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The Invisible Woman

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Charedi rabbinical leaders in Israel, and I imagine globally, are greatly perturbed, even horrified by the “chumrah” some Orthodox Israeli women have taken upon themselves – that of covering their bodies up in a manner similar to traditional Muslim women, who wear head to toe, shroud-like black burkas. The rabbanim and heads of charedi organizations have made it clear that these actions are not in keeping with Torah. Many are very puzzled, even shocked by these women’s behavior, all in the name of modesty.

What is surprising to me is that the rabbonim are surprised by this turn of events. It should seem obvious to the casual observer that this new level of tzniut these women are practicing is a natural progression in what has been a move in recent years to make women invisible – with modesty being the rallying cry across the board. After all, it seems that every time there is a horrific tragedy in the heimishe olam, the finger of blame is almost always pointed to immodest dress and lashon hara.

If I believed I was responsible for deadly car crashes, drownings, fires, and destructive weather, I would think twice about stepping out of my house in an outfit that would unleash Hashem’s fury. And having your nose and mouth totally covered is a great way to stop engaging in idle gossip, because breathing itself is a challenge, let alone expending your precious oxygen on talking. Perhaps these women, dressed like black ghosts, should be applauded for their great concern for the community’s well being. Better to bump into walls and walk into traffic than to feel guilty for causing an earthquake.

While I personally think ordinary humans cannot second guess or explain Hashem’s will, some people are rather confident that they are in the know as to why bad things happen – women dressing immodestly.

Others correctly feel that Jewish women are the daughters of kings, and should put themselves on a high pedestal of self-respect. The only problem is the pedestal keeps on getting higher and higher, so much so that women are now practically out of sight.

This campaign of making women invisible can be seen in various practices. One that I found very troubling as a mother, and that I wrote about years ago, deals with the lack of mention of the mothers’ name on wedding invitations. Usually at the bottom of the invitation, there is a blurb announcing who the chatan and kallah’s parents are. Frequently, the father’s full name is written – followed by the words “ve’rayatoh” which I interpret (correctly or not) “and his sidekick.” (The Hebrew word for wife/woman is eisha).

Why is it that the parent who was up all night taking care of a feverish, puking baby; who cried in her pillow for weeks when her child went off to seminary or to an out-of-town yeshiva; who jumped through hoops to achieve a successful outcome when their daughter or son was in “the parsha” – does not get recognized – that there is no “honorable mention” on her child’s wedding invitation. Instead she is nameless – her identity conditional on the fact that she has a husband.

Last time I looked in the Torah, all the matriarchs had names – and were mentioned in their own right – not because they “belonged” to someone. Sarah, for example, was even identified by two names – her original name, Sarai, and then her more elevated name, Sarah. She is not referred to as Avraham’s sidekick. In fact, our matriarch Sarah has a parsha named after her. According to today’s standards of modesty, the parsha would have been called Chayai Raya Shel Avraham.

And raya shel Yitzchak, not Rivka, would have been the one who helped Yaacov get the firstborn’s bracha. As for Leah, Rachel, Bilah and Zilpah, sorting them out in terms of their relationship to their mutual spouse would have been a challenge. I imagine Leah would have had to be known as raya ha’rishona shel Yaacov, and Rachel would have been raya hashneyah shel Yaacov.

Miriam certainly could be proud to have been referred to in the Torah as Amram’s daughter; or Moshe and Aaron’s sister – but the Torah let her name be known. Queen Esther may have initially been described as Mordechai’s niece, but after that relationship is mentioned she is Esther. In Tanach, the women have names, and exist in their own right, not by virtue of being someone’s wife or sibling or mother.

As I write this I am leafing through a community booklet that is free for the taking. It is filled with ads, gemach and chesed notices, and contains descriptions of local happenings and events such as shiurim, fundraisers etc. Readers/organizations are invited to email photos of their events – but are specifically asked that the photos not contain women’s faces.

Why? Do women not make up half of the community? In what way can a thumbnail size image of a woman’s face be viewed as being immodest? This misguided interpretation of modesty has even resulted in female Israeli politicians being photoshopped out of group pictures with their male colleagues – as have been highly placed, gentile female American government officials – in charedi print media, actions that have set Yidden up as objects of ridicule and scorn.

Even heimishe magazines geared to women have taken on this stringency. While the columnists are named, (so far) there are no photos of them above their bylines. A more recent entry in making women invisible is the head-scratching action of erasing pre-bat mitzvah girls’ faces from ads. Last year, Jewish Press columnist Tziona Greenwald expressed her outrage over erasing the faces of little girls in Purim costume ads. When did this become “Torah”?

What kind of message does that give to little girls?

This push for invisibility or keeping women out of sight from men has lead young people to question going to family celebrations (including Chanukah parties) because their teenage cousins of a different gender will be there. On Shabbat, girls refrain from inviting their friends over if their brothers are home from yeshiva.

It’s almost as if “mixing” a non-related female and male at the table is as unacceptable as putting a glass of milk near a plate of hamburgers on the table.

I recently glanced at a Bais Yaacov yearbook from the 1970’s and was reminded what the then olam’s perception of proper dress for a frum girl was. No pants of course, and no plunging necklines, but colored skirts and blouses; kneecaps showing; sleeves near the elbow. These girls were not Modern Orthodox. Their fathers belonged to Agudah.

With all this pressure to be un-noticed or invisible, is it so strange that the burka-wearing women stubbornly go the extra mile – despite their husbands’ objections? That they are extra “mehadrin” in their tzniut, covering themselves – and their young daughters – so that only their eyes are exposed? No doubt if they find a way to navigate with their eyes covered they would do so.

It seems that in our community, the norms are always being challenged and there is a push to go one step further. After a while, what was once extreme becomes the new normal. Then that extreme becomes “not good enough” and there is a push to go one step further.

Sadly, the extra step can lead to falling off the cliff. Perhaps it’s time for our spiritual leaders to put up some safety nets.

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