When Extreme Modesty Kills Women

When Extreme Modesty Kills Women


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I recently published an article on another site about Gal Gadot, which went far more viral than most of my opinion pieces. Of course, there is always dissent to opinion pieces (such being the nature of opinions). In this case, that included two or three readers who found the subject matter simply inappropriate for the site where it appeared. I accept the feedback, recognizing that there are communities with differing sensibilities and things that one community find natural to discuss may be unsuitable for others. It may even be desirable for most of us to strive for loftier topics of conversation. The question is: where’s the line? Is it possible to take this ideal to outrageous extremes? Sadly, such may be the case, as we shall see.

Recently, a colleague of mine tweeted a news story by about the problems inherent in bringing women’s health information to certain “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish communities in Israel. Consider the following facts:

  • While the ultra-Orthodox population demonstrates a lower rate of breast cancer than the overall population, those who do contract it suffer a 30-percent higher mortality rate;
  • The ultra-Orthodox have neither Internet access nor television, and the radio stations to which they listen won’t say the words “breast cancer”;
  • The ultra-Orthodox emphasis on modesty means that body parts are rarely discussed, even in single-sex gatherings;
  • Aside from the priority granted to modesty, there is a cultural reluctance to discuss negative things in general, plus a pressure to present a healthy appearance for matchmaking purposes.

These are just the bullet points (literally). As the author of the piece, Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll, put it, this all adds up to create “a population unaware of the risks and signs of a disease whose survival rate decreases rapidly the longer it is left undiagnosed.” It is largely a self-perpetuating crisis as “the very absence of information in these women’s lives mean(s) that they are the ones who most need to hear it.”

The author goes on to describe how posters were created specifically with the ultra-Orthodox community in mind. The text of the posters was crafted with rabbinic guidance and exhorted women to “perform the Torah commandment of guarding one’s health.” Despite as much vetting as could be expected, the proponent of these posters was not permitted to post them in the city of Bnai Brak because the posters were “immodest,” “inappropriate” and would “create panic.”

The former chief of staff for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel opined that the public streets are not an appropriate place to discuss women’s health issues but a previous attempt to reach this population by placing brochures in mikvahs was also kiboshed. Despite being a private space exclusive to women, the objection was that fear of the disease might create anxiety in the women that would not be conducive to the proper “mikvah night” mood.

My colleague tweeted this article with the comment, “When our obsession with women’s modesty actually becomes life-threatening.” To that, a certain rabbi replied, “The Talmud in Sotah 21b calls such a person a ‘hassid shoteh’ or ‘pious fool.’”

That rabbi has it exactly right. The mishna on page 20a of the aforementioned tractate lists a “pious fool” as one of those whose actions destroy the world. On page 21b, the gemara asks “Who is a pious fool?” It replies, “One who refuses to save a drowning woman because it would be immodest.” Modesty is important but we don’t let people die because of it. (At least we shouldn’t!)

I am reminded of a news story from 2002 in which 15 Saudi Arabian schoolgirls were permitted to die in a fire. Saudi newspapers reported scuffles between firemen and members of the Mutaween, the “religious police” employed by the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). The latter forced the girls back into the burning building because they were not wearing hijab (headscarves) and abaya (traditional black robes). The Saudi Gazette reported that the Mutaween also stopped men who tried to rescue the girls, saying, “It is sinful to approach them.”

There’s a reason I had to go back 15 years for this story. The Mutaween are powerful. Not as much now since the extent of their authority was reduced in 2016, but at the time they could arrest or beat citizens for violating sharia law. Accordingly, the people tend to give the religious police a wide berth; they certainly don’t go out of their way to antagonize them. In this instance, however, it was too much. The people complained. The media complained. It was a huge black eye for the CPVPV. I suspect that there has been no recurrence since 2002 because the Mutaween were probably directed not to be “pious fools.”

So why won’t people speak up in a community where women are 30% more likely to die from a form of cancer that isn’t nearly as deadly when detected early?

