them was played down, and those husbands were presented as weaklings who allow themselves to be dragged along. Meanwhile, accusations that had surfaced previously began cropping up in conversation with greater force. For example, that the shawl-wearers do not breast-feed their sons, only their daughters, for reasons of modesty.

After hearing the testimonies, the Badatz, in a rare sort of consensus, ostracized the group of women with the shawls, though it did not name it per se. The wording of the unprecedented announcement was unusually harsh: "To our sorrow, we the Badatz have listened to testimony regarding the inequities of these women that have uprooted Torah from Israel, acting on their own, adopting a lifestyle that is void of Torah and educational values. They do not send their offspring to Talmud Torah and schools; they prevent receiving medical care, even in life-threatening cases, as well as issues concerning matters that are not fitting to be discussed, pertaining to the chuppah and kedushin [i.e., main elements of weddings], etc.

"Therefore, we are warning Jewish women and girls that it is prohibited to join them and one must distance oneself from their customs and their ways, since ultimately, they will, has v'sholom, lead to destruction and annihilation" (translation by The Yeshiva World News. )

One may ask, however, since when does the Badatz view the phenomenon of private - or perhaps it's "pirate" - schools as a problem? And second, as to preventing medical care, objection to Zionist hospitals among the extremist streams has always meant that home births are nothing exceptional, and the same goes for parents' refusal to vaccinate their children. And this was the story long before the case of "the starvation-causing mother" (an ultra-Orthodox woman who was accused of withholding food from her son, and whose arrest by the authorities prompted violent protests ), which raised higher the walls of suspicion between the extremist factions, and state health and welfare officials.

Apparently, it took especially extreme cases to make it clear to the rabbis that limits must be set. They realized for the first time that the phenomenon of women who wear either a shawl, a cape over their clothes, or a long scarf that covers their heads and faces, has also been gaining momentum among extremist circles in Jerusalem, and that it is not a purely religious matter, but a social one they must eradicate.

So long as the phenomenon remained concentrated in areas far from the Haredi communities in places like Beit Shemesh, it was marked as a symptom of extremism on the ultra-Orthodox margins, among newly religious women, mainly of Mizrahi origin. This is also why the rabbis were not troubled by the phenomenon and did not condemn it - even after the first "Taliban Mother" case erupted (the leader of a group of the shawl-wearing women in Beit Shemesh, a rabbi's wife, was convicted in 2009 of abusing her children and is now in prison ).

But then, in recent years, the phenomenon of women wearing a cape-like covering over their clothes began to surface among extremist circles in Jerusalem. Many of them started attending parlor gatherings at which "modesty" lessons were given under the auspices of the organization Keter Malkhut, based in the Geula neighborhood, adjacent to Mea She'arim, which also supported the women in Beit Shemesh. They also began reading the kontresim (pamphlets containing a discourse on the weekly Torah portion ) that the organization distributed on the subject.

The message of these lessons and pamphlets was that women should dress as Jewish women have dressed since time immemorial. With the help of various kinds of cloaks and scarves, according to this message, women can bring salvation closer, and shall be blessed for it. Subsequently, since the express goal is to exalt modesty, become more devout, and thus to add more and more coverings - certain women in Mea She'arim began to dress like the women in Beit Shemesh.

The more powerful these women became in terms of numbers, the more blatant became their social condemnation by their extended families and on the Haredi street; they found themselves ostracized and cut off from their families. When the recognized institutions would not admit the younger girls in these groups to school, pirate education frameworks sprung up, which also made it less necessary for the girls to walk through the streets and make themselves a target for stares and curses. Afraid they would not be able to arrange a match for their sons or daughters, the women rushed to marry off their children, and thereby formed some strange and unacceptable matches between 16-year-old boys and older girls.

"It took hold of all the innocents in the communities; everyone who was in trouble," Pappenheim says. "They say and show sources suggesting that it is a return to something old and innocent. There were several rabbis' wives on the margins who preached this. From there it developed and began to take hold of women who do not have good lives, who have problems with their husbands, and other problems that the women believed would be solved thanks to the shawl."

Women's 'wantonness'

The mistake of the male leaders, according to Pappenheim, was allowing the women to go in this direction in the first place. "The moment they let the women lead their path, it developed into wantonness, because they do not know how to stop," he says.

In his capacity as a volunteer ambulance driver, Pappenheim says that he once evacuated to the hospital a man who complained of headaches. "The man collapsed, didn't speak, and his wife ran away and wouldn't talk to me or explain what happened. That is madness."

As one who is close to the family of the two-time groom, Krois sounds less worked up. He says that at issue are a mere four families, and that the significance of the phenomenon should not be exaggerated. They are good women whose behavior is without blemish, he notes - but his daughters and wife would not go around dressed like that.

It may be that only a handful of families are involved, but since every mother in these families has more than 10 children, and the girls are seen on the street with the shawls, it creates the appearance of a much wider phenomenon. Moreover, the women in question had been considered to be important in their community. Two of them were teachers in Edah Haredit schools, until they quit and began teaching in the alternative ones.

Y., a young woman from the Edah Haredit, says she was surprised to see her mother suddenly wearing a shawl that covers her head as well. "She invited me to hear about the shawls. I told her, 'Do what is good for you, but leave me alone. I'm not interested in wearing more panty hose, more underwear' (that is, even more layers of clothes in order to appear modest ). These women, they come up to you at weddings and talk to you. One time somebody with a shawl approached me at a wedding. She said that she would like to discuss with me a 'taste of heaven.' I told her, 'I have a taste of heaven with my husband and that is enough for me.'

"These are newly religious women who start brainwashing you," Y. continues. "They are everywhere, promising women that it will bring livelihood. And also making anyone who doesn't go about like that feel guilty. The women here have a lot of burdens and difficulties. Distress, poverty. That is why they get caught up in this."

Last week, while the sheva brakhot ("Seven Blessings" ritual held each evening during the week after a wedding ) was being held for the married couple, the groom's first wife rushed to finalize the get at a distant rabbinic court, that of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in Bnei Brak. Everything seemed set to rights, though the storm is not over.

"It is impossible to nullify it or to boycott them completely, but we are now making sure that the phenomenon does not spread," Pappenheim says.

It is doubtful whether the Badatz will be able to contain the phenomenon, which needs to be understood in a much broader context. As one post noted in the comment section on a Haredi website: "Over the last few years all they have heard is how much women are the mother of all sin. They are blamed for all the disasters that befall the people of Israel, and the young of the flock are taught over there that a woman is the worst thing that can cross their path, so is it any wonder? Women internalize and begin to think that it's true, that they and their bodies have no right to exist, and they feel guilty for not being able to be invisible, and then try to burrow under as much as possible!"

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