Friday, July 18, 2008

Ladies Should Wear Overcoats

I saw the following the other day in the "My Machberes" column in the Jewish Press:
Chassidishe Trends
Ladies Should Wear Overcoats

Ultimate Coats by Modest Design announced, in chassidishe advertising weeklies, that it has two styles of coats for weddings or other occasions. The ad notes that the Rimanover Rebbe, in his city, had ordained that Jewish daughters should wear an oiber malbush, loosely translated as an upper [outer] garment or overcoat. Presumably, this is a light overcoat that covers dresses, etc. When women are elegantly dressed, on their way to or returning from smachos, the overcoat would cover their nice outfits and embrace them in modesty. This, presumably, is similar to the linen coats worn by ladies (and gentlemen) while riding in stagecoaches, open wagons, as well as in (old) cars such as the Ford Model T (1908-1927).

Regarding Ultimate Coats, Rabbi Shraga Feivish Hager, Kosover Rebbe in Boro Park, writes that he has been troubled for years that when Jewish daughters go to smachos they are dressed in their finest Shabbos and Yom Tov outfits. Of course, they are going to a mitzvah in making their friend happy, especially kallos at their weddings. Nevertheless they are going through the streets or on the Boro Park/ Williamsburg bus, etc., where there are married men and bochurim. He has long been searching for a solution. Thank Heaven, the Kosover Rebbe writes, that righteous women have come up with an answer. A nice thin overcoat that will guard them well. Though it may be hot in warm weather, it is a good thing, he says. Rabbi Getzel Elyakim Berkowitz, Kiryas Yoel Dayan, in a letter written last year, also praises the new garment for street wear, especially when going to smachos.
Just ... wow.

I had a few reactions to this.

  1. First, it seems that this was an innovation by Modest Design, people in the tznius business. Thus,
    Thank Heaven, the Kosover Rebbe writes, that righteous women have come up with an answer.
    They came up with an idea, found a old quasi-source for it, got some modern rabbinic approval, and created a market. This might all be lishmah, but I do not like the fact that that innovation in stricter tznius is coming from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

  2. Secondly, in the article, we read:
    This, presumably, is similar to the linen coats worn by ladies (and gentlemen) while riding in stagecoaches, open wagons, as well as in (old) cars such as the Ford Model T (1908-1927).
    Their basis is a statement by the Rimanover Rebbe, who was presumably Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (famous for the parshas haMon sugulah). He was born in Neustadt (Germany) and was in Fristik and then Rimanov, in Poland. He was born in 1745 and died in 1815.

    It therefore indeed seems a bit presumptuous to presume that the fashion for outerwear in late 18th century and early 19th century Poland was identical with that of early 20th century America. It might randomly be true, but not presumably. This is an appropriate place to use Torah UMaddah. There are scholars who study 18th century and 19th century Polish dress, and one could ask them what Polish Jewish costume was like at this time.

    For example, the picture to the right, taken from this exhibit, "Beyond the Pale: A History of Jews in Russia" is "a chassid and his wife in typical dress of the 18th century."

    The image below it comes from another page on the same site. The top panel (the top two pictures) show "Polish Jewish dress in the 17th and 18th century," while the bottom panel shows "Jewish types in Warsaw in the 18th century."

    Read the full text on that website to see descriptions of the various items of clothing the women are wearing.

    It is unclear whether any of these women are wearing what Rabbi Menachem Mendel MiRimanov was referring to with "oiber malbush," and to really find this out, one should do further study, or really consult with an expert. But, it is certainly a possibility that the oiber malbush was the shawl the woman is wearing in the bottom right panel, or the apron worn by the woman in the top picture of the chassid and his wife. It is by no means certain, just based on this, that it was a linen jacket as worn by men and women while driving their Ford Model Ts in the early 20th century.

  3. Thirdly, this appeal to a statement out of context by the Rimanover Rebbe, for people in his town, seems to be a further example of the phenomenon that Wolfish Musings noted last week. Namely, in that post he noted the strangeness of applying a prohibition of the Nodah Biyhudah (18th century Prague) about shoes (where shoes already purchased were perhaps still allowed) as a basis for a modern prohibition in Kiryas Yoel on stylish shoes that are "stunning and attention-getting."