The gemara in Pesachim (3a) discusses the importance of using nicer, more euphemistic language. Rav Yehoshua ben Levi points out that the Torah uses eight Hebrew letters more than necessary in order to avoid using a crass term, saying “from the animals that are not clean” rather than “that are unclean.” The gemara goes on to point out the elephant in the room: the Torah uses the word “unclean” many times! Why should the Torah avoid using the word “unclean” here when it uses that word so many times in other places? The gemara answers that when “cleaner” and “blunter” narratives are both equally appropriate, the Torah will use the nicer language. However, if there’s a possibility that the Torah’s meaning may be obscured, it will put the cards on the table and use the more forthright language.

Isn’t this a lesson for us? All things being equal, it’s nice to avoid discussion of personal body parts or deadly diseases. But this isn’t Wonder Woman, which is a discussion we don’t necessarily have to have – we’re talking about people’s lives here! Our overriding principle is“v’chai bahem” – we should live because of mitzvos, not die because of them! True, we can’t murder others, worship idols or commit incest to save a life but if we can use blunt language to ensure that a point is clear, we should certainly do so to save someone from a disease that can likely be defeated if detected early enough.

The mishna on Sotah 20a says that “pious fools” destroy the world. Another mishna, on Sanhedrin 37a, tells us that saving even a single life is equivalent to saving an entire world. Such posters and brochures have the potential to save many more lives than that. If doing so means using a word that appears two-dozen times throughout Tanach, that seems a very small price to pay.

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  1. It’s a small world. You don’t know who could be saved by reading this piece.

    This is impactful , because it sparks an important conversation.

    That conversation can guide us to approaching the problem with the most effective method of communication to convey the seriousness of the message.

    THANK YOU FOR CARING.

  2. Ariel Rose, my doctor gave me a brochure about vitamin D with 2 items that might be relevant for your case.

    1. The body produces vitamin D from sunlight for only 15 minutes of exposure a day, to prevent overloading. To get the most benefit, you lie on your back and sunbathe for 15 minutes, then turn over on your stomach and sunbathe for another 15. If someone stays in the sun longer they can get more tan or (ouch!) burn, but they’ve maxed out on the vitamin D.

    2. The brochure had a picture from many years ago of children with rickets bathing indoors with UV lamps dressed in shorts. The discovery of D was connected to urbanization, with kids (and adults) spending less time outdoors. Due to their way of life, they couldn’t be outdoors so they used the lamps.

    I am very sorry that the conventional supplements don’t work for you. I am also very uncomfortable to give the appearance of judging someone who I don’t know. But the brochure offers an alternative and a limitation. I admire that you are bearing in mind what Hashem would say. The question is if he will ask you why didn’t you explore the alternatives.

    I apologize if I overstepped my bounds.

    • (Thank you Dina!)

    • And another thing.

      3. Sunlight produces D only when it it is 45 degrees or higher above the horizon. In urban areas even at 45 degrees it doesn’t work because some of the intensity is blocked by pollution. If someone goes jogging in the cool summer morning or in the late afternoon, the won’t get any D. Also in the winter depending on your latitude the sun doesn’t hit 45 degrees all day. There’s no D “available” at all on those days.

      This brings an interesting question, how do we get D in the winter? Hashem created an amazing solution. Vitamins are either water-soluble or fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins drain out of the body and must be replenished constantly. If you drink a whole container of orange juice one day you’ll be loaded with (water-soluble) vitamin C for a short while and then the whole thing will be gone. But D is fat-soluble and is retained in the body. During the summer when the sun is high in the sky, the body stocks up on D and saves the reserves for the winter. At the end of the winter there’s little left so the sun is sent back out full force to replenish us.

      Another interesting thing is that people from the lower latitudes, like in India and Africa, have the intense sun year round. But they have dark skin which absorbs less sun. People in the higher latitudes have less sun throughout the year — where will they get their D? They have light skin which absorbs plenty of sun in the limited time, enough to keep them healthy through the year.

      Also to follow up about UV lamps — I think if a person has 2 lamps, 1 in the front and 1 in the back, they can complete their “sunbath” in 15 minutes (for example while reading or doing some other relaxing activity) without having to turn over for another 15 minutes.

      I hope this information provides a more clear picture that can help for making an informed decision how to juggle medical need with Orthodox Judaism.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book.