The Political Modesty of Rabbi Eliezer Melammed

In the Yeshiva Har Bracha Newsletter Rabbi Eliezer Melamed addresses “The Importance of Modesty.” [submitted Fri, 18 Nov 2011 15:30:42 +0200] He reports the following query:

“I am 14 years old and learn in Ulpana [Israeli school for academic Orthodox girls]… Concerning the issue of wearing stockings, Rabbi, I would like to know what the halacha says in connection to my situation, and also, is it advisable to be more stringent than the halacha in order to become stronger religiously?

1. My mother and her family wear stockings (they are ‘Yekkim’).

2. In my Ulpana generally, and in my grade specifically, only a few girls wear stockings. Until now I have worn stockings without a problem, because my good friends also wore stockings.

3. Many teachers in the Ulpana don’t wear stockings, but do wear long skirts, saying that this is accordance with halacha.

4. Recently, one teacher said in class that according to practical halacha, it is permitted to wear a long skirt without stockings. Since then, all my good friends stopped wearing stockings. It is very difficult for me to be the only one, alone and different from everyone else, continuing wearing stockings.

5. Lately, the whole issue of wearing stockings has turned me off, and moreover, I also suffer more than usual from heat in the spring and summer.

6. Can I wear sandals without stockings, but wear a long skirt instead?

7. If so, does the skirt have to reach only to the bottom of my legs (and not cover my feet), or does the skirt have to reach the floor, thereby covering my feet? (I am willing to do this).

8. If, according to halacha, it is permissible to wear a long skirt without stockings – given my situation, from the aspect of honoring one’s parents, and “Do not forsake the Torah of your mother”, am I obligated to wear stockings?

9. If in practice it is permissible, according to halacha, to wear a long skirt without stockings, is there a further desirable reason to wear stockings – because, spiritually, it will add to my piety, training me to be more modest, or leading me to other good traits?

I would be very appreciative, Rabbi, to receive a written answer with sources, so that I can show it to my friends, and help them out in this issue.

According to R. Melammed, there really is a Halakhah concerning women wearing stockings….

The Sages said (Talmud Berachot 24a): “The ‘shok’ (thigh) of a woman is considered ‘erva’ (nudity).” In other words, the thigh is one of the intimate parts of the body, and revealing it [upon the part of the woman] in front of strangers is considered promiscuity. Accordingly, it is forbidden to speak words of ‘kedusha’ (holiness) while facing it.

The Talmud’s semantic context refers to arousing perusal by a male upon the female thigh. The Rosh [supra.] comments that women have to cover hair that is usually covered and this head covering requirement applies to married women. R. Moshe Feinstein, uncited by Rabbi Melammed, extends this license to female flesh that should it be revealed in plain sight, would be sexually provocative. Iggarot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 4:1;5, s.v. aval. To this view, only provocative undress is improper. And a close read of the syntax yields three facts. First, the Talmudic proof texts are taken from post-Torah Biblical passages rendering these rulings Rabbinic and not Torah law; second, Maimonides, Forbidden Intercourse 21:2, regards non-contact inter gender offenses to be a Rabbinic infraction, as well. Therefore, when in doubt with regard to rabbinic opinion, we ought to rule leniently. Third, ‘erva in this context refers only to the restriction of a male liturgical benediction and not specifically a prohibition regarding female behavior.

The reason that R. Melammed places this restriction upon the woman, and not the man, will become apparent, below.

In the opinion of most ‘poskim’ (Jewish law arbiters), the ‘shok’ is the part of the leg from the knee to the ankle.

Canonical Jewish law considers the idiom – and “institution”–“’the’ poseqim,” as unrecognizable. For Maimonides, the jurisdictional right of the local rabbi to rule as he determines as appropriate just as long as the Oral Torah norms are not violated, is unshakable. It is the reasonable reading of the law and not the mystical Masorah of the great rabbi that carries the day in authentic Orthodox Torah conversation. The real rabbi is reasonable and neither ethnic nor “traditional”; there is no Ashkenazi or Sefardic opinion that binds all Israel as oral Torah law, traditions that are not recorded in Talmudic law are negotiable. To issue serious legal decisions, “the” poseqim have to show that the local rabbi misread the statute [to’eh bidvar Mishnah]; second, to be a legitimate poseq, it really does help to know Hebrew. The word “shoq”/thigh refers to the knee and up, and not does not really extend to the ankle. Those poseqim who feel otherwise have to demonstrate that their understanding of “shoq” is consistent with Biblical and Oral Torah Hebrew – which carry greater religious valence than their claim – and is the intended and not imputed sense of the Oral Torah text. Apodictic declarations that re-define Orthodox law are unorthodox of and in the extreme.

