I Propose a Ban on Bans

If the Jew living in the Dor of Moshe Rabbeinu had a few hundred Issurim to deal with, by the end of Bayit Sheni the number of things forbidden had ballooned to the high thousands and by 1000 CE was several times that and today it’s virtually ad infinitum.

Part of that is the expanded capability created by technology and social organization to control and create new permissible and impermissible zones. The entire Hasgacha industry was created when it became possible to regulate every single thing we eat, right down to the plates and the condiments. When a century ago we went and bought some cheese from a farmer or killed a chicken out back, today we have deal with vortexes of kosher accreditations.

But if there’s anything we should have learned with our bout with the golden calf in the recent parsha is that we suck at keeping even basic things. If the great Dor of the Midbar couldn’t even manage to not sorta worship idols a month after Har Sinai, what are the odds that we can successfully keep a 1000 times the Issurim they ever had to deal with.

And the question of the day is whether we’re actually any better at the big stuff, such as not doing adultery, theft or worshiping idols or oppressing our brother? How about Sinas Chinam? And forget about that Tikkun Olam misnomer.

Let’s put a hold on the strawberries and the tap water and the hemlines and let’s look at the basic stuff. The average Jew today has far more responsibilities than the Dor of the Midbar did with way less to prop up our emunah. The answer is not more bans, the answer is less.

We’ve wrapped everything up in chumras and gederim ad le shamayim but it hasn’t brought us any closer to shamayim. Not when there’s so many things wrong in our communities.

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Rabbanit Bruria Keren, Anorexia, Alternative Therapy and Women’s Religion

People in power like to believe that power means control. In the Haredi world the absolute supremacy of male leadership and the contempt for women has created the illusion that men are in charge. But when you oppress people, they just find alternate ways of expressing themselves.

Alternative Therapy has become the focal point for “women’s religion” in Haredi Judaism. Women can’t become Rabbis or Sofers or hold any position of religious authority but Alternative Therapy has been a back door to that and allowed women in the Haredi world to function as a cross between spiritual healers and therapists, incorporating Kabbalah, different energy healing programs and alternative therapies.

It’s absolutely no surprise then that one Alternative Therapist in Israel has created her own cult, Rabbanit Bruria Keren of the so-called Women of the Veil

Rabbanit Bruria Keren is functioning as a sort of early female Chassidic Rabbi with ascetic rather than joyful leanings, combining her alternative therapy and organic foods with the one legitimate outlet for Haredi Women and what’s been repeatedly described as a woman’s most important Mitzvah, Tznius. Her followers seem to cover converts and Baal Tesuvahs, many connected to Breslov. (A claim in the comments section says that Bruria Keren is herself a BT but the article states that she is from a Haredi family) Breslov’s splintered factions are spinning off a lot of crazy behavior and converts and BT’s often lack the ability to tell right from wrong in Judaism and embrace extremism as right.

All the bloggers who talk about being rendered speechless by Rabbanit Bruria Keren and her followers are missing the point. The obsessive focus on Tznius in the Haredi world has created a culture of insecurity for women. The followers of Rabbanit Bruria Keren have taken control of Tznius from men by imposing extreme versions of it on themselves. Their security in the righteousness of the Burka comes from the relief that they don’t have to worry that their Tznius is inadequate anymore and the Tznius paranoia was instilled in them by Haredi men in the first place. Converts and BT’s who would have the most boundary issues when adapting to Haredi ideas of Tznius in the first place were the most vulnerable.

Think of what’s going on with the Women of the Veil and Rabbanit Bruria Keren as “Clothing Anorexia”. Anorexics try to attain a perfect standard of thinness that they begin to engage in self-destructive eating behavior. These women are aiming for an impossibly perfect standard of Tznius and are engaging in self-destructive dressing behavior. Only when dressed in a tent can they feel secure in their holiness because they’ve been made to feel that their femininity is something shameful and dirty.

“At first I wore only three skirts and a cape. Then I read that Rabbanit Kanievsky, a well-known figure in the haredi community, covered the upper part of her hand (shoresh kaf hayad) with cloth. I looked at the place my fingers began, and saw that it was indeed very feminine. So I cut off the ends of some socks and wore them on my hand, to cover the part up to my fingers. At first I wore them only outside, because they bothered me at home. Gradually I also began to wear them at home, and now I sleep in them as well as in a high neckline. When one receives light, one receives holiness.”

It’s not too hard to see what’s going on here. The irrational pursuit of Chumras Ad Infinitum, the Tznius obsession and the embrace of mysticism and superstition along with dubious alternative therapies and the subjugation of women has created a tinderbox. Rabbanit Bruria Keren, who is undoubtedly completely sincere, is a symptom rather than the problem.

When you teach women to hate themselves, whether you do it with impossibly thin stick figure models or by obsessively telling women that their body is a vehicle for sin and it’s their fault if they don’t adopt the latest chumra, you are opening the door to the same problem. If you teach people to hate themselves, they will. Promiscuity and the Burka are two sides of the same ugly coin and two extremes meet in the middle for a poisonous kiss.

Women are particularly sensitive to body image. Haredi Judaism has spent too long driving out the female body as if they were exorcising some evil demon. Women’s bodies are wrapped up and women’s faces are banished from magazine covers and ads. So what is the logic in not covering women’s faces outright?

Haredi Judaism has spent so much time trying to force its followers into models of virtue, that like Victorian England, they’ve forgotten the inherent imperfections of people and instead taught them to hate each other and themselves. The Torah accepted human frailty far more than the Haredi world does today. The Torah is full of flawed people, the Gedolim biographies are full of saints.

Now Haredi Judaism has spawned or respawned a Catholic mania of self-mortification through clothing. And calling Rabbanit Bruria Keren names won’t help. Accepting women will. Tznius has its place but modesty and virtue have to exist within a human framework rather than an inhuman one because the Women of the Veil are the end result of the inhuman framework.

Right now Rabbanit Bruira Keren is catering to the fringe, Breslov, converts, BT’s. But this isn’t going away and things on the fringe can become mainstream. There are two kinds of rebellion, one is against the rules and one is an extreme adoption of the rules. Both are destructive and unhealthy but the Haredi world has cherished the latter while smearing the former as Godless. It’s time to return to the good and pleasant ways of the Torah and the ways of Hashem, to love each other rather than hate each other and to go neither to the right nor to the left, not to one extreme and not to another.

Give women a place in religious life beyond lecturing on Tznius, because Rabbanit Bruria Keren is the end result of that.