Tuesday, February 11, 2020

No Self-Awareness

I’m reading through Kedushah - The Abstinence of Married Men in Gur, Slonim and Toldos Ahron by Benjamin Brown, and I came across this spectacular case of a lack of self-awareness.

R’ Avrom Yitshok Kohn,the Rebbe of Toldes Aaron, wrote in his pamphlet,  Divrei Kedushah, that,

The difference between the  chasid   and the ordinary person is that the  hasid   says: “That which is forbidden is certainly forbidden, while that which is permitted—I nevertheless do not have to do it.” The ordinary person, on the other hand, says the opposite:“That which is permitted is certainly permitted, while that which is forbidden—I can nevertheless seek permission to do it.”

Apparently there was an incident years ago concerning a chassid who left Toldos Aharon for Ger because he felt that the Toldos Aharon restrictions on sex weren’t stringent enough. Toldos Ahraon permits sex between married couples three times a month to Ger’s one to two times, and permits couples to hug and kiss during sex, while Ger does not.

In an unpublished letter to the chassid, R’ Kohn wrote,

Now let us consider the crux of the matter. Even if, by means of this self-sacrifice, he appears to be committed to maintaining him-self in holiness and purity, and his intention [appears to be] good, it is nevertheless clear from the addenda of R. Tsvi Elimelekh of Dynów to the book   Turn Aside from Evil  [ and Do Good   ... ] 70 that if a person adopts stringencies and departs from the ways of the world [i.e., strays from the accepted norms of conduct], he draws upon himself accusations [from Heaven] [ ... ], and who knows whether he would be able to withstand them.

So which is it? Should one not do what is permitted, and take on stringencies, or should one avoid stringencies and “depart[ing] from the ways of the world” so that he won’t draws upon himself accusations [from Heaven]?

He also writes in an earlier letter concerning the same incident,

He has made a mockery [ leitsanut  ] of me, and a mockery of our whole community, including his own father, as if whoever wanted to bea [good] Jew had to run away from us.

As though his community didn’t do the same in regard to everyone to their left.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Annoying Vertlach

Does anyone else get annoyed by vertlach? The kind that build complex answers to their questions while ignoring the mundane straightforward answer, or the type that present some outlandish behavior as though it were praiseworthy.

There was a vort i heard years ago - i don't remember the exact details - that had something to do with bringing bikurim, and how the rich people would bring their produce on gold and silver trays that they would then take back afterwards, while the regular people would you use baskets the kohanim then got to keep. The vort made some point about the superiority common people who, while their presentation wasn't as nice, give the baskets as well as the bikurim

The vort was presented as though this was the reason the people behaved in this way. Yet the whole time, i couldn’t help but think that the common people probably didn't get the baskets back for the same reason that when you give someone something in a plastic shopping bag, you don't expect to get the shopping bag back. In other words, baskets were a very cheap and ubiquitous container. The answer to why people didn't expect to get their baskets back is likely entirely mundane, and has nothing at all to do with the relative merits of the rich and the poor.

Had the speaker made that point, and then gone on to say that, nonetheless, we can use this phenomenon to illustrate a lesson, i would have no problem with that. But that's not how these sorts of things are presented. They're presented as though the convoluted clever vort is the reason that the subject of the vort happened or is done that way.

Another example that I heard recently:
A speaker told a story about a rebbe who was traveling and found himself in a strange town for Shabbos. He had no money with him, and was forced to go to chassid to ask for money for a place to stay and for food for Shabbos. The chassid happily gave the rebbe some money, and expected the rebbe to be happy to now have arrangements for Shabbos. Instead, the rebbe gave him a tepid “Thank you.”

After Shabbos, the rebbe returned to the chassid’s house and thanked him profusely. He explained that he had been overjoyed when the chassid meet arrangements for him for Shabbos, but had wanted to save the joy that he had felt for Shabbos rather than express it at that moment.

The speaker treated this story as though it were an amazing example of piety. I was left wondering what was wrong with the rebbe. This is not a typical reaction. And by that, I don't mean that it's an unusually praiseworthy one. I mean that this is not sort of reaction we would expect from a neurotypical person familiar with interacting with other people. If the story is true, I seriously wonder if the protagonist was autistic.

