When my husband was a flight surgeon on the US Air Force base in Guam, he witnessed a feeding frenzy by sharks. Daily, a huge garbage truck would gingerly back up to the edge of a cliff, and dump the waste into the Pacific. In 40 seconds sharks made mincemeat of the garbage, leaving disposable dishes floating. In another 20 seconds those were also disposed of by sharks. If you can’t go to Guam, you can see a shark feeding frenzy on the Discovery Channel. Or you can follow the current media frenzy against haredim in Israel.
Perhaps this is what Rabbi Chanina had in mind when he stipulated, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive” (Pirkey Avot 3:2).
Here are examples of the media frenzy.
(a)Yair Lapid showed a video in December on Israeli TV, which featured the most extreme peripheral haredim whose behavior is considered outrageous by almost all haredim and ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
(b)The NYTimes has blown out of proportion issues related to controversies in Beit Shemesh, on buses, and at conferences. On December 28 the weekday NYTimes gave wide coverage on p.4 to religious extremism.
(c)By Jan. 15 the topic had moved up to the Sunday edition, page one, and was headlined, “In Israel, a Seismic Clash Between the Secular and Ultra-Orthodox”. It included a slide show about haredim.
(d)On Jan.20, Rabbi Dov Linzer discussed similar issues in the NYT op ed pages.The Times appended the headline, “Leachery, Immodesty and the Talmud.”
What is highlighted in this media feeding frenzy is not necessarily what is happening on the ground. I will touch on some points of contention, brevatim et seriatim, using quotes from Rabbi Linzer’s NYT oped with which I respectfully disagree.
1) “Is it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women’s bodies?” The concept of men controlling women appears several times in Rabbi Linzer’s essay. After interviewing hundreds of haredi women, the concept that emerges is rarely men vs. women. The women see themselves as partners with men in keeping the focus of men’s attention on their own families.
2) “Last month an… 8-year-old girl… in Beit Shemesh described being spat on and vilified by religious extremists… who believed that she did not dress modestly enough while walking past them to the religious school she attends.” This is inexcusable behavior of the fringe of a fringe, but the incident described occurred not in December, but in September. A video of the girl was aired by Yair Lapid on Israeli TV Dec. 27, shortly before he threw his hat into the election ring (see Lapid introducing the tendentious video).
In actuality, the real reason for the abominable behavior by the fringe is not the dress code of their national religious neighbors. It is a turf war over a school building, a confrontation that is a spatial expression of a century-old culture clash, as described kli rishon by Dov Krulwich.
3) “…public buses in Israel are enforcing gender segregation imposed by ultra-Orthodox riders.” The buses do not enforce seating arrangements. There are a few bus lines that run between haredi neighborhoods where most men voluntarily sit in the front, and most women voluntarily sit in the back. Although I am not personally in favor of same sex seating, I have ridden thousands of miles on these buses when convenient to do so, and only once, 4 years ago, saw an incident where someone was asked to move. Unfortunately, there are a few such self-appointed sheriffs who are obnoxious, but those are miniscule in number and decreasing to the point of extinction.
Women who do prefer this arrangement do not see it as a zero-sum-game, but as a gain. I have attended the Supreme Court sessions on the issue and read reports and court decisions. The bottom line is that the buses have a sign that people may sit where they want. On the voluntarily gender separated buses I almost always see some women in the front, some men in the back, couples here and there. There are also women and men who are unabashedly provocative and get on these buses to stir up and film trouble. Unfortunately some haredim fall into the trap of responding to provocations.
4) Rabbi Linzer writes that there is a “battle being waged in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society over women’s place in society, over their very right to have a visible presence and to participate in the public sphere.” No one is battling over the presence of women in most spheres in Israel. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is a women, five women just graduated from pilots’ course, etc. There was an incident which seems inappropriate and may have shown poor judgment by the haredi deputy health minister asking the female recipient of an award to send her husband to the podium to receive the award. Perhaps the deputy minister was being unnecessarily cautious. Mistake. But a much worse mistake was made in a separate incident when the Israel Medical Association boycotted and forbade physicians to attend the annual Puah conference to acquaint rabbis with developments in the field of fertility medicine.
This was a case of the IMA acting like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Rabbi Menachem Burstein described how it took him a decade to quietly gain the confidence of rabbis who heretofore were not used to public discussion of delicate matters. What happened to values of tact and sensitivity? Must everything be done by fiat?
Puah has been going in the direction of greater inclusion of women. Why the sledgehammer approach by the media and IMA?
Here is a counter example — Rabbi Ovadia Yosef often shares the podium with women professors at the graduation of students from the Charedi College and he insists on staying to hear the women speakers. Does that attract the media?
5) The Talmud “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men… The Talmud says: It’s your problem, sir; not hers… The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you [men] have a problem, you deal with it.”
Most of the haredi women & girls I interview view themselves as helpmates who would not want to put a stumbling block in front of men. They are cognizant of the choices they have and choose to minimize temptation. In the long run they see themselves as beneficiaries of female modesty. Where you find coercion is in the secular advertising realm. Example: there was 30-foot billboard along a highway with supermodel Bar Rafaeli baring almost all. You could not drive the highway without seeing it. That is visual coercion, and disrespect to women.
Rabbi Linzer is correct that men have role in self-restraint. But recently there was a case where they exercised such self-restraint and were punished for it. Soldiers in an officer’s course were compelled to attend an entertainment program where women sang. There were a few soldiers who who keep stringencies of not listening to women sing. In line with Rabbi Linzer’s emphasis that it is the man’s problem, they did not say a word about asking the women not to sing. They only asked to be excused.
They were forced to attend on penalty of expulsion from the course. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t. This is symbolic of a culture conflict that needs to be negotiated tactfully. It isn’t an isolated case of women singing at one event, but participation in a culture that is redolent with permissiveness. Example: the female soldiers who announce the traffic reports on national army radio are told to read the reports in a throaty, breathless, erotic voice.
6) I agree completely with Rabbi Linzer’s conclusion. “Modesty is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call: learning ‘to walk humbly with your God.'” It is in this spirit that I respectfully submit the above reservations about Rabbi Linzer’s NYT oped.