11.18.2012

Responding to Criticism

Last week I shared a bit about Jewish modesty and my experiences with it on Clothed Much, a style blog written by a fellow preggo, the always-stylish Elaine Hearn. While most of the comments it garnered were positive, one really stuck in my craw, and I've decided to respond to it publicly:

Anonymous 
Nina is misrepresenting jewish modesty. It's not only about the clothing you wear, its also about how you carry yourself and how you represent the jewish faith.
By publicly writing that you decided that hair covering is "not for you", you are basically admitting that you are a hypocrite.
Either you follow the jewish laws of modesty or you don't. You don't pick and choose what you decide you can do.

My thoughts:
As I've said repeatedly on this blog, I don't claim to represent Jewish modesty at large here. I couldn't possibly do that, with so many differing interpretations of every aspect of dress and comportment. I merely represent myself and my personal interaction with the modesty restrictions-- some of which I follow to a T, some of which I don't. Judaism, as with any belief system manifesting itself in practical behavior, is not a monolith: you will find Jewish communities where hair-covering, to take the example pointed at above, is enacted through routine shaving of the head, covering with a short synthetic wig and then a hat. You will also find plenty of communities where hair is not covered-- and that doesn't make the adherents any less Jewish. You see, in this post-modern age without a unified religious leadership and a multiplicity of interpretations of ancient texts and more recent law codes, "picking and choosing" is part of the game. You can choose to adhere to a strict, Satmar Hasidic interpretation of Jewish law, which in some sense takes away personal agency and replaces it with surety of practice, or to interpret most laws metaphorically/historically, keeping the message without the actual ritual. Both are Jewish, and nobody-- not me, not a rabbi, not the anonymous commenter above-- has the right to take that away from you. 

The legality of not covering my hair notwithstanding (if you are interested in some source analysis that suggests it might not be required, click over here), I adamantly object to the commenter above claiming that one particular interpretation of Jewish law is singularly true. This type of self-righteousness is divisive, non-productive and completely ignorant of the many historical forces that have led to today's normative practice, some of which would utterly shock many of the more traditionally observant who often retroject their current practice onto the past. Varying levels of practice may align the individual with different communities, but the claim of  misrepresenting "the Jewish faith" is grossly offensive.

So to my anonymous interlocutor: I will continue to use this space to explore modesty in its various iterations: usually, through my personal style posts, though sometimes branching out into other faith communities and traditions.  I will continue to "pick and choose," as will you, and as we all do. And I will continue to assert that I am no less Jewish than the Hasid or member of the Reform community doing the very same.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

No one said you aren't Jewish. "Picking and choosing" is a slippery slope and has probably created more division among Jews than stubbornness to one opinion. Mishna says we should assign ourselves one rabbi. We should follow his guidelines, even we don't agree with them.

Jane Whittingham said...

And that's why people po

Jesse said...

If there's one thing people love more than anything else, it's telling other people how to live their lives. Nothing makes these people feel better, more superior, than making others feel or look bad. I would suggest that people worry about living their own lives - living is complicated enough as it is - and let other people do the same.

Elaine said...

This can also be applied to most Mormon views of modesty. Great response. Thanks, Nina.

Thread Ethic said...

Most religions where it is a true lifestyle are similar. take Ann Romney and the attack on her by MORMON women about the length of a particular skirt she wore on Jay Leno. We over at Thread Ethic and on stage as musicians always feel that if you're too modest you get mocked for looking homely and if you're not modest enough you get attacked for barely stretching the bounds. Danged if you do, danged if you don't. Funny enough, it seems to mostly be women doing all the judging...at least online....

alyssa said...

this person doesn't know how you conduct yourself in day to day life. they are right, modesty isn't just about dress, it's about how we treat ourselves and others. we don't speak lashon hara about a person, nor do we spread hotzaat shem ra, and we try to keep our thoughts clean and nonjudgmental. unfortunately, this commenter has chosen to judge you because you do not fit their definition of modesty, yet they have forgotten about the modesty of tongue.


i think you're response is great. people find their spiritual devotion to be hindered by following certain concepts too literally and other people find it spiritually freeing to follow them to the T. it neither makes one less jewish, nor does it mean they are misrepresenting the faith. if unhatting meant you were able to devote other parts of your life to judaism better, or brought the religion closer to your heart, then you have done nothing wrong.

Shira Rocklin said...

One rabbi does not equal one opinion! A good, truly knowledgable rabbi gives different answers to different people, based on different circumstances. Not covering hair has become the norm in some communities. Deciding to follow one way over another... It's like holding chalav stam or chalav yisroel. People pick and choose their community, and what they follow. Especially for Baal teshuvahs, it is very important to feel that there are choices in Jewish practice... That there is a legitimate view at each end of the spectrum. 'Picking and choosing' refers to asking one rav, then another, then another, and so on, to find the answer you want. It does not mean seeking the community and flavour of practice that most meets your spiritual and emotional needs. If you don't agree with your rav on a lot of things, maybe you should rethink why he is your rav. You seem to be threatened at the idea that someone can think for themselves, and choose for themselves. When I go to ask my rav a question, he tells me what do do based on my circumstances, not his own opinions. When I asked how many days of chag to keep while visiting Israel, I knew his standard answer would be two days, and I kept two days when I visited ten years ago. But based on the rough time we were having on our trip, he told us it was fine to keep one day and lessen our difficulties. Your tone is offensive, Anonymous. Your opinions are the type that turn many Baal teshuvahs off their path (including me, ten years ago). Do you know how difficult it is to abandon your beliefs because of the horrible disgusting people who turned you off, and struggle for ten years to regain them?

