The American Haredi videolog website, Gruntig.net, 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. Continue reading