This Is Not How You Teach Modesty

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.

Source: Frumsatire.net

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.

About chanam

Chana is a fourth year mathematics major at the University of Chicago. She is a vegetarian Jewish atheist feminist, and is thus usually angry about something or other. She also blogs at www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com

  • Joseph Auclair

    “Scaring children into good behavior” – and adults, for that matter – is what morality is for.

    Or at least bullshitting them into it.

    I guess that’s the humanist way.

    But religion is useful, too.

    Provided you get to control both and point them that way.

    Haven’t you read Nietzsche?

    Or at least Mandeville?

    • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana

      That’s one way to teach morality, but it seems like a pretty primitive method to me. I would much rather inculcate a sense of right and wrong that works on its own.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Scoggin/100000044792747 Aaron Scoggin

      Oh, I don’t know about that.

      It’s not that I don’t kill people because I have a fear of going to jail for it. I don’t kill people because it’s against my morals.

      Etc, etc. 

      By and large, religion is VERY useful. It’s just that by and large, people don’t know that they’re being manipulated.

  • Ari Hitron

    As a former resident, I am quite confident that this Lakewood is in New Jersey, not New York.

    • 00001000_bit

      I have family in both Lakewood, NY and Lakewood, NJ. You are correct, that this is Lakewood, NJ.

      When I first read the story, I was skeptical that this could occur in
      Lakewood, NY as I didn’t think there was a very large Jewish population
      there, much less a strict orthodox one. Looking up the school definitely confirms it in NJ.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      You are correct! Fixed :)

    • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana

      That was my mistake! Apologies, and thanks to Hemant for fixing.

  • Sarah

    Is it terrible that that sign makes me want to roller-blade through their neighbourhood in a bikini?

    • sunburned

      Not at all.  I fully support the right of women to roller-blade in bikinis whenever and where ever  the feeling strikes them.

      Although I’m still on the fence about men roller-blading in bikinis after sundown, something about that seems immodest.

      • CelticWhisper

        But only on Thursdays.  I never could get the hang of Thursdays.

    • Irreverend Bastard

       The sign makes me want to roller-blade through their neighbourhood in a bikini.

      And I’m a man. I’m also fairly old and overweight.

      • Patterrssonn

        Just don’t trip.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705188 Richard Hughes

      Not at all. Actually rollerblading would be rude, however.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_P4QFA6I7PKYUHIQNOCP6LFVXVY Woody Tanaka

        How would it be rude?  The people who put up the signs are rude to expect other people to appease the sign-poster’s superstitions.  There’s nothing rude in standing up for you rights against people who would take them from you.

        • http://www.queereka.com/ Yessenia

           God forbid we be rude! 

          There’s no end to the amount of rudeness these bastards are allowed to heap onto little girls, though. 

    • GeraardSpergen

      These people are Jewish; highly trained in the art of making you feel guilty.

      • DelrayCurmudgeon

        Although I’m almost 68, and I live in Florida,  I’d like to dig out one of my very old Speedos, and boogie down the street at sunset, while they’re heading to Temple…..

        • Lily

          As a young woman, I’ll cheerfully boogie down there with you. We’ll offend everyone!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Scoggin/100000044792747 Aaron Scoggin

      They’re Jewish, so I don’t think they can afford to see that :P

  • TheAnalogKid

    Religion sucks meth whore ass.

    • CelticWhisper

       Don’t hold back now, tell us how you REALLY feel!  :)

      • TheAnalogKid

        These are the same fuckers that harass little girls for not dressing “modestly”.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    The description of Bait Yaakov as far right may not be accurate. Depending on the specific Bait Yaakov they can range from right to far right. But this is a pretty minor nitpick.

    The story in question also reflects something very common in the Orthodox community: uncritical acceptance and passing on of what amount to urban legends that support pre-existing world views. In this case the story is heard from an unamed reliale source who heard it from their father or uncle. A lot of stories function as essentially urban legends but don’t spread much beyond the Orthodox community. But you see it in the other direction with urban legends from outside the community entering into the community and being changed to have a Jewish element (I’ve seen obvious cases before where it was clear that is what happened although I don’t unfortunately have any examples off hand). There also was an interesting bit in the Forward a while ago about Jewish urban legends: http://forward.com/articles/2478/eonce-there-was-a-student-at-yeshiva-univsersity/

    • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana

      You’re right about the Bait Yaakov, there is a range. I should have specified more, but it seemed clear that this particular school was on the right side of the range.