Shira Rocklin said...

And also, Mishna is not practical Halacha, and you are wrong to present it as such. For every idea in Mishnah, there are lots of different interpretations. You subtract from the Torah with your simplistic statement if defence of your views.

Admiral_Shackleford said...

Oh my g-d, Nina, that person should be ashamed of themselves. They obviously have no idea how deep your values go. If it means anything to you, this blogs helps inspire me really expand and define my feelings on modesty, (and I'm reform, so there are no real "rules" I'm following) and start purposefully choosing modesty every day. Thanks for that. :)

(Oh, and huge mazzles on the babe! How wonderful!)

anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for a while. I'm frum and my husband is a Rabbi, so I've always enjoyed your blog from both a fashion and religious perspective. I'm not the commenting type, but this conversation has been coming up a lot in our community recently and has been a personal struggle for me. So I'm going to jump in if that's ok.

First off, people who attack other people online for really anything at all have problems. It's not a forum for that and, as you said, you didn't claim to represent an entirety of anything to begin with so it's all absurd. But now that you've opened it for conversation, I will admit that it was upsetting to me when you stopped covering your hair. Not because it's my business, but because I wished it had meaning for you and also because I feel our MO community is moving towards dropping things if they feel meaningless without putting the time in to find the meaning (not to say that's why you stopped, just that I think we all have to work to guard against it. I also understand it's not necessarily fair to feel that your choices change our community). Picking and choosing is a legitimate Jewish outlook- as long as what you pick falls within the guidelines of the Mesorah. That means decisions made by Rabbi's whose opinions are legitimized by their following of the Mesorah guidelines- both in terms of their ordination, personal beliefs, and the decision making process that was handed down from Moshe. While hair covering is a da'at yehudit, because of the way minhag hamakom applies today the halacha really only validates covering your hair completely, the chazon ish that calls for two coverings as you mentioned, rav moshe's measurement of a tefach that can be left uncovered, and the opinion of rov or the majority of your hair.

I'm not trying to attack or criticize at all, I just think being real about the halacha is important. That being said, it's a personal decision that is affected by so many things and it's not anyone's place to judge why someone does or does not do something. I'm a kallah teacher and I find very often that my students show up already having decided what they are going to follow, and all based on things that should not be holding any weight against Karet for a believing Jew. But we believe and still don't act, and that's a problem. I'm saying this as someone in a leadership position in our communities to you who I think is also in a leadership position. You've taken your modesty public- you believe in it and believe that it is personal and important and belongs to you in a way that many people don't connect to tznius. I can only imagine that the confidence you give off in person exceeds what I read on this blog- and even if you don't realize it that means that you act as a role model for the women of our community and that's something they are sorely lacking. Religion is about doing some things that are fun and some things that are not, but we do them all because we believe in the gd who commanded them. We wouldn't criticize a ba'al teshuvah for only keeping a portion of halacha, but we would also be clear that we believe in a process- not in a half observed Torah. It's about the direction you're moving in, and as long as it's forward that's all that matters.

alltumbledown said...

Thanks for this comment. I will say that I have a considerably more liberal take on halakhic/minhagic (not a word, but it will have to do) interpretation than what you've laid out here, and (most likely because of my historical studies) don't feel particularly beholden to the narrowing of halakhic opinions/options of the past hundred or so years. I agree that half-observed Torah is problematic, but I also find the Orthodox narrowness about what constitutes authentic/legitimate observance problematic.

alltumbledown said...

Thanks, Admiral. I'm so happy that a nasty comment like this was able to introduce me to some of my diverse readers.

alltumbledown said...

Anonymous, I am glad we can differ on our approaches and still be counted as Jewish. I, like Shira below, find translating Mishnaic and Talmudic principles to practical behavior difficult, because the evidence for their implementation is sorely lacking. I do think the rabbinic obsession with establishing rabbinic authority is rather suspect.

alltumbledown said...

Shira, I am sorry that you faced opinions and people that turned you off. Just know that there are those of us out there who value pluralism, diversity, intellectual honesty and question the system, even while keeping pretty rigorous standards of practice.

Lauren Berger said...

Hi Nina! I took Biblical Heroes with you at Barnard a few years back! I've been following your blog and find it brave, informative, and fun. I truly applaud your response to this "anonymous" person's comment. I do believe that modern Jews do and must pick and choose and unfortunately I have felt criticism from some as being "not Jewish enough". It frustrates me that people judge others' Jewishness. I would also like to add that I believe Judaism is about questioning (and I am no expert on Jewish law and interpretation), and I applaud how you continue to process and think about your modesty decisions.

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