Fear-based education is unethical. It might even be child abuse. Scaring children into good behavior relies on lower-order reward and punishment mechanisms instead of emphasizing the intrinsic benefits of acting appropriately. Humanists know that educators should put reasonable restrictions on the way they teach difficult concepts to children.
These restrictions don’t seem to be in effect in one Beit Yaakov (Orthodox) school in Lakewood, New Jersey. This story (transcription and definitions of Hebrew terms here) was sent out as a letter to the parents of the elementary school students, and either told or given out* to a class of 14-year-old girls at the end of a year-long program on modesty:
It tells the parable of travelers happening upon an old woman laying boiling hot clothes on a young woman, which represents the afterlife of a mother who did not properly instruct her daughter in the ways of tzniut, or modesty, torturing her daughter as punishment for both of them. It is apparently the wish of these schools that mothers live in fear that they will insufficiently police their daughter’s clothing and for girls to watch every inch of skin they reveal. This is more important, it seems, than their academic achievements, extracurricular attainments, and even study of Torah, as there have been no threats of torture for insufficient performance in these areas.
For background, Orthodox Jewish communities send their children to private religious schools according to their level of religious stringency. Within the Orthodox spectrum, the Bait Yaakov family of schools is far-right, which means that it teaches a stringent form of tzniut, the most obvious manifestation of which is that girls are supposed to dress modestly: skirts (no pants) to below the knee, stockings, shirts to above the collarbone and below the elbows, no tight clothing, covered hair (if married). The punishment depicted in the story is a result of not following these rules strictly enough.
We as atheists and Humanists are justified in condemning this letter — and any other conduit through which this story is conveyed to children (since clearly parents are intended to pass the message on) and adolescents — as beyond the pale. It goes beyond any reasonable limit of how to educate children. In fact, all the teachings of modesty sexualize women, make clothing the most important aspect of an inner virtue, and are deeply unfair. Should we go further then, and condemn the whole program?
Well, yes and no.
In theory, tzniut is an all-encompassing concept surrounding the commandment, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It means that one should not boast or brag, or show off one’s personal life unnecessarily. It means that validation comes from inside, not from the compliments or attention of others.
Not everyone agrees with such a philosophy. But, at its best, it attempts to validate the importance of the human spirit and give all people the tools to have a strong ethical core that is not easily swayed by popular pressure.
That this positive message, which is just as important to the practice of tzniut as one’s outfit, is totally lost in the rendering of the story above, is extremely sad. Fearmongering is for the small-minded and weak of heart. If Beit Yaakov schools believe that their teachings lead to a better life for their adherents, they should stand by that belief by preaching the rewards of tzniut and a religious lifestyle, not by threatening pain and suffering. If they hold that women are worthy because they have a unique position in relation to god, that is what they should teach — not that girls whose clothing is the slightest bit wrong are doomed to torture regardless of their good acts through life.
It is the duty of all Orthodox Jews to condemn this way of teaching modesty, and thankfully, some already are. I, in fact, found this letter because a concerned Beit Yaakov mother posted it to the Lakewood View, a local forum. According to a friend of mine, who asked to be quoted anonymously, in the case of the 14-year-old girls, the teacher who used this story at the end of a well-thought out and positive tzniut curriculum has “gotten… many calls from parents over the past few days, gotten yelled at and embarrassed in public.” Neither she nor I condone the yelling or the embarrassment, but it shows that Humanist principles of ethical modes of teaching and ethical conduct towards children are indeed universal. We as atheists and Humanists must continue to spread the message that all children are entitled to a caring education that uplifts them and lets them flourish.
*An anonymous friend heard this story recounted from a relative of the principal of the school, and was not sure on the details.