The story also makes several unfounded and probably erroneous assumptions:
1. That joy is a finite commodity.
2. Expressing joy diminishes it.
3. Joy is fungible: it can be saved for later and its focus can be transferred.

One and two are just wrong. Emotions are not finite commodities. We have an infinite capacity for any given emotion, and need only something to trigger it. And the more we expressing emotion, the more we feel it and the longer it lasts. Three is partly right. Emotions color our experiences, and so it's one is feeling joyful, that feeling will color all of the experiences they have while it lasts. But emotions can't be saved for later, nor can their focus be changed through an act of will.

So what was presented as an inspiring story of the type of behavior that we should emulate is more likely a story about an autistic man who struggles to understand how emotion works.

My problem is that I can't help but listen when someone is speaking. I think that for most people, speakers become background noise, and so vertlach don’t bother them. I listen, and I can't help but wonder what the speakers are thinking. Are these sorts of things really supposed to be inspiring? Uplifting? Examples of lessons and behaviors to be emulated? Why don't people think through the implications of these sorts of stories? I know the point of a vort is really to provide a bit of uplifting entertainment while showing off how clever the speaker is, but these examples are not entertaining, uplifting, or clever. They're insipid, inane, and annoying. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Emunah As An Epistemological Foundation

The following is an version of a section of an eventually-upcoming book (the one I plan to write after the one I'm currently working on). I'm posting it because of a conversation I'm having elsewhere.