      It’s true that this is likely an urban legend, and the use of urban legends as religiously valid (to some extent) sources of teaching is really fascinating. Whatever passes on the message, I suppose.

  • The Other Weirdo

    I call shenanigans.  Admittedly I’m not particularly well-versed in the minutia of Jewish lore, but since when do we Jews believe in an afterlife with a hell in it, or an afterlife at all? Isn’t that a Christian and Muslim conceit? I also find it telling that most of it is in English with just enough Hebrew thrown in that you can’t tell what’s really being said. Sure there’s a translation available, but why muddy the waters? Just read the translated version, and it’s worthless, since it doesn’t translate the Hebrew, it merely transliterates it into English. Might as have transliterated it into Klingon. Or better yet, Goa’uld.

    To wit:
    This story was related to the bullshit bullshit by a reliable person as transpired with this person’s father or uncle.

    Sounds like any number of urban legend emails that float around, with just enough missing detail. Father or uncle? Seriously? How can that information be in doubt?

    It also sounds remarkably like some bullshit I once read on Radio Islam a few years back. Funny that there is mention of money which comes out of nowhere. And they fell to the ground weak and stayed there for several weeks? The fuck?

    Or, we could go with the alternative explanation and say that the men came up with this story as an excuse to their respective wives why they didn’t have the money anymore and where they hell they’ve been for the past few weeks. They didn’t want to admit that they went carousing, overdid it and spent all their money, being drunk and hung-over and lying in a ditch for several weeks.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      Orthodox Jews don’t generally believe in a permanent hell, but many believe that there is an afterlife where there is punishment and reward. In many traditional interpretations, no punishment lasts for more than a year. That’s part of why the Kaddish, the traditional mourners prayer is said for 11 months- that helps alleviate the suffering but one doesn’t pray for the whole year since one doesn’t want to imply that the person one is praying for was so bad that they would be punished for the full year. 

      As for the righting style- this sort of writing style is pretty standard in a lot of the Prthodox Jewish community, although in some cases you’ll see the same sort of thing but with the Hebrew and Yiddish translated rather than transliterated. If you want, I can translate it for you. 

      But yes, this is essentially an Orthodox urban legend, and you are correct to recognize the standard aspects of an urban legend. 

      • The Other Weirdo

         Yes, if you wouldn’t mind. I would love to know what this thing actually says. Thanks in advance.

        • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

               “A man was traveling in a horse and wagon together with a group of other people. As they were traveling through a field, they suddenly heard a terrible, heartrending scream, “Jews, Jews, please come and have mercy… Help me!!” The men followed the screams to a small house standing in the field. they hurriedly jumped off their wagon, thinking that some robbers must have befallen that house, and they wanted to help. However, when they entered the little house, a most frightening scene met their eyes. They saw an old woman, with a younger lady laying on the bench. On the ground burned a huge fire, and on the fire stood a large pot filled with clothing. The clothing, which were boiling up in the pot, emitted clouds of smoke rising up to the ceiling. The old woman silently reached into the pot, took out a boiling article of clothing, and put it onto the young woman, instantly burning her body. The young woman was screaming terribly in pain, but the older woman continued putting more and more burning clothing onto her. The men realized that what they were witnessing was not from this world, but rather these were the souls from the next world receiving their punishment. They were so shaken up and frightened, that they dropped the money they had with them on the ground and fled one by one outside. When the old woman saw that they were leaving, she ran out after them and once again began screaming, “Jews, Jews, have mercy… Help us!!” However, the men continued fleeing in great fear, forgetting about their horse and wagon, and ran all the way back to their hometown, where they fell to the ground and lay there weak and faint for a few weeks. Afterwards, they remembered that there had never been a house standing in that field.
          It seems like what they saw was a mother and her daughter, and the mother had not raised her daughter to be modest. This was the punishment they were given, that the herself had to burn her daughter… This is the burn of women who burn souls of their children in this world when they have mercy on them and don’t lead them in the way of modesty… in the next world, they will turn into cruel things and they will have to punish their children with their own hands. 

