The Potential for Chillul Hashem When Non-Believers Wear Religious Clothing

perp walkNews photo depicting a few of the 44 total arrested for money laundering, bribery, and the sale of human organs in New Jersey on 7/23/09.   It’s always cringe-worthy to frum Jews when one of their own is depicted in full levush being cuffed and arrested.  At least leave the frock coat and hat at home!

Most Jews who became orthodox later in life have had to adapt to a different mode of dress than they were formally accustomed to. Men have to get used to wearing tzitzit under their shirts and a kippa which announces to the world that they are a Jew. Depending upon which hashkafah they adopt, they will also be encouraged to wear a variety of other garments identifying them as part of that group.

Women also have to change their mode of dress to conform to modesty laws. Giving up pants, short sleeves, short skirts, low necklines, and adopting a head covering upon marriage are the most obvious changes a woman must make.

Of course, adapting to these new costumes isn’t always easy. The basic advice given to a baal teshuvah is that they should dress according to their religious goals. Even if they are not actually the religious person on the inside that they appear to be on the outside, their inner self will eventually adapt to the persona that their outer self is projecting to the world.

It is no small burden to dress in a manner that makes you an automatic poster child for orthodox Judaism. In some instances, it can be a sign of recognition to other members of the community that you belong to the “same club.”

For instance, the other week I was picking up my son from the airport, and a frum woman, who had just landed from Israel and was without a working cell phone, came up to me with a sigh of relief that she had found another Jew to whom she could safely turn to for assistance. After borrowing my phone to connect with her ride, she continued to thank me profusely and express her gratitude at finding another religious Jew at the airport to help her.

However, everyone has bad days where they wake up on the wrong side of the bed. What if that day at the airport had been one of those days for me? What if I had very little cell phone battery left, and needed to preserve every precious bit of charge for my son to reach me when he arrived?

What if I had snapped at the woman about why she would assume I would let her use my phone just because I was wearing someone else’s hair? Or what if another traveler arriving at the airport had seen my generosity in lending the Jewish woman my phone, assume that I would extend the same generosity toward them, only to have me give them a “Be gone, peasant!” glare, turn my back, and flounce away?

Would I be an asset to my religious faith or a liability?

There is a concept that if a person is filled with an overwhelming desire to do a sin, they should go to another place where they aren’t recognized to avoid doing even more damage by their bad behavior:

The Talmud (Kiddushin 40a & Chagigah 16a) states:

  1. Ilai the Elder said: If a person sees he is overcome with illicit desire, he should go to a place where he is not recognized, don black clothes and do what his heart desires rather than desecrate God’s name in public.

Of course, this concept applies to someone who normally behaves in an appropriate manner, who is a believer and feels guilty about their urge to sin, but who is helpless to resist their temptation in this singular instance.

How about when we aren’t talking about a singular instance of behavior that is inconsistent with orthodox practices? What about people who aren’t at the point where they accept or believe in all of the tenets of orthodoxy such as baalei teshuvahas or those who once practiced the faith with a sincere heart but now do so with an empty one devoid of belief? Isn’t there the potential for a lot of harm to be done to the name of the Jewish people if such folks are dressing in the orthodox levush?

Let’s not even discuss extreme or illegal behavior (such as that depicted in the above photo).  What if someone wearing a kippah or a headscarf can’t resist the temptation to eat at a non-kosher restaurant, or go to a club and engage in mixed dancing, or have one too many at a bar? What if these urges aren’t rare anomalies, but constant habits that won’t be quenched by giving in only one time? The activities described above are things that many people do every day, but when a religious person does it, it ends up going viral on Youtube.

So, is it really better for people who aren’t yet religious, or are no longer religious to don religious clothing?

I started thinking about this because of a scene I saw on a reality show called, Return to Amish, about a group of Amish people who have gone off the derech to varying degrees. Some of them dress in English clothing and others still wear Amish clothing. In the relevant episode, the group is helping to open an Amish themed bed and breakfast. It’s been decided that they should all wear Amish clothing while at work in order to give customers the full Amish experience.