Emunah As An Epistemological Foundation

            There are people who claim that belief in God and Judaism is beyond the rational, beyond evidence and arguments, and is justified by emunah. Not only is belief based on faith justified, they claim, but it is better than belief based on evidence! The Kotzker Rebbe, extolling the virtue of faith over experience, said, “There are tzaddikim who say that they merited seeing the Ushpizin in their sukkah. However, I believe that they come to the sukkah, and belief is even greater than physical sight.”[i] R. Uren Reich, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake Village in Lakewood, articulated the maximalist version of emunah-based epistemology in a speech at the 2004 Agudah Convention when he said, "Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the Gemara. That’s the emunah that a yid has to have. …every word of Torah is emes, every word of Chazal hakedoshim is emes."[ii]
            The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion defines "faith" as, "belief which goes beyond the available evidence."[iii] This is the essential problem with emunah as an epistemological foundation. Faith is not evidence, it is belief despite the lack of evidence. Bertrand Russell pointed out that no one talks about faith for things that can be demonstrated. We don't have to resort to faith to believe that two plus two equals four. To appeal to faith is to substitute an emotional attachment to a belief, a desire that a proposition be true, for evidence that it is true. Russell calls faith a vice, because it is an excuse people use for holding unjustified beliefs.[iv]
            The frum person may say that religious faith is different. He knows b'emunah sheleimah that Yiddishkeit is the truth, and this is a different kind of knowing, a surer kind of knowing than the way in which he knows mundane everyday things. As one frum person I spoke with put it, "Emunah is an innate conviction, a perception of truth that transcends, rather than evades, reason." This sounds profound, but I’m not sure that it really means anything at all. How would you evaluate the truth of a precept without using reason, and what does it mean to “transcend” reason? He seems to be suggesting that a feeling in your gut that Judaism is true is a better epistemological foundation than evidence and arguments.
            Christians speak of the same innate conviction about their faith in Jesus, and Hindus say the same thing about their faith in Brahman. How are we to determine who is right? We can't rely on the special knowledge each claims to gain through faith, because we, and each person of faith, have no way of determining whose faith-claim is better. We might think that the knowledge of Judaism we have from our emunah is superior to the faith of other religious people. We may even claim that only faith in Judaism gives real justification for belief, while faith in other religions is foolishness. But the believers in those other religions think the same in regard to their own faith. The Christian can just as easily say that only faith in Christ gives true knowledge, while emunah in Judaism is foolishness. How can we determine who is correct? How can we know that we are right about our faith, and the Christian is wrong about his? Only by reference to something that is available to all of us. We have to check the claims of each religion against the world. We have no choice but to bring evidence for our own beliefs and to point out the flaws in the other religions. At that point, we are not using emunah as an epistemological foundation, we're using evidence and arguments.
            Faith allows the believer not only to hold his cherished belief without evidence, but even in the face of counterevidence. One writer described a friend's refusal to accept that the Bible Codes had been disproven.[v] (The details of how they were disproven will be covered in a later chapter.) His friend insisted that it was a matter of opinion. "No," the writer said, "It isn't a matter of opinion. It's math." "That's your opinion." His friend answered. To preserve his faith-based belief, his friend was willing to claim the equivalent of saying that two plus two equals four is a matter of opinion, and it is equally reasonable to say that two plus two equals fifty-three.
            Faith is useless as a way of determining truth. Faith can be used to justify belief in anything. You question whether there's a God? Have emunah! You don't believe in ghosts? Have faith! You think it's ridiculous when I claim there's a purple alien named Ed following you around who will reward you for doing all my chores? Naaseh v'nishma, do as Ed wants, and we'll worry later about proof! There's nothing that can't be believed with faith as a justification. Faith doesn't provide any way of distinguishing between true and false beliefs. Anything that can be used to justify every belief someone can dream up is useless for justifying any beliefs.
            Appealing to faith is an attempt to bypass the need to justify beliefs. It amounts to a semantic game, one where "unjustified belief" is replaced by "faith." "I have an unjustified belief that God exists," becomes, "I have faith that God exists." Appeals to faith jump over the space where the grounding for belief should be straight to the faithful person's desired conclusion. This is like replacing the word, "playing," with, "winning," and claiming to have won a game as soon as you start to play.[vi] It jumps over the part where you have to actually beat your opponent straight to your desired outcome. You can't win a game by changing the meaning of the word, "win," instead of actually defeating your opponent, and you can't justify a belief by substituting "faith" for real justification.
            There is a distinct advantage to substituting faith for real epistemological justification - an advantage for the religion. If religious people were to insist on solid justification for their religious beliefs, then an absence of such justification would cause them to repudiate those beliefs. This would be disastrous for the religion. If all of its believers behaved this way, the religion would cease to exist. It is much better, from the religion's point of view (if you'll excuse the anthropomorphization of a collection of ideas), to have adherents who will believe in it no matter what. While few people really rest their religious convictions on faith alone, faith, serving to fill the evidential gaps, prevents them from repudiating their religious beliefs. This is why many kiruv books which have the goal of proving the truth of Yiddishkeit with evidence and arguments begin by saying that their purpose is only to strengthen emunah. Even if all of the evidence should prove false, and all of the arguments fail, they say, that wouldn't chas v'shalom mean Yiddishkeit is wrong, and we would still believe b'emunah shelaimah that Judaism is the truth.
            Not only science and academia, but even works from within the tradition that are perceived to challenge the revealed truth are suppressed. R' Slifkin's approach to reconciliation has a long history among Torah scholars, including R' Sasmson Rafael Hirsch. In two letters written to R. Hile Wechsler, R' Hirsch expressed the view that when Chazal made statements about the physical world, they were repeating the best understanding of their era, and not special wisdom derived from the Torah. This is in disagreement with the current Chareidi doctrine that everything in the traditional canon is Divinely revealed truth. Like the science discussed in R' Slifkin's books, the view expressed by R' Hirsch was to be dismissed out of hand and suppressed. A collection of Hirch's writings published in 1992 omitted the two letters, and after the banning of R' Slifkin's books, R' Moshe Shapiro, a leading Chareidi rav, claimed that the letters were forgeries. It is true that the originals of the letters have been lost, but we have originals of the letters R' Wechsler wrote in response to R' Hirsch. It is clear from R' Wechsler's responses that the two letters in question were indeed written by R' Hirsch. What is particularly disturbing is that it's unlikely that R' Shapiro was unaware of R' Wechsler's letters. If so, it seems he chose to lie about the authorship of R' Hirch's letters.[vii]
            With emunah as a epistemological foundation, truth becomes slippery. It is true that R' Hirsch wrote those two letters in the sense that we usually understand truth, as that which is in accord with reality. A man named Samson Hirsch sat down, put pen to paper, and expressed ideas now considered heretical in the Chareidi world. But, like similar truths discovered by science and academia, it is unimportant that it is in accord with experiential reality. Faith is used to justify holding Judaism, in this case, a particular kind of Chareidi Judaism, as the truth, and so anything that contradicts that truth must be false. I think this is where apologists for this sort of thinking get the notion of transcendent or "greater truth." It is true in a mundane sense that R' Hirsch wrote those letters, but it is a "greater truth" that the letters are forgeries, because if they aren't, they are an authoritative source that contradicts what is "known" to be true through emunah. So we have the absurd situation where what is true is called false, and what is false is elevated to the status of a "greater truth."
            This leaves us with no way to meaningfully distinguish between true and false postulates, because the meaning of "true" has been changed from, "that which is in accord with reality," to, "that which is in accord with what I believe." Faith as an epistemic foundation makes belief a tautology. The statement, "I have faith that X is true," translates to, "I have an unjustified belief in X because it is in accord with what I believe." It's an approach to knowledge that begins with conclusions, and has no method for verifying, falsifying, or modifying those conclusions. Essentially, using faith as an epistemological foundation allows people to justify their beliefs on the grounds that those are their beliefs. The whole approach to knowledge hangs in the air, with nothing underneath it. "I believe that God exists," say the faithful, "and it is true that God exists because that is what I believe."
            Beliefs held on faith may be true, but if they are, it's a coincidence. You can't determine the truth of a belief by appealing to faith. Faith is the excuse people use to hold onto a belief they really want to be true despite inadequate or contradictory evidence. By appealing to faith, the faithful are admitting that there is insufficient evidence to support their belief, but they really, really want to believe it anyway. If there was sufficient evidence, they wouldn't appeal to faith.[viii] To use faith as an epistemological foundation is to irrationally hold that one may adopt any belief at all with no need for justification. Without sufficient evidence to justify a belief, the rational approach is to disbelieve, not to jump over the gap in the evidence with an appeal to faith.[ix] To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined belief is not worth holding.
            What's especially frustrating about appeals to faith is that for anything other than religion, even the faithful readily agree that unexamined beliefs are not worth holding. No one would appeal to faith to justify trusting a potential business partner instead of researching his record. No one would drive a car that had never been tested and rely on the manufacturer's exhortations to have faith that the car was safe. Everyone would agree that doing so would be foolish and naive, even dangerous.
            Most people don't really use faith to justify their religious beliefs, either. It's a fall-back they use when they can't defend their beliefs rationally. People have reasons and justifications for their beliefs. They rest their beliefs on things like the Argument from Design, the Anthropic Principle, the Kuzari Proof, the Argument from Jewish History, and so on. Even if they don't know the names of the arguments, even if all they know is a half-remembered snippet of a hashkafa class, people try to justify their religious beliefs the same way they justify all their other beliefs. It's only after their justifications are defeated that people appeal to faith.