R. Melammed continues:

Yet, there is a difference in stringency between the ‘shok’ and the thigh – the thigh must be covered in a way that its shape not be evident – either by a skirt or dress – while the ‘shok’ can be covered by tights or stockings.

This claim not only reflects a dialect and semantic field of Hebrew unattested in the Oral Torah literary canon, it makes a claim that, when presented as binding law and not merely suggested policy, violates Deuteronomy 4:2 and 13:1. By presenting something permitted as forbidden according to legal statute, without referencing the statute, violates the prohibition of misrepresenting Torah. [megalleh panim ba-Torah she-lo ke-halakhah, bSan. 99b] The claim that the female shape must not at all be evident as a matter of law evaded my capacity to find a canonical – as opposed to cultural – reference.

R. Melammed continues:

The covering of the feet depends upon the ’minhag ha’makom’ (custom of the place) – in a place where the custom is to cover the foot, one must cover it, and in a place where it is not customary to cover the feet, there is no need to [sic] [do so]. [It is my custom that when writing and speaking English, I avoid the sin of ending a sentence with a preposition. There is a reason that the idiom is created by compounding pre + position]. Here R. Melammed is correct; local customs are allowed to be stringent, further restricting what by the letter of the law is permitted. But they bind locally and may not be presented as the law of all Israel.

On the other hand, in the opinion of ‘Pri Migadim’ and ‘Mishna Berura’ (75:2), although in general, the part of the body below the knee is called ‘shok’, there are cases, including this law, where the ‘shok’ is considered the thigh, and it alone must be completely covered. But, in regards to the part of the leg below the knee, the halacha depends on the custom of the place: if it is the custom to cover it, it must be covered. If not, it need not be covered. In practice, since the majority of ‘poskim’ are stringent, it is preferable to act in this way. A woman who chooses to be lenient is permitted, for she has reputable sources to rely on.[sic. Better, sources upon which to rely] This is exactly how our rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook ztz”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of “Merkaz HaRav” instructed – that it is proper to cover the ‘shok’, however, one should not castigate a woman who is lenient in this matter, for she has reputable sources to rely on. On a number of occasions, Rabbi Kook expressed remorse that the author of the ‘Mishna Berura’ was lenient on this issue. The same Rabbi Kook’s father, R. Abraham Isaac Kook, as great as he was, had a woman problem. He did not approve of women voting, either. And as noted above, Jewish law is not determined by something called rov poseqim/the majority of decisors; it is, at least in its canonical, literary, Orthodox version, determined by the most convincing read of the religious canon’s record. That R. Kook regretted the Mishnah Berura’s “leniency,” of not here extending restriction beyond the statute, and considering the entire female leg as “shoq,” tells very us little about what Jewish law actually requires but a great deal about the world that Rabbis Kook actually inhabited, and why many modern Orthodox Jews reference his views selectively.

According to the stringent custom, a long skirt cannot replace stockings, for it does not always cover the ‘shok’, and because the readiness to always wear long skirts that reach the ground does not meet the test of time. Additionally, in many places in Ashkenaz, the custom was to also cover the feet, and the stringent authorities simply continued their ‘minhag’, to the point where today in Eretz Yisrael, there are places, communities, and families for whom this is almost obligatory as the ‘minhag ha’makom’.

This claim is nonsense for several reasons:

  • The misread of shoq as lower leg is presented as axiomatic, when it is unattested in canonical Jewish law, is at best an error, and at worst reflective of what my teacher, R. Moshe Tendler, calls “an integrity problem.”
  • The notion that decisions are reached by the consensus of great men’s considered opinions and not by evaluating the language, the logic, and the intent of the canon offends the logic and language of an objective Jewish law that is both wise and understanding. [Deuteronomy 4:6]
  • In northern Europe where the climate was cold, and unlike the Levant where the climate is warm, women wearing stockings was not necessarily a response to the putative sexual depravity of Jewish men, it was a defensive response to the temperature of the air. The decision to not wear stockings is likewise a likely a response to the Levantine climate, and not a frontal rejection of traditional modesty norms.

Were “minhag Ashkenaz” the real issue that concerns R. Melammed, he would also be railing against the coercive, intolerant, and intolerable practice that is “accepted” in Israel to forbid the wearing of the phylacteries on the intermediate festival day, as required by R. Isserles, the leading Ashkenazi authority and the sacred dawn of modernity [OH 31:2, gloss]

R. Melammed continues:

Therefore, the teacher who caused some of the girls to stop wearing stockings did not act properly, for she should have encouraged all of them to follow the majority of the ‘poskim’, or at the very least, to praise and encourage the girls who did.

