Analysis: What can rabbis do?

The Jerusalem Post/August 25, 2008

A mishmeret tzniut, roughly translated as "modesty squad," is a vigilante body, usually with some form of rabbinic license, that has taken upon itself to enforce normative ultra-Orthodox behavior.

The mishmeret tzniut derives its power from its ability to identify and manipulate the zealotry of the haredi majority.

There are a multitude of such bodies representing different haredi sects that deal with issues from the eradication of MP-4 and DVD sales in strictly haredi neighborhoods to the fight against ultra-Orthodox pop concerts, from the creation of separate seating in the waiting room of the local post office to the strict supervision of women's clothing stores to make sure no tight-fitting or otherwise immodest apparel is being offered to haredi females.

All the crusades chosen by the various modesty squads are no-brainers for the majority of the haredi populace. After all, who is not against the sale of potentially lascivious movies in one's neighborhood? And who is not opposed to the introduction of Western-style pop stars to the wholesome haredi culture?

Rabbinic leadership may or may not buy into the means used by the activists to further their just causes. Even if the rabbinic leaders oppose certain actions taken by the mishmeret hatzniut, they usually cannot publicly attack it for fear of losing their credibility among the public who look to its rabbis to champion haredi zealotry and meticulous adherence to the letter of the law.

In Jerusalem, the most well-known and established enforcer of haredi norms is the Council for the Purity of the Camp (Va'ad Le'ma'an Tohar Hamachane), which was created by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Safronovitch with the blessing of the fifth Gerer rebbe, Israel Alter, also known as the Beis Yisrael, who passed away in 1977.

It is unclear what connections the council has to the Ger hassidic sect today.

Binyamin Meirovitch, one of the men detained by police due to his alleged connection with the severe beating of a divorced woman, is also connected to the Council for the Purity of the Camp.

Meirovitch owns the Ne'eman printing press that publishes pashkevilim, the black and white notices plastered on the walls and bulletin boards of haredi neighborhoods. These notices, complete with the signatures of prominent rabbis, are the preferred medium for relaying warnings, orders or information from the rabbinic leadership or quasi-rabbinic bodies such as the council to the haredi street.

One of Meirovitch's employees is Elchanan Buzaglo, who was accused by police of, along with six others, beating the divorced woman.

The rumor on the haredi street is that the woman was beaten because her former husband complained that she was acting immodestly.

Despite the brutality of the beating, as described in the police rap sheet, a vocal contingent in the haredi community took to the streets against what they saw as police intervention in internal matters.

As Shmuel Poppenheim, a spokesman for the Edah Haredit put it, "The vast majority of haredim are opposed to the use of violence.

"But when the iniquities are taking place right next door, anybody in their right mind would do what it takes to put an end to the madness."

No formal announcement condemning the violence against the woman was released by the Edah Haredit. However, according to the Chadarei Haredim (haredi rooms) Internet forum, Rabbi Moshe Sternbach, a member of the Edah's leadership, told his students it was permissible to hand over to the police haredi zealots who desecrated God's name with their actions.

Sternbach could not be reached Sunday at his Jerusalem home to verify the report.

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