Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller vs. the Shawl Women
Last week, the words on Mishpacha Magazine’s cover were “Running for Cover: Draped in shapeless layers, a growing group of women claims to have found true modesty. Have they?”
Journalist Rachel Ginsberg interviewed several of these cloak-wearing women, including Esther B. Here’s an excerpt from her interview:
“Esther, a baalas teshuva with degrees from university and a music conservatory, said when she noticed women wearing the shal [cloak/shawl], her first thoughts were, Why is she like this and I’m not?
“I didn’t think too much about the ramifications, about what people would say. I just wanted that level of modesty. Before that I would agonize over what to wear: is it too clingy? Is the fabric too sheer? I had grown up in another world, and I wanted to make sure none of that amorality stuck to me. Today a woman has to think ten times before she gets dressed in modern fashions to go outside. I know when I put on my shal I’m safe. And when I think about how I used to dress before I was religious, I feel like I want to wrap ten shals around me.”…
“Esther says her six-year-old daughter…loves her new clothing, but her teenage daughter is a different story. She’s embarrassed to be seen with her mother in public. ‘She tells me, Ich, Ima, I can’t stand to look at you!’ I feel bad, but I know this is something my soul is telling me to do.’…
“Articulate and well-versed, she has attracted a group of like-minded women who come to her for classes and encouragement; and she and her friends aren’t shy about approaching other religious women on the street—-or the neighbors in their building—-imploring them to improve their standards of dress or to switch their wig for the preferred scarf.
“How do they accept the uninvited lessons? ‘I speak to many women. Some are happy and sincerely thank me. Some say, ‘It’s none of your business.’ I answer, ‘It sure is my business. I have a mitzvah to fight for kavod Shamayim, Hashem’s honor. Ladies! We’re in critical danger, our society is burning! How can you, a bas Yisroel, go out dressed like this?’”
“Some women might be grateful for the spiritual arousal; others, however, feel harassed, especially when they respond in the name of their own mainstream rabbis, whom these women tend to disparage.
“’Who says their rabbis are right?’ questions Esther, not understanding how this position could be highly offensive…Saying ‘I have a rabbi’ is no excuse for not going the extra mile. Eisav said the same thing when he wanted to show his wealth to Yaakov, “Yesh li Rav.” [which can mean “ I have much” or “I have a rabbi.”]
At the end of the article, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller responds:
“Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller…doesn’t think it’s a good idea. She has friends and acquaintances who don shals and radids [long cloaks]—both baalei teshuva who are navigating their own way [CJW: the article’s author estimates that around 80 percent of these women are baalot teshuva, mostly of Sephardic background], and women from Meah Shearim who want to further their already elevated level—and although at the turn of the previous century this mode of dress was prevalent, she says we don’t have to rewrite the rules of our mainstream halachic leadership.
“The given is that women should be modest. Then halachah proceeds to tell us what that means, the parts of the body that should be covered, and that married women must cover their hair. Does it require many layers? No. Does it need to be black? No. A woman has to be refined and halachic, and we have to keep in mind that just like women have to take responsibility for modesty, men have to take responsibility for guarding their eyes.
“Still, what’s wrong with being stringent, taking on a hiddur [stringency] in this area and being more modest than halachah demands?
“’The general rule in choosing a hiddur is not to take on something that others will see,’ Rebbetzin Heller explains. ‘So that means that if a person wants to be less involved in Olam HaZeh [the physical world], maybe not eating candy would be a good hiddur to take on, rather than having a banner on his house saying ‘No Olam HaZeh here.’…
“’These women are charting their own path, but part of human nature is that the way we look gives us the feeling of being on a certain level without necessarily being on that level. Hashem didn’t tell anyone to dress like this. So for some people it’s a way of feeling superior, pious, dedicated, devoted without actually knowing what Hashem really wants from you. People oppose it because they don’t have the backing of the majority of those who are viewed as the spokesmen for serious halachic leadership to determine what is ikar [the main point] and what is tafel [of secondary importance]. And this leads to a distortion where others perceive Judaism in a way that doesn’t represent it fairly or honestly.’
“’It’s true that not all those who wear this clothing are women trying to compensate for feelings of yearning and devotion without a place to put them. There are some very serious women, serious ovdos Hashem, trying to be mehader in every aspect of their lives. They aren’t looking for honor and they don’t want others to look at them as pious. But even with these women, whom I respect enormously, I question whether wearing the sign ‘I am a Tzadeikes’ is a healthy thing.’”
[A NOTE FOR COMMENTERS: PLEASE NOTICE REBBETZIN HELLER'S RESPECTFUL AND AHAVAT-YISRAEL FILLED REBUKE OF THE SHAWL LADIES. NO MATTER HOW STRONGLY SOME OF US DISAGREE WITH THESE WOMEN, THEY ARE STILL JEWS. I WILL BE CAREFULLY EDITING AND DELETING COMMENTS THAT DO NOT CONFORM WITH THIS SAME RESPECTFUL AND AHAVAT-YISRAEL FILLED TONE]
After I read this article, the first person who popped into my mind was my dear friend Hagit bat Leah Luzon z”l, who passed away two years ago at the age of 39.
I didn’t think of Hagit because she dressed anything like these Shal Ladies, but rather because as a Moroccan baalat teshuva she shared the same background as many of them, but yet chose a very different path to express her yearning to serve Hashem.
Her hiddur was, as Rebbetzin Heller recommends, completely hidden.
It was a few weeks before Rosh Hashana around eight years ago when Hagit knocked on my door. As usual, Hagit was carrying a stack of dresses from her clothing gemach.
“Jenny, I have been looking for you and your girls for months! And look what I found…”
She handed me a gorgeous pink flowery skirt as well as three matching elegant turquoise dresses for my three older daughters and announced “for Rosh Hashana!” with her sunshine smile that lit up my heart and our entire neighborhood.
And over that holiday, as I walked around the neighborhood in my pink flowery skirt, something interesting happened.
I ran into my Charedi buddy Sara who looked unusually lovely in her shimmery dark-green suit. When I complimented it she said, “Oh this? It’s from Hagit! She brings me new outfits before every holiday.”
And then I ran into my neighbor Rina who usually wears jeans and tank tops. But that Rosh Hashana, she was dressed up in an elegant lavender blouse. When I complimented her she said, “Oh this? It’s from Hagit! She brings me clothing all the time.“
And in return for dressing my family for the holiday, which would have cost me around $250 if I’d bought the same clothing in stores, Hagit only agreed to take $25.
Her growing family really needed more money (her husband, Eitan, is a “Nachei Tsahal,” a disabled IDF soldier from the Lebanon War who is unable to work) but when I told her she should be charging more money, she was adamant, “No! This isn’t about money! This is chesed!”
It was her passion, her mission in life. To use clothing to help others and to bring people joy.
Hagit left behind five orphans, the oldest of whom is almost bar mitzvah. This struggling family is currently in debt and does not have money to purchase food and new clothing for the upcoming holidays. Please donate generously to the Hagit bat Leah Orphans Fund.
May all of us JewishMOMs learn from Hagit. Instead of wearing a sign that said “I’m a Tsaddeikes”—she was one. With her quiet acts of kindness and smile that lifted up so many downtrodden hearts…she was a role model for so many people…including me.
Here is an interview with Hagit filmed during her ninth month of pregnancy with her fifth child and a few month before she was diagnosed with cancer…