Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cutting oneself for tznius

I thought I would spell out my reasons for disagreeing with Rav Zilberstein, who approved of (and praised) a baalas teshuva who asked if she could cut her legs so that her parents would not make her wear short skirts. (See here for more details, and here for an audio recording.)
"The young woman is facing a difficult challenges from her family members, who forbid her to dress modestly," the coordinator of a women's religious seminary wrote in the inquiry.

"The young woman thought that if she inflicted wounds on her legs she could tell her parents that she is wearing a long skirt to cover the wounds," the letter said.

Rabbi Zilberstein's reply came shortly after, with an unequivocal answer: "She is allowed to inflict wounds on her legs in order to dress modestly and evade sin."
I don't care to consider the analysis of various gemaras to determine whether chavala is indeed permitted for purposes such as tznius. While I do think there may be room for argument, that is beside the point. Rather, it is a matter of judging the metzius, in order to then apply the halacha correctly.

Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein may have more details that I have, and those details might just justify his advice. In all likelihood, though, it is just as it seems, and Rav Zilberstein is missing something in his analysis of the metzius. I do not have confidence in R' Zilberstein's ability to understand the metzius, given his previous endorsement of the idea that Jews and gentiles have a different number of teeth. He is the rav of a hospital in Bnei Brak and a medical posek, and one would have expected that he would have better means of determining reality than urban legends. To cite my translation of an answer from Rav Chaim Kanievsky:
Indeed, in Midrash Talpiyot (anaf Aivarim) there is that to a gentile there are 31 teeth, while to a Jew there are 32. And the gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein related to me that there was a dentist in the United States who hated Jews, and when they brought them to him he counted the teeth, and when he found 32 he did not wish to work on them.
I wrote back then as follows:
But psak arises not just from a great depth and breadth of Torah knowledge, but from a knowledge of the metzius as well. If a Torah great can be this misguided about the facts on the ground..., then are they the best to pasken on issues relating to Torah and science?
In the present case, it seems that the pesak does not take into account a number of factors:

  1. Cutting oneself is often a sign of a psychological disorder. (Wikipedia: "Self-harm is most common in adolescence and young adulthood, usually first appearing between the ages of 12 and 24." And reading further in that article, some research suggests that this sort of cutting is more common for females in this age range.) A baalas teshuva who is in religious turmoil, is in conflict with her parents, is making these major life changes, should not be advised to cut herself. It is troublesome that she came up with this on her own so readily as a solution to her difficulties. She should, perhaps, be guided to seek psychological counseling.
  2. Perhaps related, disfiguring herself might indicate some misunderstandings as to the nature of tznius and struggling with body image.
  3. She is a baalas teshuva. This is wonderful. However, baalei teshuva often don't have the extended background in Judaism to be able to prioritize and put things into their proper perspective. A newly minted baal teshuva might believe, for instance, that not giving priority to a kohen to bentch first is on the level of eating milk and meat together. And they may hear of a minhag to stand through kriat haTorah and regard it as an obligation, on the same level as davening. And there are times when religious obligations should be balanced against situational need. When someone asks a shailah like this, they should not be encouraged in adopting extremes, because it reinforces extremeness in general. This is likely bad for remaining a baal teshuva for the long term, and for being a healthy, balanced individual within a normal, frum, Jewish society. Similarly, to encourage her to lie to her parents in this way is also not a good idea. There would likely be some way to negotiate, and advocate on her behalf. But instead, this pits her against her parents. It drives a wedge between her and her parents. They become the enemy. This is also likely not good for the long term, both in religious and emotional terms.
  4. I will permit myself to make up the metzius in this case. I don't know it is true, but I suspect that it is. Even though this is a secular Israeli family, I do not picture that her parents are forcing her to wear miniskirts. They would probably not think it terrible if she wore a skirt which reached her knees. She wants to wear 'long skirts', which presumably means down to her ankles. This is a matter of halachic dispute as to what shok be'isha erva means. According to some major halachic authorities, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal, and the Mishna Brura, the shok is the thigh. Therefore, a skirt to the knee (or a bit below) is perfectly fine. According to other poskim, the shok is the calf. If so, as a matter of obligation, one has to cover the calves as well. In a case such as this, to recommend to a baalas teshuva to cut herself (or rather, endorse her own idea to cut herself) rather than recommend that she act according to a different yet legitimate shita is not the proper course.
    Of course, this is only my assumption about the metzius, and I could be wrong.
Besides for this, praising the behavior in public, and saying that her story should be spread throughout the entire Jewish world, is not a good idea. Many people in the general public come up with tznius extremes which go beyond the dictates of halacha. For example, I understand that many Rabbanit Bruria Keren are BTs. And that she herself is a baalas teshuva. Praising self-harm in pursuit of tznius is not, IMHO, what the public needs to hear right now.


Gibbo said...

i totally agree with you...what on earth are we becoming!!!

in the vanguard said...

Something really stinks about this rabbi's decision!

MiriamS said...

Metzius is where it's at. How can anyone know metzius based on a letter not even written by the questioner?

Makes me think of a Dr. Laura call.

DB said...

How many criticizing this psak are baalei teshuva? Having grown up through a kiruv organization and being responsible for being m'karev a few others, I can proudly say this girl is a hero and a rolemodel. Many people dont understand and realize what it means to sacrifice for even basic Judaism!

joshwaxman said...

"How many criticizing this psak are baalei teshuva?"

precisely. you believe your BT background is a strength here.

it is not.

just the opposite. as i wrote above, However, baalei teshuva often don't have the extended background in Judaism to be able to prioritize and put things into their proper perspective...


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