In our view, the teacher acted correctly and R. Melammed is in error. How R. Melammed “knows” that stockings were worn for modesty and not for climate considerations is not stated. And as noted, the “majority of the ‘poskim’” is as stated [a] simply not a halakhic category and [b] the affirmation that “the poskim” is a halakhic category represents a reform of rabbinic law. For example, I believe that “the majority of poskim,” a.k.a. poseqim, the more correct, Masoretic rendering, who allow clapping on Simchat Torah, are wrong. Until they explain who, or more critically, Who, gave them the right to override rabbinic law [bBetsa 30a] they would do well not to forbid the permitted when they permit the forbidden. I do not care what people do with their Torah informed conscience. But when we tell others what to do, we need to know what we are doing.

R. Melammed continues:

Instead, she emphasized the minority opinion, causing girls who performed the mitzvah in an exemplary way to feel uncomfortable and eventually stop. The teacher apparently also caused grief to the parents of the girls who educated them in this path, and now, with the encouragement of the teacher, they’ve changed their ‘minhag’.

According to Rabbi Melammed, we must follow the commandments in an “exemplary way,” which to his view means being strict and following the views of the great rabbis whose culture benchmark is not the Torah of Sinai [which does not in its halakhic sections record or reflect R. Melammed’s modesty benchmark] but reflects the habits of Helm, the mores of Minsk, and with the exception of forbidding the required donning of the phylacteries on the intermediate festival day, the customs of Crackow. The wearing of the phylacteries on the intermediate festival day is by Tradition a Sinai law that the Zoharic mystics of Israel misunderstood. Instead of loving a Torah that is qualitatively precise, we supersede that Torah with a culture in which men immodestly project their feelings about females, reconstruct the Hebrew language and Jewish law, and impose upon women an uncomfortable code of attire that is inappropriate in the Levantine summer.

R. Melammed continues:

It is advisable for the teacher to change her mind, clarify her statements, and encourage the girls to continue in their positive ‘minhag’. We fundamentally reject the mindset that replaces the divine mandate from the best read of the sacred canon to the undefended intuitions of self-appointed “decisors.” The custom requiring stockings in 105 F heat without a philological defensible reading of the canon is religiously indefensible.

Generally speaking, the responsibility of the Ulpana is to strengthen the status of the girls who fulfill the mitzvoth in an exemplary way, and encourage the rest of the girls to follow in their path, and certainly, not to create a situation where those who do perform the mitzvoth ideally, according to the opinion of the majority of ‘poskim’ and the ‘minhag’ of their families, feel uncomfortable amongst their friends. R. Melammed’s “exemplary way” reflects the folkways of the Haredi as opposed to the modern Orthodox Israeli street but not the Torah of Moses’ Sinai. Minhagim do change, and not only for the good ; I am unable to wear phylacteries on the intermediate festival day in an Ashkenazi synagogue that claims to be Orthodox. The “majority of poseqim” who permit dancing on holy days have zero standing to tell ladies how, in order that they not be aroused, to dress. I am prepared to hear human reason. It would be proper to allow human reason to evaluate the rulings regarding “majority of the poseqim.” We find that their words, when examined against canonical benchmarks, are not only out of touch with the times, i.e. they are not modern, their words, deeds, and policies are inconsistent with Israel’s timeless Torah, which, needs to be said, are not Orthodox, at least in the dictionary sense, either.

In practice, a girl who lives with her parents, and their outlook is to wear stockings, must act strictly in this matter. Beyond this being the opinion of the majority of ‘poskim’, there are two additional reasons: 1) Included in the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is treating them with respect and listening to them – at the very least while still living in their house. True, when parents tell their children to act against the halacha, it is forbidden to listen to them (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 240:15). But when the parents ask their children to act according to the majority of ‘poskim’, one is obligated to listen to them. 2) We have already mentioned that even according to the lenient opinion, in a place where the custom is to cover the ‘shok’ and feet – it is obligatory to do so.

If a mother did not wear stockings and a daughter decided to be strict, is the daughter showing disrespect to the mother? Is she “outdoing” the mother? Also worthy of consideration is the question “who are the majority of poseqim” and whence derives their authority to enact laws based upon their intuition that are presented as the implicit word of God?