[i] Oros Hamoadim, p. 80
[ii] Reich, U. (2004). Address at the Melava Malka of Agudath Israel of America's 82nd National Convention. Retrieved from http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/ravreich.pdf
[iii] Reese, W.L., (1980). Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. p. 166; via Loftus, J.W. (2013). The Outsider Test for Faith. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. p.213
[iv] Loftus, J.W. (2013). The Outsider Test for Faith. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. p.213
[v] Michaelson, J. (2012, May 31). Bible Codes a Lie That Won’t Die. Forward. Retrieved from https://forward.com/culture/157033/bible-codes-a-lie-that-won-t-die/
[vi] Scriven, M. God and Reason; in Angeles, P. (1976). Critiques of God. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. P. 101
[vii] Shapiro, M.B. (2015). Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization P. 129-131
[viii] Loftus, J.W. (2013). The Outsider Test for Faith. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. p.212
[ix] Scriven, NI. God and Reason; in Angeles, P. (1976). Critiques of God. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. P. 106

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Off-Road View

I've more or less finished organizing my notes for my next book. This one will be about the experience of going off the derech from the point of view of the formerly frum. While there are several books about the experience of the frum family and friends of those who have gone off the derech , and several books focusing on anecdotes from those who have gone off to derech, to the best of my knowledge, there are none like this one: a book that explores the aggregate experience of losing one's belief in frumkeit.