One of the women, Kate, explains why she objects to wearing Amish clothing now that she is no longer part of the Amish church (forward video to 4:21- 6:10).

Kate explains that Amish clothing is about more than just the clothes – the clothing represents what is on the inside. It’s not just about a head covering, but about a religion and a tradition. Kate feels that if she is not practicing the Amish religion than it is wrong for her to wear the clothing and represent herself as if she is. She feels that she wouldn’t be respecting the Amish people if she were to wear an Amish dress now that she is no longer part of the community.

Her explanation really rang sincere, and it strikes me that no longer wearing the religious garb of a community you no longer feel a part of takes a lot of courage. It is a very public and obvious proclamation that you are choosing a different path, resulting in immediate social repercussions.

While some might think it is selfish, in a sense, for those like Kate (any Jew or non-Jew that leaves a tight knit religious group), the choice might actually be somewhat selfless. They know that they are no longer going to behave according to the standards of their former faith, and as such, don’t want to embarrass their former community by dressing as if they still represent that group.

Of course, this opens up a Pandora’s Box for those of us who never feel worthy enough or pious enough to represent ourselves to the world as religious in the first place.  It also poses problems for those of us who have faith, but who don’t necessarily ascribe to the particular hashkafah of the community we live in.

Dressing in a way that doesn’t conform to who we are on the inside can make us feel like a phony.  Knowing that by changing our mode of dress, other community members will attribute the change to a loss of faith, makes many people continue the charade long after they’ve abandoned their internal affiliation with that particular group.  There are no easy answers, but the Jewish response seems to be to persevere with the costume, and the belief will arrive at a later date.


Recognizing Gender Fluidity Among the Jewish People

Photo: Baci Weiler donning tefillin

Credit: Facebook 

I just saw a fascinating post on Facebook where a gender fluid person shared photos of being assisted in laying tefillin by a Chabad emissary in Manhattan.  The assumption is that the Chabad man did not realize that the person he was wrapping tefillin around was born female, as by outward appearances, the short hair and baggy clothing made defining exact gender uncertain.

Apparently, the post author regularly lays tefillin, and is quite familiar with the process, unbeknownst to the Chabad emissary.  This is not unlike modern orthodox men who sometimes get asked if they’ve lain tefillin that day by Chabad volunteers on the street, when these men have been wrapping tefillin since their bar mitzvahs.

The post sparked a wide variety of reactions, with some people thinking that this is a historical marker for women (although I don’t know if the post author necessarily identifies as a woman), some thinking that this is a historical victory for gender fluid/transgender Jews, and some thinking that this was a deceptive ploy to trick the Chabad emissary into putting tefillin on a woman (being traditionally orthodox, a Chabad Lubavitcher would never advocate for or assist in women putting on tefillin).

In any event, with the widespread publicity of transgender role models such as Caitlyn Jenner and Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox, it isn’t surprising that the topic of gender identity wouldn’t become a discussed issue among Jewish people too.  Living in a religious society that has strong demarcations between genders and only acknowledges two distinct genders of male and female, is bound to cause difficulties for anyone whose truth differs from those societal constructs.

In terms of gender roles, the parameters of traditionally masculine and feminine behavior have long been blurring.  Now we see our definition of gender identity becoming even more hazy with the discovery that our most defining sex organ seems to be the brain and not the genitals.

As the world struggles to redefine what it means to be a man, a woman, or something not entirely either one or the other, Judaism will have to adapt to those who are finally breaking free from the confines of their biological sex assignments.  How will this factor into religious observance?

Will Orthodox synagogues be more vigilant in vetting out who is actually a man or a woman according to Torah standards?  Do the sex organs we are born with cement our gender identity for life, or does the Torah account for those who identify as a different gender from the one they were born with?

Would a woman who was biologically born a man be able to daven on the ladies side of the mechitza?  Would she be exempted from davening with a minyan three times a day, no longer count for an orthodox minyan, and no longer have to wrap tefillin if she chose not to?  Would a man who was biologically born a woman now be able to put on tefillin, count for a minyan, daven on the men’s side, be called to the Torah, etc.?