  4. Many halachic statements are context-dependent. I would have to see the statement of Rav Menachem Mendel of Rimanov inside. But what was this oiber malbush? What were the women wearing under this oiber malbush, such that they would just be wearing only this if they did not wear the oiber malbush? What were the societal expectations at the time? Tznius is context dependent, such that a veil might be appropriate tznius in an Arabic country. See the differences between Rambam and others on this score.

    The Aruch haShulchan, Orach Chaim, siman 91, seif 6, writes:
    ובמדינתינו אין להתפלל אף כשהראש מכוסה בכסוי קטן רק בענין כובע כמו שהולכין ברכוב וגם בבגד קצר שקורין קאפטי"ל אין להתפלל בו כי אין יוצאין בו לרכוב

    Note that the proper dress for tefillah is culturally defined -- he starts off clarifying that this is bimdinateinu, "our country." The formal attire people wear outdoors differs from country to country. Again, we would have to see exactly what the Rimanover Rebbe said, but it is quite possible that this should not be transferred, specifically because it is specific to his city in that century.

  5. Furthermore, it overturns more than a century of precedent. I am sure that one can find arcane opinions made by individuals for their towns. But to scour the literature for these obscure positions in order to overturn minhag Yisrael of frum Jews, because you want to enforce stricter and stricter tnzius requirements on women is, in my humble opinion, misguided and an incorrect approach to take.

  6. If we are really saying that we should rule in accordance with the Rimanover Rebbe, did he say this in terms of going to semachot, or did he say this in general? (The article puts the sentence about smachot bracketed by "presumably," so I am not sure.) If you adopt him, fine. If not, don't. But it would be incorrect to selectively apply his statement in order to bolster your newfangled chumra. (On the other hand, perhaps he said it specifically about semachot. We would have to see inside. Does anyone know of the source text?)

  7. Women in these communities are already very tzniusdikly dressed. But imposing more and more extreme tznius restrictions fetishizes women and their clothing, such that apparently men cannot see women dressed in tznius Yom Tov finery without suffering the same ill-effects as if they had said Rachav Rachav. There has to be a point at which this stops. Or else, a decade from now, Modest Designs will come up with some clothing to cover up the attractive oiber malbush. At some point, rather than being so concerned and being troubled for years over this problem, men should decide that if they are so bothered, they can just avert their eyes.
Update: Now I see WolfishMusings has a post on this particular issue as well.


SuperRaizy said...

Of course men should just avert their eyes if this bothers them. But it's a man's world, particularly in the frum community, so it's so much easier to put the burden on the women. Because, you know, between raising 12 children, running their homes, working, and doing tons of chesed, these women really don't have enough to worry about already.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, thank you, especially for the link to authenticate what really is "authentic" Jewish style.

By the way, the English for "Oiber malbush" might be "Burqa".

Yossi Ginzberg

Ariella's blog said...

The reason women wore those coats (called "dusters," I believe) is to keep the dust that the open cars would expose them to off their clothes. It had nothing to do with modesty. If the dressy outfit is modest, it should be fine to go out. If the women are so overdressed to attract undue notice, they should consider a more toned down outfit. That would be my solution. But if the idea of the "oiber malbush" is really to disguise the figure, as the chador does, that is something else. However, then will we be seeing veils become a regular item of "modest dress," as well? I could just see it with a citation of the Rashi on Tamar who donned a scarf so her father-in-law did not recognize her.

You bring up Rachav, and you know there is a similar observation on Ruth (midrash Rabba on vayikar mikreh), despite the fact that she is also presented as a paragon of tznius. So it seems that Chazak knew that men's lapses are not to be blamed on a woman's lack of tznius.

The Five + of Us said...

I agree, historical context is entirely relevant, for a proper understanding of Halacha, Tanach, and the rest of our tradition.

Thanks for providing some background info.

Nowadays, I'll risk the dust and depend on my washing machine... if I were still washing linens by hand in the river, perhaps I'd consider a duster.



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