Wearing Red Herrings

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There are some groups whose search engines are going 24/7 seeking out foibles among the Orthodox and seemingly absurd or inciting comments of Rabbis.

I describe such a “red herring” case in the Jerusalem Post Opinion Page (Friday Feb.4 Magazine). A fortnight ago there was a false Maariv newspaper report about a “new” ruling by Rabbi Abergil that supposedly “outlawed” the wearing of red by women, and the green light he supposedly gave to husbands to tear off red clothes from their wives. Nuts? Sounds like it. Being familiar with the Talmudic pericope about Rav Adda where this is discussed (Berachos 20a) I understood the gemara was using a hyperbole to make a point about appropriate deportment in public. Rabbi Abergil had quoted and rejected any inference that today one could act the way Rav Adda did in talmudic times (when he removed the forbidden “karbolta” red or shatnez garment a woman was wearing in public).

I did some investigating and found that many people were involved in starting and spreading the story (which was eventually proven false) about Rabbi Abergil’s so-called ruling. The Maariv reporter started it; some lady members of the Knesset demonstrated in red; the Awareness Center (an abolitionist group working against trade in women) in Israel organized a demonstration in front of the rabbinical courts against what they said was inciting violence against women. Kolech, the Orthodox Feminists, sent out the email invitation from Awareness Center calling for people to come to the demo. I am particularly disappointed in the Orthodox Feminists because they have the text analysis tools to understand the rabbinic language and context and explain it to the uninitiated. Instead, Kolech jumped on the rabbi-bashing bandwagon. Reuters and the JTA (Jewish news service) spread the “story” and it appeared in dozens of places from London’s Jewish Chronicle to the newsletter of the Washington DC Jewish Federation.

Not one of these bothered to contact Rabbi Abergil to ask about the facts. I reached him and he sent me his two page Hebrew discussion, not new but 10 years old. It was a “teshuva” or responsum to a religious couple who sought his advice about appropriately modest clothing. In his responsum he explicitly rejects tearing and any violence, and gives a very lenient response saying it is OK to wear red clothes indoors, or partially red outdoors. In short, the Rabbi was completely misquoted, vilified, hung, drawn and quartered. I wonder if others have similar experiences? Second question – how would you explain to non-observant Jews the Talmudic episode referred to above?

Shira Schmidt
28 bShvat

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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3 Responses

  1. Eliezer says:

    I don’t know why we need to be coy about our disapproval of red clothing for women. The New York Times Magazine of March 22, 1998, in an article (that I cut out) by Mary Tannen, stated:
    “After World War I, when women seized the right to wear makeup, they chose red, dabbing it on with the fervor of converts. Once the mark of women who sold their bodies, red was taken over by those powerful enough to advertise their sexuality and still own it.”
    And if it says so in the Times, mei’si’ach lefi tumo, that’s the way it is.

  2. chanoch says:

    How to explain it? Simple… Judaism requires modest dress such as clothes that don’t call attention to the wearer. In ancient times, the only two available *bright* dyes were purple/blue (such as indigo and techeiles) which were expensive and associated with royalty, and red, a bright die available to common people). Red clothes might be expected to draw an inappropriate amount of attention and so were to be avoided. The halacha today is more often applied to any unusually bright clothes than specifically to red, although some poskim do think that red particularly draws the eye, even today, more than any color.

  3. Bnei Levi says:

    Can you post the original teshuva?