One of the main purposes of this book is the counter the insulting stereotypes held in the frum world of those who “question” and/or go OTD. While this book will not address specific arguments for or against Orthodoxy or religion in general, it will address the insulting and/or guilt driven “arguments” and accusations leveled at those who challenge Orthodoxy’s tenets. Most prominent among these is the taivos canard, the charge the people fool themselves into thinking that they don't believe in frumkeit in order to excuse their throwing off the ol hatorah and wallowing in their taivos.
This book will show that those who leave frumkeit can be and are reasonable, rational people who have come to reasonable, rational conclusions, and that they're leaving is the consequence of those conclusions.

The following is a short chapter-by-chapter summary of the book as I have it planned out. I would appreciate any feedback, especially if you notice something I've forgotten to include.

Working title:

Reasonable Doubts:
Going Off The Derech
The Off-Road View

(It's a bit clunky, and I'm open to suggestions.)

A little bit about me; why I'm writing this book; introduces the concept of skepticism.

Chapter 1: Reasonable Doubts
Defines off the derech; explores the common perception in the frum world that people who question / go OTD are broken; explains that Judaism is not obviously correct, disagreeing with its tenets can be a reasonable position to take, and people really do sincerely disagree with them; makes the point the being frum is reasonable, and there are many good reasons why someone might be frum, but the obvious truth of Orthodox Judaism is not one of them.

Chapter 2: The Taivos Canard
The taivos canard = the assertion the people only go off the derech because they're hedonistic cretins looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah and wallow in their taivos.

Defines the canard and provides some examples of it in use; explorers variations of the canard; addresses the cliché that, “you can be a slave to God or to your taivos”; looks at the direction of causality: do people disbelieve because they want to do aveiros, or do they do aveiros because once they disbelieve there's no reason not to; and cites cases of people who continue to observe mitzvos for some time after ceasing to believe in the Torah just in case their doubts were the yetser hara trying to fool them.

Chapter 3: Nogeia B'dovor
Explores the faulty logic, including the Fundamental Attribution Error and Bulverism, that causes people to dismiss questions and issues raised by OTDers as, “tierutzim, not kashas.” Looks at the process of coming to reasoned conclusions and what role, if any, the motivations of the person presenting the argument have evaluating soundness of an argument.

Chapter 4: Who Are You To Question?!
You're an ignoramus! (I posted part of this in the past)
Explorers the argument from the gedolim: Gadol x surely thought of your questions and he believed! Do you think you're smarter than gadol x?!
Discusses the extent and type of knowledge one needs to have in order to reasonably come to a conclusion about a subject.

Chapter 5: Losing Faith
Descriptions of various experiences on the journey to disbelief drawing on various people’s personal accounts; what it's like to realize that once deeply held beliefs now appear untenable; the pain that often accompanies the experience - in contrast to the popular perception of someone flippantly throwing off the ol hatorah; and how there is usually a fundamental shift in the way one perceives frumkeit.

Chapter 6: To Leave Or Not To Leave
Describes various experiences of leaving the frum community drawing on various people’s personal accounts; explores the factors that result in people leaving or staying in the community; the failure of one-size-fits-all Judaism; other ways to be Jewish and Orthodoxy's perception of itself as the default; LGBTQ issues; Modernity and religion as a choice: far from being a sign of being broken, in modernity, leaving frumkeit has been the norm.

Chapter 7: Emotion Vs. Intellect
Explores the false dichotomy between “emotional reasons” and “intellectual reasons” for disbelief. Refutes the notion that only purely dispassionate intellectualism can provide valid reasons to leave frumkeit, and the corollary, that any hint of emotion on the part of the OTDer invalidates any intellectual arguments he may cite. Cites the research on people's stated reasons for disbelief, and debunks the overused rejoinder to intellectual questions: fun ah kasha sharbt min nisht!

Chapter 8: Comfortable-dox
Explores the role of culture, community, and familiarity people's day-to-day practice of Judaism as opposed to the influence of abstract theology.

Chapter 9: Off-Roading
Explores the process and experience of leaving the frum community; the stages that most people go through; life “in the closet”; the painfulness and cost that often accompanies leaving - and the stress associated with any major life change; and why many who leave have a continued interest in the frum world.

