Jewish women? Wearing burqas and abayas/jilbab? In Ramat Beit Shemesh?

Haaretz reported recently of a group of charedi women who, under the tutelage of a Rebbetzin Bruria Keren, have sought to take tznius (modesty) to the next level — voluntarily eschewing (covered) wigs and kerchiefs for hijabs and burkas. Jameel over at the Muqata translates some of the article (which, if your Hebrew permits, is very worth reading):

“I don’t want men to look at me. I’m happy being modest. In the past, I felt uncomfortable to walk around [sans-burka], in such a wanton fashion. At first, I just wore a wig. Now, when I see a woman with a wig, I pray to G-d to forgive her for wearing that “thing” on her head. It’s difficult. We get humiliated. What haven’t they said to me? My neighbors yelled at me, “Leave us alone, you smelly arab.” I was pushed. But this is a test from G-d. At the Central Bus Station I undergo security checks and am asked for identification. I don’t want men seeing my ID picture, so I just show them my children to prove I’m not an Arab.”

–Quote from a Burka and Hijab wearing Jewish woman in her late 20s, who lives in Jerusalem.

And this woman is not alone.

MomInIsrael, the source of the above graphic, captions said photo with an anecdotal story about where the photo was taken:

A friend of mine attended an odd wedding and shared some pictures of the new fashions. The one on the left is wearing three head coverings: one under her chin, one covering her forehead, and one going all the way down her back. This is in addition to a full-length cloak….According to the Haaretz article, a woman called Rabbanit (rebbetzin, wife of the rabbi) Keren is behind this approach. She has ten children and leaves the house as infrequently as possible. She also maintains a “taanit dibur,” a speech fast, except for four hours a week when she gives classes and treats women as an alternative therapist. I don’t know how she manages not to speak with her husband and children. She wears ten layers of clothing…and advises women to switch the heels of their shoes so that they won’t click. Makeup and perfume are also taboo.

Toward the end of the Haaretz article, the author quotes a professor who suggests that this extreme modesty is similar to anorexia. I agree; it’s obsessive behavior…Or maybe I’m being judgmental? When rabbis in certain circles emphasize women’s modesty above all other virtues, it’s no wonder that some will take things to the extreme.

While some bloggers are being humorous about this, I have the same fear as Israeli blogger Tali, if this gains acceptance, then this could have horrible repercussions: were this to be the standard legislated by the various Mishmarot ha’Tzniut (Modesty Patrols), this would equal a drastic change in the lives of religious women in these communities. Even the most pious women are content now to cover their (synthetic, of course) wigs or to wear faux silk rolls covered by kerchiefs — this would mean saying no to sheitels and yes to abayas. Like one commenter over at Muqata noted, “[if] the Rabbanim are pushed by radical women into mandating this, Judaism will be permanently changed.” (And while the Mishnah in Shabbat 6:6 does refer to Jewish women wearing niqab and other veils, it says only the “bnot Yisra’el she’b’Aravia”, the Jewish women who lived in Arabia, went around like that, “in the way of Arab women”.)

The blog Tikkun Olam echoes my other fear: if this gets adopted by any sizable community or authority — especially in light of the already radicalizing charedi elements in Israel’s strengthening and growing — it will effectively kill Judaism “as a viable choice” for most people.

One man, according to the Haaretz article, took his wife to beit din (Rabbinical court) upon her decision to wear a burqa, saying she had done horrible damage to their shalom bayit with her new choice of garb and her refusal to stop wearing it. The court ordered a divorce even though he didn’t request one…because of her bizarre behavior. Rebbetzin Keren is doing klal Yisra’el no favors by teaching these women to wear burkas and abayas, on the contrary.

Modern Orthodox and less radical charedi Jews in the area have already begun to voice their frustration with the radical elements who insist on beating, burning, and stoning their way into legislating their outlook with “ongoing Orthodox-on-Orthodox violence”. Virtually all American Orthodox Jews would be targets of tznius patrols were this to be considered the new standard for haredim, even if only in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, or worse, chas v’shalom, were a Rabbinical authority to rule in favor of the attire.

Yesh g’vul.

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About the author


A modern charedi Jew-by-choice since 2000, and igniting headphones with Torah hiphop since 2001.

Originally from Maryland and now holding it down in the shtetlach of New York, won the Jewish Music Awards for "Best Hiphop" in 2006. Vocally anti-prejudice and pro-unity.

Love me, hate me, or debate me, know you can't ignore me, though.

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