It’s not like I don’t feel like I’m a Jew. I feel like I don’t have a choice about being a Jew. Your cultural heritage isn’t like a suitcase you can lose at the airport. I have no choice about it. It is who I am. I can’t choose that. It’s a fact of me. But even when I was 14 or 15, it didn’t make that much sense to me that there was this Big Daddy who created the world and would act so crazy in the Old Testament. That we made up these stories to make ourselves feel good and explain the world seems like a much more reasonable explanation. I’ve tried to believe in God but I simply don’t.
He was a student in the yeshiva where I taught for a year. For months, he circled around me before he asked whether we could talk. We did, and he complained about the restrictiveness of his community. Finally, in despair, he revealed that a rabbi in his synagogue was sexually abusing him.
I expressed sympathy—or, more precisely, I channeled my anger into words of understanding. I asked whether he told anyone else. He shook his head: “He made me promise not to tell anybody.”
Were my words coming out of his mouth? I felt as if my lips were moving in sync with his. If they were, I don’t know whether he noticed.
He didn’t ask me not to tell. At least, I don’t recall that he did. But there was no way that I would, even if I could. Perhaps he understood that; I understood his fear because it was my fear.
At that time, I had not told anyone about the sexual abuse I’d experienced at the hands of a priest. Even if I had the language for it—which no kid of my age in that place and time had—I couldn’t have described it for anyone.
For the same reasons, Moishe didn’t talk to anyone besides me. Even if I’d had the words, it would have been my word against the priest’s. Moishe had the words in spite of his community’s and school’s effort to keep him from knowing them. Still, it would have been his word against the rabbi of his synagogue—and the rabbis who ran the school and surely would have sided with Moishe’s abuser. And my word, as an outsider, would have no more weight—actually, probably less than—Moishe’s.
That, of course, is another reason why he told me. He knew I wouldn’t tell, because I really couldn’t. Because I was afraid, as he was.
Here in the United States, we have the same problems you find everywhere: drug abuse, domestic violence, you name it. One of our problems, though, is that we sweep it under the rug.
Such an admission would be unusually forthright, if not startlingly frank, in almost any place or time. But I recall it so clearly, more than two decades after I heard it, because of the person who uttered it.
He had hired me a week earlier—to work with children from some of the families he was talking about. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize that those problems, and others, had much to do with the very existence of that school.
The boys in that Orthodox yeshiva had been kicked out of other Orthodox yeshivas, almost invariably because of their behavior. I’d heeded the warnings of the man who hired me—the school’s head rabbi, whom I’ll call Halphen—about the “games” the boys might play. They played them, and I wasn’t surprised. (After all, I was a teenaged boy once!) I soon realized, however, that most of the boys would do no better in that school, in part because the main tool the school had for helping the boys was Halakhic law. More important, though, the boys—at least one, anyway—had problems even more serious than the ones Rabbi Halphen mentioned, and “the community,” as he liked to call it, was a cause.
Being a non-Jewish teacher (and a Catholic school alumnus) in an Orthodox yeshiva was, to say the least, an interesting experience. So was being a transgender woman—who was still living as a man—in an all-male environment. Of course, the boys didn’t know about my identity, though some thought I was gay. In any event, I was an outsider.
That meant the boys both looked down on, and even expressed hatred for me, but looked to me for what they couldn’t find from their rabbis and parents, or the other adults in their community. I think now of a dynamic James Baldwin described: whites who saw blacks as their inferiors went to those same blacks for love when no one else was watching them. When groups of boys were together, they mocked my goyishness, but when they encountered me one-on-one, they wanted to talk.
Naturally, they wanted to talk about wishes and dreams that were taboo in their community. One confessed his crush on a Puerto Rican girl. (As someone who’s dated Hispanics of all gender identities, and was married to one, I sympathized.) Others thought they might be gay or simply didn’t want the kind of family life their community proscribed for them: “You get married, start a business, have a bunch of kids, double your weight and get a heart attack,” as one boy mused. Still others wanted careers that weren’t part of the Orthodox menu. And there was the junior who wanted to know what I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.
