Sunday, 20 February 2011

Jewish Taliban

This was a drasha I delivered three years ago on Shabbat Ki Tissa. I received quite a lot of criticism for this because people felt at the time: "What are you criticising Chareidim, haven't the non Orthodox got enough ammunition without our own people throwing them a present?" However, the issue is still here and has become increasingly more popular despite the condemnation from the mainstream Chareidi Kehillah.

Here it is...

The main body of our Sedra today deals with the cataclysmic event of the Golden Calf. Forty days earlier, the people have witnessed the greatest revelation in history, the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. They had seen all the wondrous miracles of G-d. According to our Sages there has been no point in our collective history when we have been on a more elevated spiritual peak than at that time when we saw the revelation of God at Sinai.

Yet forty days later the descent could not have been worse. From an Igra Rama- a high mountain to a Beira Amikta- a deep pit. The Children of Yisrael have turned their backs on Hashem and have created a Golden calf around which they dance and declare Eleh Ehokecho Yisrael- These are your God O Israel.

How could they- the generation which was full of knowledge of God- How could they fall to the depths of despair?

My friends I am not going to give an in depth answer to that question. But there is I think an important message for all of us.

We should never think in our minds because we are frum that we cannot fall. Because here we have a generation that was full of connection to God -yet they fell- and boy did they fall with a mighty thump. Indeed our Rabbis say that the greater the person, the stronger is the Yetzer Hara- the evil inclination trying to pull- to schlep that individual away from Torah and Mitzvot. And the Yetzer Hara comes in many guises to try to entice somebody away from God. The higher the mountain an individual climbs, the greater the fall.

Now what I’m about to say perhaps will upset some people – so I apologise in advance. There was an article in the JC two weeks ago – a report of a group of women who had taken it upon themselves to be extra frum – to go where no Jewish woman had gone before, to start wearing the Burka. The “Minhag” began from a group of women who live in Bet Shemesh. Very pious women who want to keep the laws of Tzniut to the greatest level.

Let me begin...and say I am always in support of people who want to do more, to daven three times a day, to keep Shabbat, Kashrut and Taharat Hamishpacha – all the laws of the Torah. And indeed the laws of Tzniut are an integral part of being a Jew. Tzniut- modesty means not just in the way we dress, it has also a lot to do with how we speak and interact with people and how we behave, all have to be done in a way of tzniut, of modesty and reserve.

Indeed the Navi declares. “Vehatzneah Lechet im Hashem Elokecha”- Walk modestly with the Lord Your God- wherever we are, we should pursue the characteristic of Tzniut

However, according to the JC report- and I can only go according to what I read in print, these women are taking the laws of modesty to the furthest extreme. Many are covering not only their hair, which is according to Halachah but they are covering also their entire faces, something which is not prescribed by the Torah. They are covering up areas of their body that should be concealed according to Halachah but then they are wearing up to ten coverings of clothing- again something not required by Halachah.

So what’s the matter with people who want to be extra frum to this extent- it’s a free world let them do what they want to do and leave them alone.

However I believe that with trying to keep a Chumrah- a stricture, one sometimes ends up doing the exact opposite of what one really wants to achieve. Let me explain. The Talmud in a number of places talks about something which is called Yehurah- that means unnecessary drawing attention to oneself through trying to be extra pious, more than what the Halachah desires, because by doing that you are causing people to say; Look how frum this person is- he really is great. That is frowned upon in many instances in the Gemorrah.

The whole concept of Tzniut is modesty. That means not to draw any unnecessary attention to oneself. Therefore when one dresses in a non tzniut fashion one draws attention to ones state of dress or undress. When however one covers oneself to the extent that you are fulfilling the requirement much more than needed one is also unnecessarily drawing attention to oneself and doing the opposite of what was intended. Or perhaps that is really what is intended these women wanted to draw attention to themselves and say “Look how really frum we are- we are frumer than everybody.” One can imagine how therefore a faulty sense of religiosity can lead to a Yeridah- a descent rather than an Aliyah.

Perhaps we should be listening to the words of the Rambam in Hilchot Deot who speaks about the middle way and how in all our middot we should try to pursue the median.

Therefore- says the Rambam – Our Sages declared that a person should only prevent himself from doing those things that the Torah has prohibited, and he should not take upon himself vows or oaths that prohibit him from doing things that are permitted by the Torah. Is it not enough what the Torah prevents one to do- that you prohibit other things that the Torah does not prohibit?

The Rambam then criticizes those who spend their time needlessly fasting because by focussing on these things it can God forbid turn one away from what one should be doing.

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