We live in interesting times.  Has there ever been any other era in Jewish history where the everyday people have had such influence over the direction of the Jewish community?  I look forward to seeing how our society changes to accommodate the needs of all the varieties of people in Klal Yisroel.

Guest Post: A Male Apology

The day I knew would come has finally arrived. One of my dear friends, Ira Piltz, has allowed me to publish a guest post he has written. I knew this day would come because Ira is always a voice of moderation for me.

Whenever I write something that pushes the boundaries of criticizing individual behavior or harmful social constructs, and ventures into anti-religious or anti-white-Jewish-male rhetoric, I can count on a phone call from Ira to hash things out.

Let’s just say, as an attorney, a liberal bleeding heart (although I believe he refers to himself as a conservative Democrat), and a religious Jew, Ira isn’t shy about sharing his opinions. Ira also isn’t shy about rolling up his sleeves and committing his life to helping out others.

Rarely have I met a person so devoted to helping out individuals or organizations wherever he can be of service, whether in a professional capacity as a lawyer or simply as a friend. He and his wife both embody the true meaning of chesed, and I don’t give out such compliments lightly.

My husband calls Ira his brother from another mother, and I refer to his wife as my sister from another mister. As such, we can squabble like siblings sometimes, but at the end of the day, still respect each other’s opinions even if we agree to disagree.

That being said, I value Ira’s opinion, and when he gets rankled about something, I’m interested in knowing why. Therefore, when I called him about a mundane question this week, and got “Outraged Ira” on the phone, I knew I was in for an earful.

After assuring him that, no, my feminist sensibilities weren’t offended by speaking to a white, Jewish, male oppressor and giving him my consent to carry on the conversation, he told me about a Times of Israel article he had read that morning entitled, Jewish Women: We Withdraw Our Consent by, Jennifer Geretz.

Below is the missive that I interrupted with my phone call. I think Ira raises some great points. I sometimes have to remind myself that most of the men in my community, and others like it, are also subject to the extreme behaviors that are starting to flourish in parts of the frum world.

The majority of Orthodox men don’t consider their wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, or any of the other women in their lives to be less important than they are.

These are men who are committed to following halacha, but are also adamantly against extremism and oppression of women. Yet, just by virtue of the fact that they are Orthodox men, they get lumped in with those who would put women down for the sake of their own elevation.

Below is Ira’s take on the subject.

A Male Apology

By, Ira Piltz

Apparently, I owe the world an apology.

To begin with, I am a white American Orthodox Jewish Democrat. I also hold Israeli citizenship and tend to trend to the moderate right on Israeli politics.

Practically speaking, this means that I am responsible at some level for everything wrong with society at large and with Israel and the Jewish people. Basically, my sheer existence offends everyone at some level.

However, before reading my social media feed on Thursday morning, I did not realize that my gender made me responsible for the systemic oppression of ½ of the Jewish people. An article by Jennifer Geretz (“Jewish Women-We Withdraw our Consent”), informs me that, as a male, I am responsible for such behavior.

I thus discovered a painful truth: I am an affront to the religious development of all Orthodox Jewish women.

Once I realized this, I felt really bad. I called my wife to explain this and apologize. She called the doctor to schedule me an appointment and suggested that I lay down for a few minutes before my morning court call.

I then tried explaining this to my 4 daughters. The older two gave me a “nod and smile” while my middle one colored and my youngest asked if I could make her another waffle for breakfast.

So where does that leave me?

Well, let’s see…I am an attorney (probably another strike against me) who regularly represents the Jewish Community on issues of importance. I was one of the first attorneys in Illinois to litigate a case allowing women to express themselves religiously when dealing with the issuance of State ID’s.

Does that help?

I am also the father of 6 beautiful children, 4 of whom are the aforementioned girls. I encourage them to read, think, question and explore those parts of the world in which they show interest. My oldest (who aspires to practice law—maybe she’ll give me a job someday) accompanies me to court and watches me at work. My 8 year old, who loves dance and soccer, studies dance and plays soccer.

How about that? Does that help?