One boy, though, haunts me to this day. I’ll call him Moishe. He seemed to circle around me for months before he finally asked whether we could talk during his lunch break. I agreed. Moishe expressed some of the usual complaints about the restrictiveness of his community. All along, I had a feeling he wanted to say something else, but not what he asked a few days later: Could I adopt him?
I explained that I couldn’t which, of course, he knew—but as I suspected, his question was a pretext to talk some more. Which we did, several more times over the weeks. Then, one sunny Spring afternoon, he came to me in tears. “I want to die!” he exclaimed.
“Have you talked to anybody else?”
He shook his head. “I can’t,” he sobbed. “They’ll never believe me.”
I knew that “they” meant any authority figure in his life: his parents, his other adult relatives, the rabbis in the school and the ones in his synagogue. Nor would anyone else in his synagogue. “They’re all in on it,” he cried.
My spine tingled. This was years before I talked about my own abuse, but I knew he wanted to talk about his. “Who?” I asked.
Moishe then told me about the rabbi in his synagogue who was always calling him in to help with one thing or another. My guess is that his parents thought the rabbi knew he was a “problem” child and they were grateful for the interest he showed. The rabbi took advantage of that trust and use the pretext of errands and chores to make contact with the boy. I am not talking merely about “face time;” I mean, literally, contact—in areas that should be touched only by medical professionals with gloved hands.
Although I would not talk about my own abuse, or name the priest who abused me, until many years later, I had an overwhelming, physically aching, sense of déjà vu. So many things I experienced felt the same way, as a Catholic school alumnus and transgender woman who was still living as a man, during the year I taught in that Orthodox yeshiva. And when I hear about sex abuse in the Catholic church or any other religious institution, I think of Moishe—and the words of Rabbi Halphen, who hired me to teach Moishe and other boys who were living with the issues that were being “swept under the rug.”
What is religious fundamentalism? Typically, it is an unwavering and unapologetic belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or texts. Adherents believe their religion is the one true religion and that its precepts should govern all aspects of life. The ultimate goal is the governance of everyone’s lives under the rules and standards of the religion’s holy book(s). Rules are comprehensive, encompassing behavior, dress, gender roles, and access to information, media, and technology. Adherents believe that their religious beliefs and practices should be exempt from criticism, and any form of criticism is labeled as heresy or persecution. There are many types of religious fundamentalists throughout the world, but here in the United States we are most familiar with fundamentalist evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and Old Order Amish (which are fundamentalist in their adherence to their religious text, but not with regard to forcing their beliefs on those outside their community).
As disparate as these groups may seem on the surface, they have much in common. Each group believes that its holy text is an absolute, inerrant authority for all aspects of life. It is not uncommon for these groups to separate themselves from their surrounding communities, focusing almost exclusively on staying within their religious communities with regard to their worship activities, leisure activities, and even employment. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, for example, must be work for an employer that is flexible with regard to Jewish holy days and for leaving work early on Fridays for Shabbas. Not in all cases, but frequently children are sent to sect-approved/operated schools. In Amish communities, education is forbidden past 8th grade, and in communities that have their own schools, the teachers are young women within the community who have no education past 8th grade. For Hasidic Jews, girls and boys attend gender-segregated schools. Boys attend yeshivas where the focus of education is on studying the Talmud. Little attention is given to other subjects, and evolution is not taught. Among Evangelicals, it is popular to either home school one’s children or to send them to a fundamentalist Christian school, where, again, evolution is not taught to children. Fundamentalist Muslims often send their children to madrasas where the focus is on religious education. In some Muslim-controlled countries, girls are not educated.
Fundamentalists of all stripes give great authority to religious leaders who often dictate the rules of each separatist community. In Amish communities, there is a bishop, two or three ministers, and a deacon. Each must be nominated, but lots (similar to drawing straws) are drawn to determine which man receives which position. The leaders are responsible for the spiritual education of their congregation as well as making sure the Ordnung — the set of rules specific to each community — is followed. Each church district’s leaders set specific rules for its community, which is why there can be slight differences from one Amish community to another. In Evangelical sects and churches, great authority is given to pastors. Bruce has spoken about this a number of times, so there’s no need for me to expound on the matter here. In Orthodox or Hasidic communities, the rebbe is the authority, and he sets the rules specific to that local community. Rules may include color of stockings women are required to wear or what books are allowed in the Hasidic libraries. In fundamentalist Muslim communities, the imam is the ultimate authority, and he may issue fatwas or rules specific to his community. (Please note that all leaders are male.)
