A one-woman truth squad
Two weeks ago, one of those periodic media items painting the Torah Jews in a faintly ridiculous light flashed across the Israeli media for 24-hours before flaming out. Most chareidi Jews never hear of these items, or, if they do, they have learned to ignore them. Not so our fellow writer Mrs. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, who has become something of a one-woman chareidi truth squad.
The story of what she did in this case should serve as a reminder to all of us (or, at least, those of us who are in fact chareidim) that our ability to respond to attacks on our community and to improve the image of our community is not always as slight as we might think. Indeed the list of Mrs. Schmidt’s efforts that I mention in the attached article from Mishpacha Magazine is only partial. In addition to those mentioned, she kept up a full discussion with Kolech, which describes itself as an Orthodox feminist group and which joined in demonstrations against Rabbi Abergil, who allegedly said that husbands should rip red garments off their wives if they insist on wearing them.
As I wrote in Mishpacha:
One woman’s triumph
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 9, 2005
All of Israel’s major papers employ one or more journalists to cover the chareidi beat and unearth statements made by rabbonim sure to offend or amuse the modern secular reader. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s Motzaei Shabbos sermons have long been fertile grist for the newspapers’ mill. And this past year secular journalists also busied themselves pouring over a newly published volume of t’shuvos by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
Maariv writer Shimon Ifergen submitted a new entry in this category two weeks ago when he described a “new” psak din issued by Rabbi Eliyahu Abergil, av beis din of Beersheba, which in Ifergen’s words Israeli women “will probably not like.” As described by Ifergen, Rabbi Abergil forbade women from red garments for reasons of modesty and advised their husbands to tear the garments if they did so.
Ifergen wrote as if he had uncovered a major scandal that should arouse the righteous indignation of Israeli women, and they were quick to rise to the bait. Two days later, Machon Toda’a, an organization for the protection of women was already busy organizing a demonstration of women dressed only in red in front of the Chief Rabbinate offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. The virtually unknown organization saw a good way to garner much-needed publicity.
In a mass E-mail to publicize the demonstrations, Machon Toda’a accused Rabbi Abergil as having sanctioned violence by husbands against wives who wear red clothing and charged that soon women would be barred from wearing red in all public places in Israel. The demonstrations took place last Tuesday, and included a sympathy protest by a number of female Knesset members who wore red clothing to the Knesset. The story was picked up by Reuters and the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and from there it made its way to Jewish newspapers around the world.
Neither the Maariv reporter nor the protesting women, however, had made any effort to read the psak in question before going off in high dudgeon. Rabbi Abergil was not trying to set down rules of dress for all Israeli women. Nor was there any issue of religious coercion involved, as there might have been had the case involved a child custody suit and negative inferences had been drawn about a non-religious mother’s fitness from her choice of attire. Rather the psak was written in response to a religious couple, who had sought rabbinic guidance on the question of red garments. (Nor was the psak in question new, as claimed by Ifergen and the demonstrators: it is nearly a decade old, and was published in a collection of Rabbi Abergil’s t’shuvot over five years ago.)
Ifergen quotes Rabbi Abergil as recommending that women wear only black garments. In fact, Rabbi Abergil writes just the opposite: that there is no problem with any color besides red, even bright ones. The only mention of wearing black is from the Shach to Yore Deah, and refers to black as a color of modesty and submission for men. Ifergen changed the pronouns from masculine to feminine in his quotations. Though Rabbi Abergil discussed the issue of modesty, Ifergen added terms suggesting a level of immorality to the wearing of red garments that appears nowhere in the psak and was bound to be inflammatory. Indeed all the protesting women quoted the words that do not appear in Rabbi Abergil’s psak.
Ifergen’s story also contains a statement allegedly made by Rabbi Abergil about a woman’s natural desire to attract attention, which appears nowhere in the psak, but which aroused considerable ire among feminist groups.
Some of the mistakes are just funny. The crucial Gemara (Berachos 20a) quoted by Rabbi Abergil deals with a case in which Rav Ada tore a karbolta from a women he wrongly identified as a Jewess in the marketplace. One of the explanations offered by the Rishonim is that a karbolta derives its name from the comb of the rooster, a karbolet, which is bright red. The statement from Machon Toda’a somehow garbles this into an accusation that those who wear red “strut around like roosters.”
Others, as Rabbi Abergil notes, learn that the karbolta was a garment worn by idol worshippers, and the case had nothing to do with modesty. Rabbi Abergil specifically forbids husbands from following the example of Rav Ada with respect to red garments.
Usually eruptions of this sort have a news half-life of 24 hours. They come and go without any response from the Torah community, adding subliminally to the cumulative impression of Torah Jews as faintly ridiculous.
Not this time. Mrs. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt heard about the planned demonstrations on the Monday night English-language news. Unlike most Torah Jews, who have long since learned to filter out such news items or convinced themselves that they are helpless, Mrs. Schmidt has become something of a one-woman truth squad.
When she hears or reads such a news item, she starts with the assumption that something has been misunderstood and does not rest until she gets to the bottom of the issue. So when the story of Rabbi Abergil’s psak broke, the first thing she did was to call Rabbi Abergil, whom she did not know. He told her that no one from the press or Machon Hoda’a had ever contacted him, and that he was very disturbed about the way his words were being distorted and misquoted. He faxed Mrs. Schmidt his psak.
Next Mrs. Schmidt contacted the Maariv reporter. He admitted to her that he had not contacted Rabbi Abergil. Worse, he had never even seen Rabbi Abergil’s actual psak, but had only learned of it from an informant. The only thing he could offer in his defense was that Rabbi Abergil’s failure to respond after the story was already published proved that it was accurate.
After that, Mrs. Schmidt contacted the op-ed editor of the Jerusalem Post and offered to write a piece placing the entire hullabaloo in perspective. Her lengthy response was prominently featured in the paper’s Friday magazine.
Even then, Mrs. Schmidt did not rest content. She proceeded to track down every news outlet that had carried the story of Rabbi Abergil’s psak and the subsequent demonstrations to inform them of the inaccuracies and politely suggest that an apology to Rabbi Abergil was in order.
All in all, Mrs. Schmidt provides a remarkable example of how much each of us could do if we only set our minds to it and did not leave the task for others.
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