R. Melammed continues:

And it can be said that a girl who lives in a family where the daughters are strict in covering their legs with stockings, is considered as one who lives in a place where the custom is to cover, and therefore, she must do so. And although it is appropriate for a girl to continue her ‘minhag’ after she marries as well, nevertheless, if she wishes to be lenient, she is permitted, for she has reputable sources to rely upon. [sic]

R. Melammed’s considering “the custom of the place” to be a family custom is itself in need of reconsideration. It is an insignia of Haredi propaganda and not the custom of the place to require women, without consultation, conversation, or discussion, to wear stockings. And family custom is not recognized by the Oral Torah canon as a binding legal category; customs are determined by locale and community, not family habit or by the “majority of poseqim.” [mPesahim 4:1]

R. Melammed continues:

With the development of the Enlightenment and modernity, traditional Judaism faced a difficult test. The majority of the Jews who pursued the positive sides of the Enlightenment movement abandoned Torah Judaism, and assimilated. In order to prevent this, there were those who erected a towering wall of alienation in opposition to the positive and valuable sides of science and modernity.

Here R. Melammed’s agenda becomes clear. He opposes culture assimilation and wants to preserve Traditional culture. The Torah does not oppose all forms of assimilation; the Torah opposes only those acts that it actually forbids. In order to remain religiously distinct, as a matter of policy elements of Orthodoxy insisted upon remaining culturally and parochially distinct as well. This is an Orthodoxy whose laity is not trained to think in terms of halakhic methodology; this is an Orthodoxy that builds towers to keep Jewry within its boundaries and under rabbinic dictum- and modernity, with its stress on individual autonomy, out of their lives. Critical thinking is dangerous because rabbis like R. Melammed resist review on the part of dissidents – like the critique offered here. While conceding that there is good in the outside world, the uneducated and undereducated Orthodox Jews need to be sheltered from the larger world because the Judaism of blind, unthinking compliance is too simplistic to compete in a world that values critical thinking, personal creativity, and individual dignity.

R. Melammed continues:

This, [the Enlightenment] however, only helped partially, for many of the youth felt that traditional Judaism deprived them of the positive aspects of secular knowledge.

In his poem, Levadi, H.N. Bialik describes the emptying of the Yeshiva study hall in the Enlightenment’s wake; R. Melammed and “the majority of the poseqim” want and will only tolerate a culture Traditional Judaism over which they possess the power to preside, to lead, and to control. New laws are enacted in order to preserve the old time religion of the good old days. Propriety is created by political agendae, and is not subject to review by means of halakhic hermeneutics.

R. Melammed continues:

The method of ‘Torah and derech eretz’ (Torah and work) designed by the great Rabbi’s of Ashkenaz, attempted to acquire the good within secular knowledge, without being dragged into its negative sides. They were stringent concerning matters that strengthened Jewish identity, and precisely because of this, were able to engage in secular topics, while protecting themselves from foreign influences.

The “stringencies” of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy were strategic; one may dabble in foreign culture as long as one remains apart from that culture, its mindset, and competing construction of reality. What the Torah actually requires and by not restricting, actually permits, goes undefined by this rabbinic leadership. What according to God’s Torah are sanctifying commandments are for R. Melammed’s revised vision Orthodox social gestures that express loyalty to the real authority figures, “’the’ poseqim” whose views are not to be reviewed, revised, or defied. After all, these men are the Torah incarnate.

R. Melammed continues:

The method of ‘Torah and derech eretz’ (Torah and work) designed by the great Rabbi’s of Ashkenaz, attempted to acquire the good within secular knowledge, without being dragged into its negative sides. They were stringent concerning matters that strengthened Jewish identity, and precisely because of this, were able to engage in secular topics, while protecting themselves from foreign influences. Incidentally, my great grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Yehudah Weil, may God avenge his blood, was educated and taught in this way. The more successful we are in guarding characteristics which express complete loyalty to halacha, the more room there is to freely choose professions and diverse work places. The compromise on being strict about one’s attire is liable,

After appealing to the implicitly validating “holiness” of his martyred great-grandfather, R. Melammed’s choice of words reveals the real religion that he, the master, projects and prescribes as Torah: “guarding characteristics,” “complete loyalty to halacha,” and the “compromise on being strict about one’s attire is liable… to cause the danger of distancing oneself from traditional Judaism.” What is here presented is a conservative version of Reconstructionism; God is missing, the Torah as a sanctifying public law goes unmentioned, and the audience is asked to surrender blindly and uncritically to arbitrary human authority. There is to this version of Orthodoxy a way a Jew “ought” to look, faith is to be “complete” – there is no room for personal dignity or religious initiative – and “traditional Judaism” refers not to the Torah of Sinai but instead to the culture of the Oedipal sacred fathers.

R. Melammed continues:

On the other hand, a reaction of excessive isolation, preventing religious Jews from expressing their full capabilities.

Unfortunate.