Chapter 10: Maintaining Relationships
Discusses ways in which frum and OTD people can maintain relationships; the importance of mutual respect despite profound disagreement; genuine relationships versus relationships for the sake of kiruv; navigating differing values and standards; and how couples in which one spouse is frum and the other not might make it work.

Chapter 11: The Baby And The Bathwater
Addresses this often heard cliché; looks at what exactly is baby and what is bath water; and explores the subjective nature of that evaluation.

Chapter 12: Pragmatic Religion
Explores the utility of religion; the pros and cons of being religious; whether the benefits of being religious are dependent upon holding supernatural beliefs; and whether the positive benefits of being religious can obligate one to be frum.

Chapter 13: Morality
Briefly look at the argument for morality: the argument that without religion, anything goes; divine vs. natural basis for morality; examines the charge that as religion declines, so does morality; and explorers whether the Torah is in fact moral

Chapter 14: "But How Can You Not Be Frum?!"
Explorers subjective reasons that people feel necessitate being frum, such as the meaningfulness that religion gives to life, the importance of Jewish continuity, and the way in which many people seem to relate to their frumkeit.

Chapter 15: Pascal's Wager
Explores the argument that one should be frum just in case it turns out that frumkeit is the truth.

Chapter 16: Jewish Identity Beyond Orthodoxy
Discusses how being Orthodox is not necessary for a meaningful Jewish identity.

Resources for those going OTD / for those with OTD friends and family

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Labyrinth at Knossos

The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur tells of the fearsome minotaur, a beast with a man's body in a Bull's Head, which lived in The Labyrinth under the palace of King Minos of Crete.

According to the story,

“The son of Minos, Androgeus, went to Athens to participate to the Panathenaic Games, but he was killed during the Marathon. Minos was infuriated, and demanded Aegeus the king of Athens to send seven men and women every year to the Minotaur to advert the plague caused by the death of Androgeus.

In the third year, Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete, in order to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster. King Aegeus tried to make him change his mind but Theseus was determined to slay the Minotaur.

Theseus announced to King Minos that he was going to kill the Monster, but Minos knew that even if he did manage to kill the Minotaur, Theseus would never be able to exit the Labyrinth.

Theseus met Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, who fell madly in love with him and decided to help Theseus. She gave him a thread and told him to unravel it as he would penetrate deeper and deeper into the Labyrinth, so that he knows the way out when he kills the monster.

Theseus followed her suggestion and entered the labyrinth with the thread. Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur and save the Athenians, and with Ariadne’s thread he managed to retrace his way out.”

Did this really happen? Was there really ever such a creature as the Minotaur?

 Of course not. Such a creature is impossible.

 But wait! The Labyrinth is real!

The Palace of Knossos was discovered on Crete in 1878, and excavations began in 1900. There archaeologists discovered a complex maze of corridors, stairways, and rooms. The palace is the largest discovered on Crete. It seems there really was a labyrinth beneath the Palace of the king of the Minoans.

Does it follow that the Minotaur was real?

 No. No, it does not.  At best, shows where the inspiration for one part of the story comes from.

 And yet, I seen identical argument made all the time 4 elements of Tanach.  Perhaps the most common are those who argue that there really was a flood, either global or local, and therefore Noach was real person, God exists, etc etc.

Proving that there really was a great flood doesn't say any more about Noach then the discovery of the labyrinth at Knossos says about the Minotaur.

What I hear when people say, “ I can prove that there was a great flood!”  Is, “There really was a Minotaur!”

Friday, September 6, 2019

Reasonable Doubts: Breaking The Kuzari

My book on the Kuzari Argument is finally finished!

It's available on Amazon. Buy a copy for yourself, one for your friends, one for your family - one for everyone you know! Well, at least one for yourself.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Kol Kevudah BAS MELECH Pnimah

A comment someone made a few weeks ago has got me thinking.  He said that Bais Yaakovs are "Educating young women to dress… like real life princess which means modestly."

Bais Yaakov graduate commented on Facebook that in her school, they sang songs about being a princess, and shared this example:

"I am a princess
A Jewish princess
Because my father is a King
I'm a Bas Melech
A Jewish princess
From Hakadosh Baruch Hu"

A friend shared another:

Firstly, the frum world has an odd obsession with royalty.  Stories  and allegories are full of kings and queens, princes and princesses, noblemen and noblewomen. Sometimes these figures are the villains of the stories, but more often, they're stand-ins for God or models to be emulated. 