I am a Husband to the world’s greatest rock star of a wife, whose wisdom and counsel are the single most important reason that I get anything right in the course of a day. I stand with her, support her choices (offering my counsel when sought) and thank G-d several times a day for the fact that she is my life partner.

But wait, there’s more…because here comes the bad part…my wife does not wear Tefillin. Granted, she does not want to. (I think that the shaitel is enough. I keep offering to trade with her, especially as my bald spot keeps growing, but she politely refuses).

Our daughters attend an Orthodox Jewish Day School that teaches Judaic studies and secular studies at a rigorous level. Ask any of my girls a question on what they are learning and leave about 20 minutes for the answer. But…wait for it…this school does not offer them a Talmud class.

Nevertheless, they are happy. Am I depriving them? Am I oppressing them?

Finally, in our home, my wife and the girls light Shabbat Candles every week while I lead Kiddush.

That’s it…call the Police. There’s criminal activity abound!

Yes, it’s true Officer. My wife and daughters will probably not read from the Torah in our synagogue and probably will not wear Tefillin or seek to become Rabbis. I cannot tell you what my daughters will do when they are adults (heck, I can’t tell you what I am doing as an adult!) but I think that this will remain consistent.

Oddly, enough, neither my wife nor my daughters feel oppressed.

They do not dress in robes that cover them from head to toe.

Their smiling faces adore pictures all over our home (as well as our phones, my office, my upcoming website and the walls of several loving grandparents).

They also have college funds…which I hope will allow them to study whatever they want wherever they choose to study!

So wait a minute…maybe I am not so oppressive…

I am so confused now…perhaps I should just lie down for a moment.

The foregoing is a bit melodramatic, I admit, but I hope that it makes a point: To blame every Jewish male for the issues that exist in Orthodox Judaism is like blaming every person who ever bought a Chevy for the recent recall crisis at GM.

Certainly, there are issues with how women are treated in the Jewish community. To say otherwise would be to ignore the obvious.

At that same time, there is a lot more going on. There are also issues with how children are treated and educated. There are issues with the expectations placed upon members of Jewish communities that are often unrealistic for them to live up to, leading to alienation and dysfunction.

Putting this all together, there is an overall issue of how the Orthodox Jewish community will weather all of these issues and come out on top.

In my mind Ms. Geretz’s article highlights 2 issues from which all of this stems:

First, we are not educating our children with regard to understanding their tradition. We are not helping our children understand that each of us have an important role to play in the world at large and in the smaller role of our Jewish world. That role is defined by a myriad of variables, but it does not in any way diminish the contribution that one makes in the world.

Said another way…I am unable to give birth to a child. It’s not going to happen. Does that mean that my contribution to their life as a parent is any less? Sure, it may be a different relationship then my wife has with our children, but it is no less important to the child. Both healthy parental relationships should benefit them.

The other issue can only be stated bluntly. Here goes:

As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that G-d gave the Torah at Sinai, both in written and oral form. Learned individuals then transmitted this through the generations.

Now, it is entirely possible that there are those who twist these concepts to fit their sociological needs. Sadly, this is true in many areas and it’s often true when mortals are left to interpret the divine.

Unfortunately this leads to the crazy extremism that we witness today…a crackpot spitting on a defenseless girl (in my mind, an action that should be a capital crime) or a truly terrifying trend within some elements of Jewish society seeking to eliminate any female presence from the world at large in some stab at “morality” and “purity”.

To paraphrase a quote making the rounds, this behavior is not Jewish because extremism is not Jewish.

But there is another side; the side which in my mind is just as dangerous; the side that says 3,300 years of fidelity to Jewish law are out the window because in 2015, we are now more advanced than “the Old Rabbis” and should therefore decide how we feel, rather than based upon any fidelity to Jewish law.

To me, this type of extremism is just as dangerous.

I am NOT saying that women should stay home, have babies, and then get jobs to support their Kollel husbands while never serving in any public role. Anyone who thinks that I am saying that is simply dumb.

What I am saying is that Torah Judaism creates a role for everyone in society and does not state that one role is more important than the other. The “assignment of status” is a human construct.