This comment reflects R. Melammed’s outreach to his accessible client audience. Religious Jews have basic human needs which are legitimate. What is seen as excessive is not stated. Here, R. Melammed is inventing a Haredi Judaism for modern Orthodox Jews. But R. Melammed fails to provide a system, a hermeneutic or method for negotiating, navigating, and synthesizing the tension between Torah and secular constructions of reality.

In addressing what R. Melammed regards as “the purpose of modesty, he claims,

Many people think, superficially, that the goal of dressing modestly is to prevent men from having passing thoughts; however, the matter is more complex and profound. For to prevent all passing thoughts is impossible, as the Sages have already stated (Talmud Ketubot 13b): “There is no guardian for incest”. In other words, no one is guaranteed of complete protection in this area. If the goal was to prevent passing thoughts, much stricter rules would have had to been set – prohibiting wearing nicely-cut clothes or clothing with special color combinations, or decreeing that it is forbidden for women who are considered especially pretty to leave their houses, and in fact, to obligate all women to dress like the Taliban.

R. Melammed presents himself as the oracle who by proclamation defines the religious rules regarding sexuality. The ideas are “complex and profound” – they cannot be understood by the simple Jew and need those great rabbis – like R. Melammed – who are able and self-authorized to see the salvation, the way, and the life of their Torah. In point of fact, the “Halakhah” only forbids what it forbids; what R. Melammed offers Israel is nothing less than Taliban “lite,” because his advocacy of “’The’ Poseqim” and their social agenda is also not found in the Oral Torah canon. Those specific acts of legislation that appear in the canon are indeed Jewishly inviolate; the fact is that Judaism for Torah is not about what some Jews happen to do but what all Jews ought to do. And the excessive concern on the part of men for the sexual modesty of women seems to me to be rather immodest, both regarding the excessive – i.e. not recorded in the Oral Law – demands made by men regarding women, and the conversation that men create reveals a deep concern for male depravity.

R. Melammed continues:

But we have not found in halacha any requirement for a woman to make herself look ugly. On the contrary, we have found in the Tanach (Bible) and Chazal, praises for good-looking women.

While it is true that “we have not found in halacha any requirement for a woman to make herself look ugly,” we also fail to find a requirement that women wear stockings or that her legs must be covered to the ankles. “The Poseqim” are not authorized to either select themselves and arrogate to themselves the authority to revise Halakhah and to ask women – or men – to wear their religion on their bodies in a fashion that is not required by canonical Jewish Law. Local rabbis alone are authorized – by dint of their rabbinic office – to rule for their own community.

R. Melammed continues:

Rather, the main requirement of modest dress is intended to give expression to the significance of the soul and spirit, and therefore, outer beauty must appear with restraint and concealment. For if not, due to man’s nature, the outer beauty will become the most important thing.

This insight is borrowed from – but not attributed to – H.N. Bialik’s Hebrew essay Kissuy ve-Gilluy be-Lashon [Revealment and Concealment in Language]. This flowery theory provides an aesthetic dress for the imposition of “modesty” rules which are gestured statements of “complete loyalty to halacha,” which is embodied in the social agenda of control.

R. Melammed continues:

This purpose also obligates men; however, since women are considered better-looking, the rules of modesty are a slightly more stringent for them. And thus, the proper distance between men and women is created, with modesty distancing man from the sin of illicit sexual relations.

How Halakhah determines whether women are better looking than men is unstated. Since most humans are heterosexually inclined, women would generally find men better-looking than other women. Furthermore, the phrase “since women are considered better-looking” is both curious and enlightening. If men are doing the considering, and if rabbis are authorized to consider the good-lookingness of the other gender, one wonders how modest are these men. I recall that when teaching at B’ruriah, a girls Orthodox High School in Elizabeth, N.J., a student graced her locker with a picture of a Chippendale hunk model. I asked if a male student at the Mesivta school for boys would have such a picture pinup on his locker, would the religious faculty respond with equanimity? R. Melammed subtly but unmistakably reveals his male gender bias even as he tries mightily to hide that bias from the attentive reader. The claim that women are better-looking than are men reflects the male perspective of R. Melammed and not the Godly perspective of the Torah’s non-gendered Author; “the rules of modesty are slightly more stringent for them” [i.e., the women, as R. Melammed’s diction reveals that he regards the good-looking women as “other”] because men are constantly conditioned to view women not as half of Homo Sapiens but as blind bundles of sexual energy just waiting to explode. The laws that are stringent are the mores of men and not the Halakhah or the will of God, which according to Torah law only forbids libidinal sexual contact, with libidinal non-contact gestures and clandestine unions being forbidden by rabbinic decree. Only when the canonical record records restrictions are the restrictions “Judaism.” Restrictions borne of convention, culture and conditioning reflect an alternative “ism,” which is a proclivity that may properly be called “sexism.”

