NRG published a story about a pamphlet distributed to homes in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, urging women to wear shalim, or cloaks. If you have a copy of the pamphlet, please let me know.
According to the pamphlet, the purpose of wearing a shal is “to cover the outline and shape of the body and hide the color of the clothing . . . the purpose of this embellishment is for the woman to honor her husband, and it isn’t modest for the whole neighborhood to know what clothing she chose to wear on the Sabbath.”
According to the article, “The pamphlet goes on to bring long and detailed explanations of the halachic obligation, according to the writers, to wear the shal, along with quotes from researchers around the world, who maintain that haredi women covered, in previous eras, ‘their heads, necks, and bodies with several items of clothing, until no man could identify them.’”
The pamphlet lets you know what to do should people laugh, advising: “The most important thing is not to inform your parents, on either side. Because it’s known, that if the couple wants to become stronger in tzniut (modesty), [the parents] immediately cry out in protest, as is the way of the evil inclination.”
NRG entitles the article, Haredi Campaign: Dress Like Taliban Women. (One haredi objected to the title because the campaign is by a fringe group and does not reflect mainstream haredi Judaism.) The article opens by retelling the case of Bruria Keren, known in the press as “Mother Taliban. Keren covers her face with a veil and is currently serving a 4-year jail term for child abuse.
Two Distinct Groups with Similar Goals
Currently, there are two more or less distinct groups of hyper-modest women that the article lumps together:
- Women who wear shalim. Most of the women who wear them have been influenced by the books of Michael Uri Sofer, a rabbi from Bnei Brak. His wife wears neither a veil nor a shal, and I did not see shalim when I visited the clothing store that operates in his house. Sofer prohibits exposing the neck, wearing high heels, and talking on cellphones (all for women, of course). While the book doesn’t advocate shalim, it praises them and recommends layers. It’s likely that most of the pamphlet’s quotes and arguments come from Sofer’s books. Shalim are already common in certain parts of the country. I haven’t seen any pashkevilim condemning shalim, although I know many husbands don’t like them.
- Women who cover their faces with veils, wear shalim, and and have taken on additional practices that are in contradiction to Jewish law. These include not bathing more than one body part at a time, not using soap, not breastfeeding, and limiting sexual relations to fertile times (not during pregnancy, for example).
The two groups come from the same population, use similar language, and have similar motives and resources. They both proselytize via pamphlets and even home visits, and there may be easy passage from the first group to the second. But the veil-wearers have become a full-fledged cult with all that it entails. Perhaps the shal-wearers are headed in that direction.
While it may be hard for outsiders to see the difference, the two groups view themselves as distinct from one another. The veil-wearing families from Ramat Beit Shemesh wanted a separate school for their sons because they disapproved of teachers whose wives exposed their faces.
Is Hyper-Tzniut a Feminist Movement?
Many, like the blogger Benjamin of Tudela, have suggested a twisted feminist leaning behind this movement. I understand the sentiment, but I like thet theory less and less. The first group, the shal wearers, has adopted more stringent dress and behavior—there’s nothing feminist about that.
What about the second group, the veil-wearers? While they have made up some new halachot and ignored others, they aren’t “pushing the envelope” in the feminist sense. Wearing more layers isn’t feminist. Avoiding baths has nothing to do with controlling men, nor does rejection of breastfeeding. All of their practices have one thing in common—refusal to expose the body in any way, even for legitimate reasons like sex, bathing, and feeding babies.
The concept of tzniut has been drummed into the heads of these women with a hammer since they were children: tzniut is the most important commandment for women, it will bring the messiah, and so on. Both groups have taken the concept of tzniut (modesty) to its logical conclusion. Now the established community will try to stop a moving train that has long ago left the station.
Thanks to Hadassah Levy for her comments on the draft.