Sometimes it seems that the residents of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem have demonstrated against everything: from the closing of Bar-Ilan Street to the opening of parking garages and movie theaters on Shabbat, to struggles against electronics stores that import products considered too modern or a bookstore with a modern character. The common factor in all these ultra-Orthodox demonstrations has been the attempt to impose a strict version of modesty upon the non-observant and religious-Zionist populations in Jerusalem. But this week, perhaps for the first time, the streets of Jerusalem witnessed a purely ultra-Orthodox demonstration, with all its unique characteristics -- including shouts of “Gevalt!” -- against taking modesty too far.
Last Saturday night, several dozen ultra-Orthodox stood outside the home of a well-known rabbi who is suspected of being the leader of a so-called “veil cult” -- a small group of women who cover their entire bodies with a long cape-like garment that conceals their figures. Even though the group numbers only about 30 families, the “cape cult” or the “veil cult” has had the ultra-Orthodox community in an uproar on a near-daily basis over the past several weeks.
The flap began two weeks ago. Ultra-Orthodox media reported a terrible story about one of the young female members of the cult who chose to give birth at home to avoid problems with modesty that might result from contact with hospitals and physicians. But there were complications, and the baby was born prematurely and was in danger of dying. A first-aid worker who was called to the scene demanded that the baby be taken to hospital despite the objections of the family, who did not want any contact with a hospital outside their community. The volunteer decided to take the baby to the hospital with no identifying information, and later the rabbinical court issued a letter instructing the baby’s father to appear at the hospital and identify himself.
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In another case, two of the group’s leaders decided to marry one of the boys in the group, aged only 15, to a 23-year-old woman. After the wedding, the groom wanted to divorce his wife, but she refused. As a result, the boy married another woman against custom, but with his family’s blessing, which caused quite a scene. It is well known that Rabbenu Gershom’s edict forbids bigamy in Judaism -- and in the end, the matter was brought to the attention of the first wife, who ultimately agreed to the divorce.
‘Uprooting education and the Torah’
The subject of the capes extends to several levels. The first, which is not at the center of the controversy, is the matter of wearing a scarf or cape on one's shoulders for reasons of modesty. The second, around which most of the controversy revolves, is wearing a scarf from the head down, over the shoulders and extending over the rest of a woman's body, to obscure the figure. The third and most extreme level is the wearing of a scarf and cape that also cover the face like a veil.
The issue of the various capes and veils has also reached officials of the Eda Haredit rabbinical court, the supreme body that rules exclusively on almost every aspect of life in the extremist ultra-Orthodox community. The community’s religious court, which was once known as an aggressive and extreme court whose rabbis encouraged its followers to go out and protest, decided to come out against the women of the cape cult, who are the most extreme.
After a three-hour meeting in which testimony was heard about recent cases and bizarre customs such as the women’s abstinence from marital relations, their removing children from school and a case in which one woman fled with her children because of a disagreement with a school, the rabbis decided to issue a “sacred call to Jewish homes,” saying: “With great grief, we have heard testimony about the actions of a group of women who have uprooted the rule of Torah from Israel and, of their own volition, act in ways that uproot education and Torah from Israel. They do not send their children to Talmud Torah or other schools, and withhold medical care from them even when their lives are at risk. They also do things that are unfit to be heard, violating the strictest prohibitions regarding married life and the marriage ceremony ... We therefore warn Jewish women and girls not to be drawn after them or follow their customs. One must avoid their leaders and teachers because they are destined for disaster, God forbid.”
Capes yes, veils no
The phenomenon known as the “Taliban women” is considered to be marginal within ultra-Orthodox society. “In many cases, the [ultra-strict sect] Sikrikim are considered extremists, but even they came out against the phenomenon of wearing veils, which they consider extreme. If they think so, then certainly the mainstream ultra-Orthodox sector condemns the phenomenon,” said ultra-Orthodox journalist Meny Gira-Schwartz.
In recent weeks, as the subject of the veils made headlines, there has been some confusion about the matter, and some ultra-Orthodox representatives have said that many girls in the community have suffered injustice as a result. Schwartz, one of the operators of the popular ultra-Orthodox communications chain Kav Hahasifot ("Exposure Line"), is trying to create order.
“For decades, the women of Mea Shearim [an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem] have taken pride in wearing the cape. Although Jewish law does not require it, the women of Jerusalem accepted the custom,” he said. “The rabbis live peacefully with it and some even welcome it, but in recent years the phenomenon has grown extreme. It came specifically from Sephardic women, who claim that their mothers in Morocco and Persia dressed like Arab women, who knew what real modesty was. In this manner, the woman’s body is covered entirely with a scarf that goes from her head downward, and one cannot discern her figure, until it leads to the extreme phenomenon of ‘Mother Taliban.’”