R. Melammed continues:

In summary, the most important foundation in wearing modest clothing is the statement of principle that we are loyal to traditional Judaism which fixes a respectable separation between men and single women, thereby establishing the appropriate relation between the soul and the body.

The statement made is a call for submissive sociology and a communal loyalty that is worn for show on one’s person. R. Melammed’s Traditional Judaism’s “respectable separation between men and single women” begs and begets two questions: 1) who defines what is respectable, Jewish Oral Torah law or the “Poseqim,” and 2) based on the Torah that God gave to all Israel, how do these rabbis know that these stringencies are normative or even authentic, given that they are presented as obligations when they are not recorded in the canon?

R. Melammed continues:

This is not merely an educational line of reasoning, but it is a mitzvah from the Torah, as it is written: “Do not follow [any] of their customs” (Vayikra 18:3). The meaning of this mitzvah is not to copy the non-Jews’ immodest clothing and customs connected to superstitions.

The Torah indeed says that Israel is not to follow the Huqqim of the nations. R. Melammed suggests/prescribes/commands that this regulation refers to customs of the Gentile and not only to the folkways of their religion. Prof. Ivan Marcus [Yale] and Prof. Moshe Rosman [Bar Ilan], both observant Jews, have shown how much a part of their respective Medieval Ashkenazic and early modern Polish world medieval rabbinic Jews really were. But by referring to “the Poseqim” and not norms, by speaking apodictically and not with reason, and by presenting his insights as if they were vetted by the Bet Din ha-Gadol of all Israel, R. Melammed reflect a daas Torah/Roman Catholic view of authority. Alternatively, R. David Halivni taught that the Judaism of the Oral Law has a predilection for a justified law. Beware of those who rant about assimilation as they often may be seen when they gaze into their mirrors.

R. Melammed continues:

There are some girls who, on the one hand wish to be precise about the details of halacha, but on the other hand, don’t want to appear [to be] too religious. The best thing is for them to want to express their Jewish identity through their clothes, and as a result, strengthen themselves in Torah and ‘yirat Shamayim’ (fear of Heaven), and not to be embarrassed at all by those who make fun of them. In this way, they will merit great reward in both this world, and the World to Come, and thus, greatly improve their chances of finding a good match and establishing a splendid family.

Here R. Melammed again reveals, albeit without intention, his real religion. For R. Melammed, we observe Judaism precisely by obeying contemporary great rabbis exactingly and without question. According to Oral Torah Orthodoxy, the “precise” Halakhah is not located in the intuited charisma of “the Poseqim”; it is found in the Talmud of Rabina and Rav Ashi. Later additions are customs that come and go. Being “too religious” really means “too parochial.” Once the Torah and Rabbinic canonical obligations are discharged, one is religiously complete. We recall however that for R. Melammed, Judaism is, and its newly minted parochial legislation, just like Christianity, according to which being counter-culturally “other” must be defined by a paid, ruling elite.

The Melammed dress code is presented not as a policy driven directive, but as Oral Torah law – which, since neither nor “the poseqim” are a Bet Din ha-Gadol – is not within his pay grade to make. Wearing “more” modest clothing would make the Taliban chador adorable. pBerachot 2:9 relates that when one does an act from which one is exempt, wrongly assuming there is religious – as opposed to social policy – valence to the practice, that person is to be designated a hedyot/commoner/idiot. By failing to ask R. Melammed how he knows what he claims, by not demanding a legal hermeneutic instead of being asked to dutifully comply with what “the Poseqim” command, one behaves like a Jewishly uninformed idiot.

Not to be seen as focusing upon women, R. Melammed is also concerned with The Appearance of a Meticulously Observant Jew[Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Yeshiva Har Bracha Newsletter, last updated on 2008-Nov-14] In this essay, he defends what he [mis]takes a Jewish religious obligation to wear the tassels of the talleit outside of the trousers. Note well R. Melammed’s enlightening syntax; the “Meticulously Observant Jew” is a male and not the modestly/deferentially/submissively attired female.

He writes:

Some time ago, I wrote about complaints voiced by IDF soldiers against their officers who ordered them to tuck their tzitzis (fringes) into their pants. Such an order runs counter to the Torah which rules that the tzitzis should be ever viewable because they remind us at all times of our Torah obligations. It is thus written, “That you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray” (Numbers 15:39).

