In the last six, seven years, a new type of Jewish-Islamic culture sharing has arisen among an admittedly small group of Orthodox Jewish women: extreme veiling. The press, for instance Ha-aretz in a recent article, has dubbed the women who favor this type of clothing “Taliban women,” a term I detest, because it stereotypes veiling and associates any type of covering with the Taliban, extremists who have a rather limited vision of how a woman should behave or dress. Veiling of course is common in many cultures, and already appears in the Bible–didn’t Tamar cover her face, so that even Judah, her own father-in-law didn’t recognize her? And didn’t Rebecca hasten to fast her veil when she spotted Isaac from afar? Veiling then is not so alien to the Bible, but alien to the western face of Judaism, for sure (and I’m not a proponent of frumking it).
I prefer frumkas, a term used when these women and their peculiar style first cropped up: frum (Yiddish for pious), and burka (a type of veil). Many were living in Beit Shemesh, many were Ba’ale Tshuvah or newly religious, or converts. These women, their detractors like to point out, are “new at this” and, it is said, misconstrue Jewish ideas about veiling. These are women who do not just dress modestly in the currently traditional Jewish way, that is, cover their hair (if they are married), and wear long-sleeved tops, long skirts, tights and closed shoes, but add additional layers; perhaps a shawl, worn like a tchador, usually in dark colors.
Some took to wearing many layers of clothing to obscure their figures, and some even convinced their husbands to wear not one, but a whole bunch of talitot (prayer shawls), one on top of the other. Then they began to refuse to talk to male shopping assistants in stores, or even the phone. They suffered a slight setback when one of their leaders, a rabbi’s wife, was arrested and convicted on child abuse, but the trend continues. Today, some have withdrawn their shawl-wearing daughters from school and home-school. It goes on: There are rumors that some have ceased to nurse male infants for reasons of modesty. There have been extreme cases in which medical care has been impeded by women’s refusal to relate to men. One family for instance refused to bring a newborn in distress to the hospital (the child was still whisked away to an ICU and luckily survived.
I encountered the frumkas for the first time when I was preparing a class on Jewish messianism in 2006 and I was smitten. These women do not simply veil for reasons of über-zniyut (extreme piety), but also, and perhaps most importantly, because they believe that this act of covering and obscuring their bodies will usher in the messianic age. Yes, of course it is hideous to refuse to speak to male doctors, or to deprive your daughters of schooling. But to use über-zniyut to make a point? Brilliant. These women have done what a woman can do in their circles to mark her piety: they have given birth, often many, many times, they pray regularly and with zest. But they have also been told for years that their bodies are dangerous, and have to be concealed for the sake of Torah. Isn’t it only logical to take this to the next level? And to think, they could bring about the messiah by this very act!
In the meantime, the trend has spread to other cities, including Jerusalem, and the rabbinic authorities have taken note. There has been plenty of opposition by many who consider the frumkas gang-ho weirdos, of course, but so far, the rabbis had been largely silent. Now, they side with the opposition, with husbands who forbid their wives and daughters to veil, and they offer fast divorces and fierce opposition. The entire phenomenon is seen as overly zealous and even un-Jewish. Yet, I can’t help that these male ultra-orthodox rabbis find these women threatening. They have harsh words for them:
Haaretz reports that… [a]fter hearing the testimonies, the Badatz, in a rare sort of consensus, ostracized the group of women with the shawls, though it did not name it per se. The wording of the unprecedented announcement was unusually harsh: “To our sorrow, we the Badatz have listened to testimony regarding the inequities of these women that have uprooted Torah from Israel, acting on their own, adopting a lifestyle that is void of Torah and educational values. They do not send their offspring to Talmud Torah and schools; they prevent receiving medical care, even in life-threatening cases, as well as issues concerning matters that are not fitting to be discussed, pertaining to the chuppah and kedushin [i.e., main elements of weddings], etc.
“Therefore, we are warning Jewish women and girls that it is prohibited to join them and one must distance oneself from their customs and their ways, since ultimately, they will, has v’sholom, lead to destruction and annihilation” (translation by The Yeshiva World News. )
A “soft” but still negative position has been taken by Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and one of the towering figures of twentieth-century Jewish law. He ruled that To the best of my knowledge, it is not prohibited by the Torah but there are objections to this new path that has been chosen, especially since it is strange. Therefore, we cannot prohibit it, but it is not our way ( I couldn’t find an actual source for this).
Traditional Judaism, like many other religious systems, has often used women’s bodies as boundary markers. Perhaps the sudden unease stems from the fact that now, women are redrawing the boundaries themselves, without rabbinic endorsement? And so, when I read that Rabbi has, I cannot help but be amused that they have been beaten or at least dented by their own weapons.
The phenomenon is even more enticing when we include the fierce battle under way in Jerusalem against the depiction of women in advertisements which has effectively been banned, a battle waged by the same groups that reject über-zniyut! Shawl-wearing, totally shape-obscuring women? Not good. No women on ads at the bus stop: good (a bit like Egypt’s Salafist Nour party that has refused to print even the names of women candidates on their campaign posters)….
Stay tuned. Some women have taken now to wearing veils with a conic hood, to further obscure the sexy shapes of their heads. One commentator reports having seen women strolling around with card boxes!