In each of these fundamentalist religions, gender roles are specifically defined in traditional ways. Men are considered to be the leaders of the family, the breadwinners, the final authorities in the household; the ones who commune most closely with their deity. Women are considered to be the nurturers, the caretakers of children, submissive to the authority of their husbands. Typically, women are not allowed to work outside the home in many fundamentalist sects/churches. Amish women are, however, permitted to sell their goods at markets or operate roadside stands for home-grown and home-baked goods. Women are not allowed any positions of leadership beyond teaching women or young children. Marriage is considered to be between one man and one woman, and these communities are not known for acceptance of LBGTQ people.
Dress codes are important among these communities. The Amish are easily identified as their clothing styles have not changed in centuries. They are referred to as “Plain People” because their styles are simple, solid colors typically limited to black, brown, burgundy, blue, purple or green (though some communities may allow other colors). Women wear dresses and aprons secured with straight pins (no buttons, which are considered vain), and they wear a white kappe (head covering) so they may pray at any time. Men wear dark suits with hook & eye closures (no buttons and no fancy belt buckles), suspenders, and a black or straw hat.
For fundamentalist Christians, there is often no exact standard of dress other than “modesty” for women, though many fundamentalist Baptist churches have complex, exacting dress codes. Many fundamentalist Christian women wear skirts or dresses at least knee length, no low-cut tops, and they typically wear sleeves. Women will be shamed for showing too much skin or wearing something too tight.
Hasidic communities have strict hair and clothing rules as well. Married women must keep their hair short and wear a sheitel wig; women wear dresses or skirts; their sleeves must be at least three-quarter length; they must wear thick, opaque stockings (often black, occasionally flesh colored though that is forbidden in some communities); and a lot of black, loose clothing, though blouses or sweaters may be colorful. Married men must sport a beard and side curls (payot) which they can never cut. Most men wear a white button-down shirt and black pants and jacket. A yarmulke must be worn at all times, and when praying, men wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, with tzitzit, or fringe, to remind them of God’s commandments.
Fundamentalist Muslim women must be covered in mixed company, and the culture determines how much covering is required. The most extreme version is the burqa with the niqab (face covering). Men may wear a taqiyah or cap when praying.
Each of these fundamentalist religions believes secularism is the greatest threat to their sect, churches, and beliefs. Access to secular libraries or media may be prohibited, restricted, or discouraged. Often, only books approved by church leaders are permitted to be read. The Amish prohibit technology altogether, though they are allowed to check out elder-approved books at public libraries. Fundamentalist Christians are generally admonished to limit their media access to “G-rated” or Christian-published format. Many Hasidic communities forbid access to secular libraries. In fundamentalist Muslim-controlled countries, all media are controlled by the religious leaders, thus preventing people from accessing any non-approved content. Each of these groups limits media access for “moral” reasons, but they also want to prevent community members from accessing any knowledge that may contradict their sect’s teachings.
While some of Amish people vote, they do not seek public office, and their pacifism prevents them from joining the military. They also are not visibly active in campaigning. Myriads of articles have been written — particularly before and after the 2016 presidential election — concerning the political activism of evangelical Christians. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews are known for their political activism for candidates sympathetic to their communities, particularly as it is an “honor” for Jewish men to collect welfare and food stamps so they can exclusively focus their time on Talmudic studies. As far as fundamentalist Islam is concerned, there are many countries in which fundamentalist Islam controls government.