          He concludes by saying: It is a great good deed to read, explain, and tell this true story to women in our time, so that they should recognize and know that there is a Creator of the World who is not lenient on this obligation of modesty – not one tiny bit! A kosher woman who conducts herself with modesty and brings up daughters and sons with modesty, she brings holiness into her entire home! This holiness extends onto all the foods and onto her husband.”

          Ick. 

  • DelrayCurmudgeon

    Move back to the ghetto in Krackow…………….

  • DelrayCurmudgeon

    The difference between Muslim extremist and Jewish extremists…………… NONE at ALL!!!!!

  • Maverick

    As someone who was very highly educated in Jewish Law, and who lived within half a mile of that sign for almost a year: I don’t recall ever hearing anyone link tzniut to that specific verse. I had always been told tzniut was about keeping naughty urges out of men. Could you tell me the source of linking tzniut to that verse.
    From looking at that verse, it doesn’t strike me as promoting self-validation. It seems to be more about admonishing pride, arrogance, etc. The first part is about ethics, but that has nothing to do with tzniut.

    Also, I’m damn sure that teaching tzniut does nothing to build an ethical core. For example, the people in the neighborhood where that sign is would riot at the drop of a hat. Woman arrested for severe child abuse? Riot. City wants keep a parking lot in Jerusalem open on the Shabbat (long story short, people had been injured or died because the streets were congested with parked cars)? Riot. One of the top rabbi’s cowed the other by threatening to cause riots if he didn’t obey.

    • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana

      Sure. In Sukkah 49b, R. Eleazar discussed the implications of Micah as relating to dress (covering of the thigh, in particular). 
      http://halakhah.com/rst/moed/16b%20-%20Succah%20-%2029b-56b.pdf. Of course, sociologically, the roots of the practice have been shifted to focus on men’s urges and sexuality rather than the more conceptual, in some ways more Biblical approach I’m calling for here.

      I think the bible verse and the Talmud absolutely intended for tzniut to be a part of ethics; being modest and humble is considered part of proper and ethical living. Just as I said above, the Biblical interpretation differs from the modern conception, and the modern conception in many cases (and I think should in more) validate the positive self-validation aspect I describe.

      As for whether empirically teaching tzniut builds an ethical core, I really cannot say. I know it works for some people, but it certainly does not stop some atrocious, depraved behavior like that which you describe and what I’ve written about before (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/06/they-threw-feces-at-eight-year-olds-for-not-dressing-modestly-enough/)

  • DG

    Fear based education is unethical?  Really?  Always?  In every case?  Trying to impress upon children the dire consequences of something is always and in every case unethical?  Such as telling them if they don’t go green, polar bears will all die and life as we know it will come to a horrible end?  That’s unethical?   

    • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana

      In my opinion, fear-*based* education is unethical, insofar as education based *primarily* on fear appeals to irrationality, is psychologically harmful to children and ignores many better ways of teaching. I don’t think the teaching of harmful consequences needs to be terrorizing, and I don’t think any fear at all is unethical. Hence the call for “reasonable restrictions.”

    • Edmond

      Saying it like THAT would be unethical, primarily because it ISN’T TRUE.  It’s extremist fear-mongering.  INSTEAD, if you want kids to “go green”, you would say something like “polar bear populations are declining rapidly, possibly irretrevably, and climate change will have a lasting and significant impact on life as we know it.”  You might want to throw in a few thousand pages of data with that.

      Teaching can be done through REASON, rather than through fear.  Teach kids the GOOD REASONS for going green, don’t teach them to be afraid that “life as we know it will come to a horrible end”.  That’s hyperbole, not reason.  When dire consequences exist, it’s sufficient to introduce a child to what those consequences are, and teach them the reasons for avoiding them.  They may feel the need to test their new boundaries a few times, but that will teach as well.

      The only purpose to throw in additional scary-sounding (but unfounded) consequences is if reason has failed.  As in the example here.

  • Corey

    Heads up: A new stude found: University students with stronger beliefs in in God’s punitive and angry nature tended to be the least likely to cheat on an academic task, whereas stronger beliefs in God’s comforting and forgiving nature significantly predicted higher levels of cheating  [Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0039048

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    How can they get away with that sign?  It should be pulled down and replaced with whatever dress code NYC has.  It isn’t “their neighborhood.”


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