The nobility, and especially the royalty, obtained their positions by being the biggest bullies around. The early days of the aristocracy was a kleptocracy, not a meritocracy. The strongest, most fearsome warriors were the people  who rose to power. To be a king, to subjugate brutal warrior leaders, meant you had to be the most brutal of all. In the haggadah, the rasha,  the wicked son, is often represented as a  warrior.  Do we really want to look to the descendants brutal warriors for moral lessons?

Secondly,  it's just not true that princesses are or have ever been particularly modest, let alone  conformed to current standards  of tznius. The comparison to princesses almost certainly comes from the pasuk in tehillim, “kol kevudah bas melech pnimah,” "All the glory of the princess is inside." As I've written elsewhere this is really only half a pasuk, and it doesn't mean what Bais Yaakovs  use it to mean.  Nonetheless, this pasuk  is repeated ad nauseam in girls schools, and seems to lead to the idea that princesses are paragons of modesty.

 Are they, though?

Princess Diana was the quintessential 20th century Princess. She dressed elegantly and modestly  by the general standards of the western world, but she certainly wasn't tznius. No Bais Yaakov  would approve of that dress.

The woman on the right is her niece, Princess Eugenie of York. What she's wearing is perfectly acceptable by  general standards,  but is not  even close to being tznius.“Well,”  I can hear the Bais Yaakov  teachers say, “ Of course, today, the world is  degraded and immodest.  In the past, princesses really were exemplars a virtue and modesty.”

This is Mary Tudor, Queen Mary I of England, who ruled in the 16th century. Her sleeves meet current standards of tznius,  but her neckline, which exposes her collarbones, doesn't.

A century earlier across the channel in France, fashions were far more untznius. King Charles VII of France had a favorite named Agnès Sorel. Born to a minor noble family, Agnès  caught the king's eye while serving as a lady-in-waiting to his wife. She was soon given a place at court as the king's official mistress. It's alleged in several sources that she started a fashion in the French court for dresses cut below the bust. Jean Juvénal des Ursins, the archbishop of Reims, is on record complaining to the king about dresses with, "Front openings through which one sees the teats, nipples, and breasts of women."  This fashion is supposed to have lasted for nearly two hundred years, and  there is some evidence that Mary Tudor's sister Queen Elizabeth I commissioned a dress in this style.

A century after Mary and Elizabeth, noblewomen were still happily being untznius. We have paintings from the 1600s  such as the one on the left, which shows the Countess of Nassau Dietz with her three sons.

This nonchalance about nudity among the upper classes continued through the centuries. The painting on the right is from the 1700s,  and shows the princess of Lamballe. Incredibly, from the point of view of those concerned with tznius,  according to the caption on this image in Google,  her, “visible nipple indicate her birth and morality.” In other words, her nudity is an indication of her rank!

Even in the supposedly virtuously prudish 19th century, women of high  social rank  did not dress in accord with the standards of tznius. On the left is Amelie Augustes von Bayerne, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony. On the right is Princess Alexandra Amalie of Bavaria. Like Princess Diana, they're both dressed elegantly, but by tznius standards, they're dressed like whores.

An even less tznius 19th century trend was the “emancipated duel,” fought  with swords by high-ranking women  who removed their shirts before beginning the fight. The first of these duels was fought in 1892 by Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Kielmannsegg. The baroness who presided over the duel suggested that the women remove their tops to prevent cloth from being pushed into wounds, which would make them more likely to become infected and could turn a  duel to first blood into a duel to the death.

Princesses and noblewomen  are not and have never been paragons of virtue and modesty, let alone tznius.

Bais Yakkovs encourage their young students to be like princesses!? For shame!  The average woman  of today is far more modest than the princesses of the past ever were. Bais Yaakovs should be encouraging their students to dress appropriately for the contexts  in which they find themselves. Not promulgating ahistorical nonsense about virtuous princesses that's more appropriate for Romantic fantasies than for any sort of serious moral pedagogy.