The pretext for the haredi attacks on Modern Orthodox little girls and their grade school in Beit Shemesh, Israel is that the girls – aged 5 through 11 – is that they are "immodestly" dressed. How so? According to haredim, the girls do not wear stockings, and the public exposure of their bare legs below the knee is a violation of halakha. But is it?
The pretext for the recent violent haredi attacks on Modern Orthodox little girls and their grade school in Beit Shemesh, Israel is that the girls – aged 5 through 11 – is that they are "immodestly" dressed.
According to haredim, the girls do not wear stockings, and the public exposure of their bare legs below the knee is a violation of halakha.
But it isn't, as anyone who has learned halakha knows.
It's a violation of the extra rules haredim have added to halakha, and for which there is little, and sometimes no, historical basis.
The Crown Heights Beit Din recently issued a letter on tzniut, modesty, urging men to encourage their wives and daughters to dress modestly, women to do the same with other women, and for women to take it upon themselves to do so.
Unlike the Beit Shemesh haredim, the Crown Heights Beit Din makes sure to emphasize that the encouraging should be done in an "appropriate and pleasant fashion."
Here are the halakhot the Crown Heights Beit Din wants followed:
This is basically the same requirements the Beit Shemesh haredim insist on, although they would add requirements about the material and cut of the dresses worn, the material the stockings are made of, as well as about the opacity of the stockings, their color, and whether or not the stockings have seams. And they would insist on sleeves that cover the wrists.
People not trained in the study of history often project backward, taking the dress or standards of the recent past, for example, and assuming that things were very similar 1,000 years ago or 2,000 years ago.
Sometimes this is true.
Most times it isn't.
500 years ago, just before the writing of the Shulkhan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law,Jews lived in Christian or Muslim countries and were strongly influenced by the dress codes of the people they lived among.
In some areas, Muslim women wore burkas, and therefore Jewish women wore burkas. In others they wore long sleeved shift-like dresses with scarves covering their hair because that is what non-Jewish women wore.
But what about 1,265 years before that? What did Jewish women wear?
They wore what their non-Jewish neighbors wore.
We can see that from two paintings from the Dura Europos synagogue, which date to 244 CE.
The paintings are of biblical scenes and some of them depict women. And those women are dressed in ways that violate the tzniut rules of Crown Heights, the Beit Shemesh haredim – and even of Modern Orthodoxy, proving once again that Judaism's treatment of women is, well, mostly man made.
Above: Mordechai and Esther. Note that Esther's arms are bare, as is her collarbone, and her hair is exposed, as are the hair, arms and collarbone of her attendant. Also note Mordechai's long hair and his closely trimmed beard.
Without the benefit of seeing these paintings or other archaeological finds, the Vina Gaon wrote that men wearing a yarmulke or other head covering was only a custom of the very pious, and that it was perfectly permissible to walk, eat and pray without one.
Somehow, none of the hasidic rebbes or Sefardic "saints" who supposedly possessed special connections to God knew this, and that's why normative halakha says that a man can't walk more than 4 amot (about 4 to 6 feet) without his head covered.
Similarly, non-hasidic Ashkenazi halakha (excluding Hungarian) has usually allowed men to trim their beards or even to shave using various hair removal methods outside of a straight razor. But hasidim and Sefardi "mystics" have never really permitted either, at least as a first choice, because they attach kabbalistic significance to beards that in reality has no history to back it up. It began as a figment of the vivid imagination of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century mystic who was most probably mentally ill, as were several of his students).
Modern Orthodox women cover their hair (when they do) similarly to the women in the Dura Europos paintings. The halakha they follow is non-hasidic Ashkenazi.
Before WW2, many wives of leading Lithuanian Torah scholars, rabbis and rosh yeshivas did not cover their hair at all.
That tradition was carried over to Yeshiva University and the wives of the students of Rabbi J.B. Soleveichik, many of whom did not cover their hair – something Rabbi Soleveichik endorsed as long as the hair was kept relatively short.
Why? How could they not cover thier hair?
Because the actual halakha – not the hyper-modest spin – is that if non-Jewish women in your area do not cover their hair, then you do not have to cover yours.
With all that in mind, here is the letter from the Crown Heights Beit Din: