Sunday, May 3, 2009

Eating is Sexy

As you may have heard, one of the three boys caught smuggling drugs into Japan was sentenced this past Thursday. The following letter from one of the boys’ mother, written before the sentencing, appeared in my local Jewish newspaper this past week. The letter begins by thanking everyone who has been donating money, davening, and doing other mitzvos on the boys’ behalf. Then comes the interesting part of the letter. (I’ve tried to reproduce it here with the original spelling, grammar, and punctuation.)

…our children need a tremendous yeshua in every aspect, so that they can be set free. Out of sheer desperation Harav Hatzadik Rabbi Yakov Meir Shechter was approached and questioned as to what more can be done for the three bochurim. The tzadik’s answer was precise: An ‘hisorrerus’ [awakening] in Tznius will surely be a big z’chus for the yeshua!

Dear sisters I approach you with a trembling body and shattered heart. Heed the cried of young innocent children who are yearning to taste freedom again. The commitment of righteous women, to improve in any area of Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined. Your contribution in the form of a personal undertaking can be the deciding factor in their fate. Who can remain idle at this time?

Yoel Zev ben Mirel Risa Chava, Yakov Yosef ben Raizel and Yosef ben Ita Rivka, are counting on YOU. Please do not let them down. Since we started this Tznius campaign we have seen incredible siyata dishmaya in easing the plight of the prisoners somewhat. Let the merit of your kabalah give rise to the ultimate release of our children, and may the collective zechus of Tznius improvement, result in the geulah shleima for all of Klal Yisroel, amen.

  • Sheitel is refined [within parameters of halacha] and does not attract attention.

  • Refrain from wearing excessive make-up and perfume in any public areas

  • Refrain from wearing attractive or excessive jewelry in any public areas.

  • Refrain from brisk-walking as a form of exercise.

  • Refrain from eating/drinking in public areas, especially where men are present.

  • Skirt is at least four inches past the knee.

  • Neckline properly adjusted in all clothing.

  • Turban/tichel covering all hair at all times during the day.

  • Secular newspapers and all fashion magazines kept out of the house.

  • When in public [street, stores, buses, waiting rooms,] Cell phones vibrate silently and phone conversations are kept short and quiet [out of earshot of bystanders]

  • Shoes/heels/ fitted with a rubber sole.

  • Exercising discreet and low-key behavior in a shared sitting area. [apartment building lobby, doctor’s office, chasuna hall, shul mechitzah, bus stops, standing in line at checkout counters, etc.]

  • Learning Hilchos Tznius daily.

  • Refrain from brisk-walking in a public area.

Your undertaking will provide us with the strength and stamina we so desperately need at this time. We cannot adequately express our appreciation to all who are accepting upon themselves to enhance their current Tznius standards so that our children can have hope to see the light of freedom again.

Before I comment on the letter I want to say that I do not mean to belittle this woman’s pain over her son’s situation. I can’t imagine what I would do if something similar happened to my child. What I am doing is questioning the details of this letter.

Let’s start with Rabbi Shechter’s statement. Hopefully this is an excerpt from a longer conversation, but as quoted it is strange. What is the connection between tznius and the guys in Japan? Unless this is a way to rack up brownie points with God and thereby get Him to intervene. If that’s what this is, though, why tznius? Wouldn’t any mitzvah do?

In the next paragraph his statement that tznius would help is somehow taken to mean that “Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined.” This is followed by an appeal to women to get personally involved by accepting chumras in tznius. What a great way for people who feel for this poor mother to feel like they’re doing something useful to help. The feeling is bolstered by the assertion that “Since we started this Tznius campaign we have seen incredible siyata dishmaya in easing the plight of the prisoners somewhat.” This of course is confusing confluence and causality. Things improving a bit for the boys at the same time that the tznius campaign got going doesn’t mean that one caused the other.