So, when I read an article that purports me feeling bad for making a bracha, when the reason for such a bracha has nothing to do with the denigration of any gender, I tend to react strongly. When I read that Jewish women are being denied an education, I’d like to throw my set of Dr. Nechama Lebowitz sefarim at someone and ask them to meet my daughters and their classmates for a discussion on the weekly Parsha or on Halacha.

Here’s the point: it’s time for all extremists to get off the stage. Your 15 minutes are up. Please leave…now.

I will continue, with my wife, to raise children who are worldly and loyal to their Jewish heritage. I will continue to work for the betterment of my community and my people. I will continue to proudly live my life as an Orthodox Jewish man, keeping all of the responsibilities which come with it and living up to the responsibilities that it entails.

If you want to withdraw your consent to something which I don’t think you fully understand, feel free.

I’d rather work to address the issues in a manner that will long outlive Jennifer Geretz’s rant.

Representing Religious Jews or Representing the Face of Mental Illness?

bagA Kohen wraps himself in a plastic bag on a 2013 flight under advice from his rabbi to prevent him from becoming tameh as the plane flies over cemeteries.

The Forward published an Op-Ed piece from a writer who recently witnessed a Hasidic man making a spectacle of himself on a US Airways flight from Phoenix to New York. After an argument at the gate with airline personnel and several seat switches later, the man was still unhappy with his proximity to other female passengers.

To express his displeasure, he popped up and down throughout the flight like a jack-in-the-box, even during times of turbulence. The flight crew had to forcefully ask him to sit down several times. Although he did sit when asked, he stubbornly popped back up again in protest at every opportunity, despite lit seatbelt signs.

The article is a pretty harsh smack down on how fundamentalist religionists are openly flouting civil law in the name of religious freedom and how they justify doing so.

However, I have to think about the chutzpa of fellow who would make such a public nuisance of himself on a flight where it seemed the airline went out of its way to try to accommodate him, yet their efforts still weren’t good enough.

My opinion is that a man like this doesn’t markedly change his behavior when he is in his own community amongst other Hasidim.

The article implies that when the world sees Hasidim behaving badly in front of non-Jews or secular Jews, it’s because they have no respect for anyone outside of their own community. Is there an underlying feeling of superiority over non-Jews or non-religious Jews in the Orthodox world? I don’t think that’s a completely unfair statement.

However, there is a difference in feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment in attempting to take on mitzvot given especially for the merit of Jews over those who make no such attempt or haven’t been given the opportunity to elevate themselves in such a way, and open contempt and smug superiority toward the non-Jewish and non-Orthodox world. A person can have pride in themselves and in their community without harboring hatred toward others outside of it.

I would argue that the most religious people make no such distinction in how they treat their fellow man or woman. The most pious people I know don’t have two sets of rules for how they treat Orthodox Jews and how they treat everyone else. I would also argue that a man such as the one on the flight from Phoenix also makes no distinction between how he treats Orthodox Jews and how he treats everyone else.

This is the guy who makes school administrators and teachers cringe when they see his name pop up on caller ID. This is the guy who loudly corrects the Ba’al Korei during laining, even if his corrections are wrong. This is the guy who makes his shul rabbi want to walk in the opposite direction when he sees him coming, because he needs a break from his litany of complaints about the level of talking during davening or the inadequate height of the mechitza. This is the guy who asks to see the manager at the kosher pizza store every time he eats there because he has concerns about the hashgacha or whether the cheese they use is indeed, cholov yisroel.

This guy doesn’t represent Hasidic Jews, he represents the face of mental illness.

It’s unfortunate that those of us who wear the garb of a religious Jew are held accountable for representing our entire community. Some of us do Klal Yisroel proud, while others set us back and do untold harm to the kehilla. One of the hardest challenges for an Orthodox Jew is to not cause a chillul Hashem or sinus chinum through our behavior in public.

It’s very easy to make generalizations about entire communities based on the actions of one sick individual. While we all must take responsibility for our own behavior when we are out in the wider world, we must also take care to realize that when we see another Jew behaving badly, the only person he or she truly represents in that moment is themselves.