Maimonides, at Tsitsit, 3, somehow fails to record this religious “requirement.” The Torah law requires that the outer garment [kesut] worn during the day requires the tassels and not that the tassels be worn outside of the trousers. R. Melammed, on the authority of his right, authority, and intuition, assigns a halakhic normative valence to the plain sense of Scripture. When Rabbi Tarfon laid on the ground when saying the evening Shema, fulfilling “when you lay down [in bed at night] and when you rise up [from the bed at morning],” he was castigated for deviating from the Oral Torah mandate that the tassel obligation applies only during the day. mBerachot 1:3. It seems to me that R. Tarfon expressed misplaced zeal and R. Melammed is suggesting social engineering whereby Jewish men and women follow latter day rabbinic orders uncritically, ignoring the hard fact that Judaism has rules about rules as well as rules regarding the evaluation of those who presume to make and issue new rules.

R. Melammed continues:

True, Kabbalistic works state, in the name of the Holy Ari,[R. Isaac Lura. That rabbis are called “holy” seems to indicate that [a] they are mystics [b] who as sacred and saintly people, are authorized to articulate normative remarks without rational justification.] that the tallit (small four-cornered garment) should be worn as an undergarment, but the Magen Avraham (8:13) explains that this ruling applies specifically to the garment; the tassels, however, must be visible.

When confronted by what he takes to be a venerable opposing voice, he cites Magen

Avraham, who maintains that the tassels must be worn outside the trousers. By failing to reference a canonical text that justifies his selective reading, by not explaining why Magen is correct in his reading of R. Luria, and by offering a literal reading similar to that of the Karites and the Mishnaically castigated R. Tarfon, one must hold the bona fides and integrity of R. Melammed in question. Also note that for R. Melammed, the law is the law because Magen Avraham said so. In “official religion” Orthodox Jewish law, only God and the Bet Din ha-Gadol can get away with the “I said so” defense of a ruling. R. Melammed does not explain why Rabbi X is wrong and Rabbi Y is right based on legal – rather than social policy – discourse or legal consideration. And presenting parochial social policy as if it is God’s Law/will misrepresents Torah.

R. Melammed continues:

And he adds that it is very unlikely that one who keeps his tzitzis covered has actually fulfilled the commandment.

All that Magen Avraham – and R. Melammed who references him – accomplish is to reveal to their readers that they possess the authority to create Jewish laws through Scripture exegesis unvetted by a Sanhedrin while denying their audience the right to read, think, or deviate from their directive. If the talleit is the outer garment, then the tucked in trouser tassels may be considered to be permitted. If R. Melammed had argued that Ashkenazi single men must wear the talleit – as per Mishna Berura 17:10 – which demonstrates that street culture popular Eastern European usage is astoundingly incorrect – he could be making a rational and credible claim. What emerges from our narrative of R. Melammed’s narrative is that for him, Jewish sancta are presented to an obedient and docile laity as if they were divine commands but are in fact to be used rabbinic leaders who see themselves as social engineers and instruments of social control. The sanctifying commands of Torah are exploited to be markers of communal identity and gestured confessions of personal loyalty to the man who is self-authorized to speak in God’s voice.

R. Melammed continues:

I was asked: It is well known that the Sephardic custom is to wear the tzitzis under one’s clothing (as R’ Ovadia Yosef rules in Yachveh Daat 2:1). Why, then, did I not state that my ruling applies to Ashkenazi Jews alone?

Answer: First of all, it should be pointed out that this is the ruling of R’ Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 8:11): “Basically, the mitzvah of wearing a small tallit involves wearing it over one’s garments, so that one will see it continually and remember the mitzvot (commandments). “Furthermore, our mentor, R’ Tzvi Yehudah HaCohen Kook, head of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshivah, would encourage his students to wear their tzitzis outside of their clothing, and he made no distinction between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews.

However, I was told by R’ David Chai HaCohen, one of R’ Tzvi Yehudah’s leading students, that he once asked R’ Tzvi Yehudah if his ruling to wear tzitzis outside of one’s garments applied to him as well, for his family’s custom (R’ David Chai HaCohen’s uncle was an important Torah scholar and a faithful follower of the Ben Ish Chai) was to wear tzitzis under their garments. R’ HaCohen told me that it was clear to him that he would abide by whatever ruling R’ Tzvi Yehudah gave. R’ Tzvi Yehudah told him that he did not have to wear his tzitzis outside of his clothing. Based upon this ruling, R’ David Chai HaCohen instructs his Sephardic students to wear their tzitzis under their clothing.

