Modesty American Style with Love from Russia

The American Haredi videolog website,, wanted to post a Discover commercial making fun of the long waits of its competitors. Discover had two versions of the commerical: the original and one showing a Russian fiddler playing the violin as call-wait music while his colleague went out to lunch.

Ah, but what to do? The original Discover commercial showed… knees and calves. Naked calves! No problem. Just bring out the handy dandy video editor, and voila….

It would be  easy enough to ridicule such a video, but there is much more to learn by taking a step back and examining why such a video is so strange to non-Haredi eyes.

As we have seen from the debates about men walking out from military ceremonies where women are singing, Haredim are sometimes prone to insisting that Halachah is absolutely black and white. There is no possible alternate interpretation that is “Jewish”. In reality the rules about what parts of the body should be covered and when, are riddled with arguments and disagreements. When it comes to arms and legs there are two major divergent schools of thought:

  • modesty and nakedness is a matter of social convention. Given the range of dress options, one should avoid the risqué ones. Thus if normal fashion says g-strings are risqué even at the beach, but full bikini bottoms are modest, the one could wear bikini bottoms without worry. Put another way: within a given culture, dress appropriatesly for children’s eyes.
  • independent of culture, certain parts of the body are inherently immodest. The Torah and Talmud define what those parts of the body are. Jews have only to obey. There are differences of opinion about what exactly counts as immodest body parts. For example, some argue that the knee and everything above it must be covered. Others insist that the ankle and even the foot itself is immodest and must be covered at all times with either skirts or stockings or both.

Historically, the Jewish community has preferred the social definition of modesty. Even the haredim’s icons followed this definition in the first half of the 20th century. We have pictures of Ovadia Yosef and his wife dressed in every day clothes in the late 1940’s. His wife is without a wig and even shows cleavage. Even Menachem Schneerson went bare headed from time to time in the twenties and thirties.

In the last 50 years of so, the haredim have moved to a more and more objectivist standard of modesty. By contrast, Liberal Judaisms (and here I include even Modern Orthodoxy), have held onto the culturally driven standards, at least in part. Rather than be afraid of halacha based on cultural awareness, they have embraced it. This creates an immense intellectual and cultural divide between the haredim and the rest of Jews.

The Liberal Embrace of Culture

For Modern Orthodox and right wing Conservative Jews the embrace is limited to those areas of halacha that have traditionally been culturally determined. But once there is historic proof that culture has impacted halachic decisions, cultural awareness is embraced as a normative part of the halachic process rather than a bow to assimilation.

For more liberal Jews the entire Jewish tradition has been up for grabs. Judaism represents eternal values, but the particular expression of those values varies from age to age. Jews have a religious obligation to find the appropriate expression in each age, even if that expression varies markedly from the historic tradition.

From the Liberal point of view, Jews can engage culture without being assimilated by it because we have a long, long history of taking our surrounding culture and putting our unique Jewish stamp on it. Our ancient fore-bearers took the Gilgamesh story and converted it into the ethical-monothestic story of Noah . Throughout history modern Jews have taken surrounding musical styles and turned them into prayer. They have taken surrounding food ways, filtered them through the rules of kashrut, and developed unique cooking styles.

Even today, Jews do not merely participate in culture – we reinvent it to suit our vision and values. For example, American democracy rooted in the philosophy of deists and natural rights becomes merged with distinctly biblical and Jewish notions of social justice. The passion for folk culture and folk ways in Europe during the last half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century became the basis for Mordachai Kaplan’s argument that Jewish tradition had value as a folk way. Many years latter Eugene Borowitz took the post-modern rejection of a single universal truth as the basis for an argument that Jewish ethics was intimately tied to the pariticularities of Jewish text and practice. His work provided the intellectual basis for an on-going revival of tradition within the the most religiously liberal parts of the Jewish world.

Haredi Objectivism

The haredim on the other hand have a strong preference of purely objectivist standards even when there is ample evidence in Jewish history and text that culture has played a part in Halachic decision making. It isn’t clear why. The Haredim view it as simply being true to Torah, but that doesn’t really explain much. Past generations were trying equally hard to be true to Torah.

One reason may be simply the need to be distinctive. As society becaome more and more accepting of Jews, the notion of Jews as a people set apart became less and less concrete. Distinctive dress makes that notion concrete again.

Another possibility is disgust with the trends of the surrounding culture. In the first half of the twentieth century, women tended to cover up. They might show some cleavage here and there, but for the most part bodies were covered. As Europe and America moved into the second half of the twentieth century it became more and more acceptable to show a great deal of flesh. In the eyes of some, the cultural definition of modesty lead to conclusions that no longer made sense. This caused some to switch to the objectivist standard of modesty. Even if this was a minority opinion, it seemed to lead to more sensible conclusions in the eyes of some.

A third motivation is the general approach to knowledge in the Haredi community. Haredi learning tends to be fundamentalist: as much as possible every assumption should be based in text. Analytical conclusions grow from logical deduction from the text. Intuitive leaps are frowned on. Wherever possible even analysis is avoided in favor of reliance on trusted authorities.

A fourth motivation is a longing for permanence. Haredi culture is dominated by this longing, even to the point of revising history so that current halachic inventions are projected back in time, even as far back as the time of the mishnah and talmud.

All of this makes halacha based on cultural awareness highly problematic. Culture is constantly changing. To understand culture requires observation, familiarity, intuition, and ultimately subjective judgements. There is rarely one right conclusion about a culture.

Getting back to bare knees

To liberal eyes, much if not all of modesty is determined by culture. Given current cultural standards both in Israel and the US, worrying about uncovered knees and calves seems like foolishness. It even seems un-Jewish. To haredi eyes, using anything from the surrounding culture to determine something so intimate as how we cover our bodies smacks of surrendering the soul to a foreign entity.

Often in Israeli discussions of religion there is a presumption that liberal or non-haredi viewpoints are simply more assimilated, less thought out versions of Haredi viewpoints. This is expressed in survey after survey and op-ed after op-ed that categorizes Israeli responses to social questions by a continuum that extends from Haredi to Orthodex to traditional to secular.

As can be seen from the discussion above, both sides of the modesty debate have their own religious rationale related in Jewish history and text. The differences between them cannot be captured by viewing Jewish involvement as a single continuum. Rather the various expressions of Judaism in the modern world are more like a plane with two axis: one axis reflects the role of objectivist approaches to Judaism and one axis reflects the role of cultural engagement in Jewish halachah and practice.

For there to be mutual understanding and respect between Haredim and non-Haredim, there also needs to be acceptance that Jewish commitment is not a single continuum from Haredi to secular. Much of our judgementalness of each other comes from each group trying to force the other into a polar relationship with themselves.

Haredim are not merely being “extreme”. To be sure some are following their rabbis like sheep, but that could be said of many liberal Jews as well. The more knowledgable Haredim are making conscious reasoned choices based on their underlying philosophical assumptions. Similarly knowledgable Liberal Jews cannot be cast off as indifferent or assimilated. Many, especially the more educated, are making passionate committed Jewish choices based on their philosophical assumptions.

Original post:

Hat tip for the doctored Discover Card video: Dov Bear

Categories: Building a Better Judaism, Extremism | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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