Then comes the incredible list of tznius rules participants are to take upon themselves. I don’t know where the list came from, if it was compiled by a rov, gleaned from seforim on tznius, or made up by the author of the letter. But it seems the thrust of these rules is to minimize women being noticed. The ideal, it seems, is for women to be invisible. I think that’s disgusting.


  1. As I read the rabbi he thinks that without these improvements the women are insufficiently tzanuah. He then silently segues to unteznuah, what in Hebrew is peritzus, and in old Bais Yehudah Chumash Yiddish was called oiysgelassenkeit. The English equivalent is I think 'wanton.' The latter is defined as “sexually and otherwise unrestrained; loose; lascivious; extravagantly or excessively luxurious, as a person, manner of living, or style. 'Lascivious', a synonym of wanton means amongst other things exciting sexual desires.

    Looked at in this way some things fall in place. Refrain from wearing attractive or excessive jewelry in any public areas violates the excessively luxurious condition as well as very expensive, looking better than your hair sheitlach. Brisk walking as an exercise or in public violates the unrestrained aspect of wantonness. Excessive makeup and perfume excite the sexual desires as does short skirts , uncovered hair and plunging necklines. The subtext text is that when men’s sexual desires are aroused by a woman and cannot be satisfied by that woman the man’s power, sexual and otherwise are drained. The proof text is the sentence immediately following the list. “Your undertaking will provide us with the strength and stamina we so desperately need at this time.” Pritziusdig women lead to broken men, men who lack the strength to provide "the ultimate release of our children," because they deplete men’s strength. Even the rather odd locution "ultimate release" points to a hidden theme of zivugim that are not sterile but result in new freshly born children.

  2. ej, is this your own interpretation or is this a beleif that's really out there? I think its a brilliant metaphysical interpretation - certainly I would never have thought of it. If this is a real beleif its pretty disturbing. It sounds like pagan sex magic.

  3. A liitle of both. Psychoanalysis at a distance is always a bit iffy.

    But this is clear. Charedim feel that a sexy woman in public that arouses their appetites is to be dealt with by restraining the woman. They are similar to cars that don't obey the rules of the road.Whether pushing women around is simply a way of feeling strong and powerful or whether they feel that their strength is being drained or maybe both is what is not perfectly clear.

    I have had numerous fights here on the internet regarding the following question: Is a woman who is covered up according to hilchot tznius but looks very such a woman doing anything wrong in walking down the street for all to see? It is suprising how many people believe it is a woman's responsibilty to not look sexy.

    If you read the literature on tantric yoga and compare it to the seforim going on about the evils of masturbation and nocturnal emissions, it is clear they both share the view that ejaculations are a diminshment of powers. They differ in that for the rabbis ejaculation during intercourse even when it will not lead to procreation, as with older people, is to be desired, wheras the yoga chevra try to minimize all ejaculations.

  4. I always understood it as a good/evil issue. Anything sexual is evil except under specific prescribed conditions. I've heard this dressed up in talk of tummah and thahra, good and evil energy, the creation of good malachim and bad malachim, etc. The sex-as-mystical-power angle is new for me, and very interesting.

    If you want strict psychoanalysis, we could discuss defense mechanisms and how the obsession with women not appearing sexy is a projection of men's desires onto women - men want to seduce women, and turn that into a beleif that women are out to seduce men; and a reaction formation - men really want women to be sexy, but instead claim they want women to be tznius.

    But I never was a big fan of Frued.

  5. Your psychoanalytic tale also has elements of truth. I agree they are projecting in the way you describe.The last part on reaction formation seems to me less clear. Why if they want them to be sexy do they claim and work hard for the opposite. For this kind of story to work the idea of sex has to be very disturbing so that it is forced out of consciousness. Then odd things can happen.But I don't think the charedim can't tolerate the idea of sex...they are not like hysterical women who pass out when a man makes advances.

    I just had this same back and forth with Rabbi Maryles on his blog, so I'll spare you the polemics.

  6. ..and, most important

    refrain from smuggling drugs