The threatening phrase “Mother Taliban” was coined, of course, following the terrible case of a mother from Beit Shemesh, now in prison for having abused her seven children out of extreme religious belief. “Mother Taliban” is considered the most extreme person in this category and the leader of the cult. She wears many layers that obscure her figure from head to foot, wears gloves on her hands, does not speak in front of men and has taken on various ascetic practices.
The confusion that exists between the definitions of capes and veils has created havoc in the ultra-Orthodox sector. Thus, for example, last Sunday, a wedding was reported in which the groom was from the Shuvu Banim yeshiva, from the Breslav Hasidic community, while the bride was formerly of the national-religious community, but became stricter in her observance with time. The members of her family, who heard on an ultra-Orthodox radio program that the wedding had taken place under the sponsorship of the cape cult, hurried to correct the reports. “The bride wears a cape, but she has no connection to the cult,” the groom’s cousin said. “She wears a cape only for reasons of modesty, but she does not belong to the veil cult or to the group that keeps its children locked up at home.” According to a relative, it was important to make this clear because the "Taliban women" are among the most scorned groups among the ultra-Orthodox. “It is seen as a bad thing that draws attention," the groom's cousin added. "These are crazy women. Is a woman normal when she doesn’t leave her home for two years or send her children to school? That’s not our situation,” he said.
‘Ultra-Orthodox women go around immodestly’
The main matter that reached the rabbis -- and even Shas party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's name was mentioned -- was the drafting of a compromise on the wearing of the shawl, a long scarf that obscures even the shape of the woman’s head but does not cover her face, as a veil does. Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the chief rabbi of Holon and the son of Shas' spiritual leader, said on the Kol Beramah radio station’s main program: “I asked my father about the shawl that women are wearing and in which they look so strange on the street, so that everyone who passes near them turns his head, because it is a bizarre thing. I am not even talking about the ones who cover their faces with veils or those who dress little girls in a similar manner. I was with my wife at an event, and suddenly, like a group of penguins, a mother appeared with her four daughters, one of them maybe 10 years old, all of them covered up. These things are not only far from Judaism, but they also do not respect women.”
Opposing Rabbi Avraham Yosef was Rabbi David Benizri, whose wife, Rabbanit Bracha Benizri, garnered attention for wearing such a shawl. Benizri told Israel Hayom that his wife began wearing the long scarf only seven years ago. “It surprised us,” he said. “At first we were in shock, and after a week I couldn’t bear it any more. She was different, and I said that if the rabbis were not in favor, I was not willing to accept it. I was sure that the rabbis opposed it. I asked and was surprised.”
Rabbanit Benizri became well known among the strict community where the women wear the shawl. “Every day, she gives classes and lectures about it. She feels that she is on a mission,” her husband says. He says that what caused the dramatic change was the deteriorating state of modesty in the ultra-Orthodox community.
“The members of our community became lax in their observance of modesty,” he says. “See how we look: modern wigs, clothing made of Lycra, short skirts, nothing that is in keeping with the bounds of Jewish law. At ultra-Orthodox weddings today, you could go into shock. You can’t tell whether you’re at an exhibit in Paris or a fashion show. Once, 100 years ago, all the women of Israel wore a long scarf and a shawl. Over the past 100 years, we’ve fallen into the abyss. Women are walking around immodestly.”
Benizri says his wife was concerned over the lack of modesty, and began to wear loose clothing and later the shawl.
“She felt that she had to do something,” he said. “Very slowly, her friends joined her, one by one. Afterward, the group Keter Malchut ["Royal Crown"] was formed, and today we can say that close to 30,000 women wear the shawl in this way throughout the country, from north to south.”
Benizri, who has a sharp tongue, continues enthusiastically. “It looks strange. It’s hard to accept a long scarf over the head. A short cape over the shoulders is much easier to accept -- after all, it’s just a cape. Once, non-observant women used to wear it. The long scarf is not a veil. It’s a little different, and we have to live with it for the good of modesty and the war on immorality.”
According to Benizri, the ultra-Orthodox media are “busy with nonsense and foolishness,” focusing on fringe phenomena instead of dealing with the real problem, lack of modesty. “We are shocked by the wedding performed in such a strange manner and by the birth, but nobody is shocked by the modesty problem,” he says. “The rabbis have chosen to remain silent. Today, you can’t buy modest clothing even in ultra-Orthodox stores. Once, you could make 10 dresses for girls in Beit Yaakov [a well-known Haredi girls’ school] from a single dress. Today, everything is narrow and short, and goes against God and His anointed, and against the rules of the Torah.”
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