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Friday, December 28, 2012 

The history of "va'ad hatzniut"

If you've ever wondered how the "modesty patrols" of Haredi sects like the Satmar came to be in the weeks following the Weberman trial, plus how they came to believe so insanely in separation of the sexes, The Forward's got some history on the origins and where they may have drawn the ideas from:
Until recently, the Va’ad Hatznius was little known outside the Hasidic community, but its actions have reverberated through the community for years. Although they ostensibly monitor the moral behavior of both sexes (men and women are both warned not to read English books, watch television or surf the internet), most of their energies are directed towards ensuring that women and girls dress and behave modestly.

Their reasoning is clear: When a female wears revealing clothing or chats with the opposite sex, it could entice the men, and lead to dire consequences. In other words, the goal of their injunctions is to inhibit the sexual impulses of the male population.

Where did the tradition of the Va‘ad Hatznius originate? And what do the Hasidim themselves think of it? The term V‘ad Hatznius doesn’t appear in the Bible or in the Talmud, but Maimonides does write, in Hilchos Yom Tov 6:21, that “the Beit Din [rabbinical court] must appoint officers during the festivals to patrol the gardens and orchards and along the rivers to prevent men and women from gathering there to eat and drink, lest they fall into sin.”
So apparently, they must've gotten it from there, without even considering that those writings only pertained to Yom Tov (Jewish holidays), and it was only on days like those that they objected to social gatherings.

The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe may have been opposed to wearing fancy dress in the 18th century, and monetarily penalized women and tailors who wore and designed fancy clothing, but:
The intention of those rulings had nothing to do with preventing sexual temptation, however. “They were simply worried that if Gentiles were to see how much money Jews were spending, the wealthy landowners would raise the taxes for the entire Jewish population,” Fishman explained. In fact, men, too, were warned not to dress in conspicuously lavish clothing or wear powdered wigs.

However, these rulings were issued during a time when Jews were collecting taxes for the Czarist government and hence had the power to levy fines against members of their own community, and ex-communicate or penalize them for defying the rules. Once the Czarist government took away the power of the Jews to tax their own population in 1844, the only means that community leaders had to ensure adherence to their rulings was through social pressure – a tactic which has remained effective till today, as Hasidim continue to fear being ostracized from their community or losing valuable marriage prospects as a result of so-called indecent behavior.
So when they could no longer tax their own, they turned to different ideas, including the following:
The strict separation of men and women is a relatively modern one, Fishman explained. In Czarist Russia, men and women used to stand together at weddings; there was no mekhitse, or partition between them. When Sh-Anski, the author of The Dybbuk, led his series of landmark ehnographic expeditions through Volhynia and Podolia in 1912–1914, he photographed cemeteries in which the graves of even the most pious couples were found side by side. Today most Hasidic men are buried separately from their wives. The Ohel (gravesite) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for example, is not next to the grave of his wife, Chaya Mushka.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who was raised in the Satmar community of Wiliamsburg, and is the director of the Beit Midrash program at the modern Orthodox rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, told the Forverts that the Va’ad Hatznius isn’t an organized body but an informal group of people who act on their own, and whose actions the Rebbe doesn’t officially condone. Every v’aad is comprised of a theoretician, one who decides which kind of behavior to ban, and enforcers.

The theoretician is usually a well-regarded figure, while the enforcers give a more fanatical impression, Katz explained. “They usually wear their tsitsis out, their hair and clothing is unkempt, and they have no job, so they don’t elicit much respect from the community. Weberman was undoubtedly a theoretician, his tsitsis didn’t hang out, his hair was combed, he had a job, this is why families trusted him.”
In other words, he made a cunning wolf in sheep's clothing.

The edict against reading English books is a weird one. Given that they're living in countries outside of Israel where the majority population does not speak Hebrew or even Yiddish, one would think the Satmar would recognize the importance of reading English to get around in wider society. Clearly, they don't, as their anti-Zionist stance that's led them to so much hostility against the state of Israel further implies.

One of the biggest benefits of the Weberman trial was how it helped bring a lot of the most questionable customs and tactics the Satmar use to the forefront for everybody to learn about, even on a beginner's level. If you know where to look, you'll also notice that a lot of the Haredim who try to defend their beliefs in separation of sexes will use the word "modesty" even when it doesn't make sense. But in the end, all their beliefs in separation of sexes has done is lead to a lot of problematic situations for how to handle themselves even in their own community and outside of it. That's why the time has come to modernize, and to bring back the mixed company at weddings again.

Update: Emet Ve-Emunah also finds this segregation business insane.

Update 2: Naomi Ragen's also written about the Weberman case.

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