However, in my own humble opinion, it appears to be proper, today, even according to Sephardic custom, to wear one’s tzitzis outside of one’s clothing. This is because, in previous generations, North African and Eastern Jewry were accustomed to wearing a kind of large shawl which did not allow them to cover their tallit and at the same time display their tzitzis. They had to choose between wearing their entire tallit on top of their clothing, revealing everything (in accordance with Shulchan Aruch) or to conceal everything (in accordance with the Holy Ari), and they adopted the latter path.
Today, though, we all wear shirts and pants, and there is no problem concealing the tallit while at the same time revealing the tzitzis, fulfilling the commandment according to all opinions. And this would actually appear to be the opinion of the Holy Ari, for he writes that a person must look at his tzitzis frequently during the course of the day (Shaar HaKavanot 7:3). My own humble opinion is that because over the generations people became accustomed to concealing both tallit and tzitzis, many continue this practice even today. However, in truth, it is proper to wear the tzitzis outside of one’s clothing.

Furthermore, practically speaking, there is great value in wearing the tzitzis outside of one’s clothing, for by doing this a person expresses his allegiance to the Torah and its commandments, and he is reminded to perform the commandments. This is in keeping with the plain meaning of the verse, “That you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.”

In a secular environment, at work or in the army, it is very important for an observant Jew to wear something which shows that he is meticulous about fulfilling the commandments and that he is not ashamed to perform them in the presence of people who are liable to make fun of him. By doing this, it becomes easier for him to endure trials.
A person who dresses in a Haredi (ultra-orthodox) fashion, with a black hat and suit, is less in need of this distinction, for all see by his clothing that he is Haredi. In the army, however, this changes; the tzitzis become important because everybody wears the same uniform. In the workplace, as well, it is very important for a Jew to make himself distinct through his tzitzis, the unique garment which the Torah commands us to wear.

Here, R. Melammed concedes his agenda, that religious Jews be counter-culturally “other” and dress distinctively. Recall that he argues that since our ancestors wore stockings, so should Orthodox women today do so. Being the same as other Jews, is insufficient because other Jews are Jewishly insufficient. According to Oral Torah Jewish law, Jewry must be as different from others as Jewish law demands. Being excessively other is not wise. The Hebrew root for “other,” nkr, in Akkadian also means “hated.” See Psalms 137:4 for a Hebrew echo of this Akkadian idiom. The Black Hat has become an emblem of piety which in this world means being different. Who decides how differences are to be expressed? Is failure to comply with the Talmudically unattested rule, “good Jews wear black hats on top of black kippot in order to be as distinct, different, counterculturally ‘other,’ and more holy than everyone else,” because God requires this behavior or because Orthodox Jews have become social pawns in a culture war the aim of which is to separate Jew from Jew and Gentile from Gentile? Tradition may be jettisoned, as is here done by rejecting the practice of both Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jewry regarding wearing tassels outside the trousers but we must encourage our women to wear stockings in the Levantine summer because our grandmothers did so in Eastern Europe.

R. Melammed’s focused outreach is to modern Orthodox Jews who are sincere, serious, and searching, pious in outlook and intellectually unsophisticated; he offers a modified Haredi religion that allows his client community sufficient freedom to earn a living, but whose essential projected religion portrays the great rabbi as Torah in the flesh but not in the Book. Piety is expressed by counter cultural elitism. The lay person is never provided with a literary or legal hermeneutic method because, for this version of Orthodoxy, Torah truth is located in the person of the charismatic and not in the words of the Oral Torah canon.

My problem with R. Melammed’s approach is that he sets Jew against Jew. Religious Jews have to dress differently than both Gentiles and non-religious Jews. Customs he likes, i.e., women stockings, he retains, while customs that down play parochialness, i.e, the tassels/tsitsit fringes tucked in trousers, he criticizes. To our view, we dress as differently as the Oral Torah requires of us, and then dress neatly and in a socially appropriate and fitting fashion.

For R. Melammed, the Oral Torah canon provides the legitimating rhetorical trove, which is cited selectively, subjectively, and strategically by the charismatic rabbi, giving the masses an intentionally misleading impression that the projected law is legally and logically derived. The masses are not permitted study the law seriously, methodologically or critically as a logical hierarchy of identifiable norms; they may, however, review the law reverentially, but not critically, because the law in life is the person of the mediating infallible rabbi.

In the authentic Dual [Written and Oral] Torah Orthodoxy,

  • God appears in the sacred text
  • The sacred person is measured by the sacred text
  • The sacred text is explained by reason
  • and persuasion, not intimidation, coercion, and misrepresentation
  • The Torah works only with a literate and fearless Jewry.

[Editor’s note: Given the complex subject involved, much of R. Melammed’s two articles were included here but not entirely. For full context please visit the links provided.]

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.