In Bruce’s recent post Life After Jesus: Moving from a God-Shaped Hole to a Knowledge-Shaped Hole he talks about restrictions that fundamentalist Christian authorities put on secular influences. Indeed, venturing beyond fundamentalist-bubble-approved media is considered a temptation by Satan and demonic forces, potentially leading someone to everlasting torment in hell. Pastors try to scare their flocks into not watching the latest season of “Cosmos” or “Game of Thrones”; that rock music leads to the “Highway to Hell”; that evolution is Satan’s greatest deception. Amish and Hasidic communities threaten members with excommunication if they do not adhere to community standards. For the skeptical or curious in these communities, fear of being cut off from family and friends is a real concern. In addition, many members (particularly women) are poorly educated and lack job skills, so escaping these communities is, at best, a risky venture. Mission to Amish People (MAP) and Charity Christian Fellowship are organizations that help Amish people leave their communities, and Footsteps is an organization that helps Hasidic Jews leave theirs. Organizations such as these offer practical and emotional support to deconverts. Those of us in the real world realize that knowledge is power, and fundamentalists do their best to limit knowledge, thus limiting the power of their flocks.
I look at all these groups and think, there’s no way I could live in one of those communities. After I graduated from high school, I did my best to escape the clutches of fundamentalist Christianity. Fortunately, I possessed a college degree from a highly ranked secular university and developed marketable skills, so I was able to support myself financially. Many in these communities, particularly women, are purposely raised without these skills, ensuring reliance on the community. It is my firm conviction that any group that purposefully restricts access to knowledge and education and discourages contact with outsiders is inherently harmful and potentially abusive. Those in power may thrive within these systems, but the systems themselves are designed to benefit those in power at the expense of the powerless.
(If you are interested in finding out more about the Old Order Amish, I recommend the book Amish Society by John A. Hostetler for a comprehensive examination. For those who have access to Netflix and are interested in deconverts from Hasidic Judaism, I recommend the documentary One of Us regarding the Hasidic community in Brooklyn and in Rockland County, New York. Both are communities with which I am familiar as I live in proximity to both).
Now, for a bit of levity: Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic
I posit that if one asked 10 different people to define “modesty,” there would be 10 different answers. Context is important, as “modesty” can refer to one’s demeanor or to one’s mode of dress. Dictionary.com defines “modesty” as follows:
the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc. simplicity; moderation.
While I know better than to engage people in controversial topics on social media, sometimes I still give in and make comments. My brother (and his wife) and I get along really well in person, as long as we do not discuss religion or politics. We enjoy watching movies, having sushi or Mexican food, or having a glass of wine together. But I avoid the topics of religion or politics with them like the plague. Why? Because we hold diametrically opposite views on those subjects. My brother and sister-in-law are more than a decade younger than I am. My brother and I were not raised in the same household – I lived with my grandparents and great-grandmother, and a few years with my mom living there too, and I would visit on weekends at my mom and step-dad’s house. I was sent to fundamentalist Christian school from 5th-12th grades, then studied at secular university and graduate school. A couple of years after college, I moved to suburban New Jersey about 20 minutes from Manhattan.
My brother, on the other hand, grew up in my mom and step-dad’s house. He went to public school after being expelled in 3rd grade from the fundamentalist Christian school from which I had graduated (yes, expelled in 3rd grade – he was considered too stubborn to be allowed to remain in the school). When he was in middle school, they moved from a suburban area about 20 minutes from Nashville to rural farmland about 45 minutes from Nashville, and he still lives in that area today. After graduation from high school, he never pursued university education and was married with a full-time job by the time he was 20 years old. My brother and his wife are evangelical Christians, though they haven’t found a church with which they agree. He is staunchly pro-Trump, anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality, and a gun collector (though he is adamantly for gun safety, he is not in favor of restrictions). He baptized his sons in the bathtub when they were 6 and 7 years old after getting them to pray the “sinner’s prayer.”
He doesn’t know that I am an agnostic atheist. He thinks I am “liberal” but he doesn’t know the extent. I think he could handle my differences in political beliefs more than my differences in religious beliefs. Eventually, my family’s lack of belief will come out because my daughter is moving to Nashville in the fall to go to college, and she has no qualms about expressing her non-religious, pro-feminist, left-leaning beliefs.
Recently my brother posted on social media this Matt Walsh piece titled The Four Terrible Things That Are Destroying Boys In Our Culture. In my opinion, Matt Walsh shows his misogynistic colors in his rant against feminism in modern culture. It is apparent that Matt’s white cis-gendered male patriarchal superiority is being threatened by the machinations of liberal, evil feminists. Knowing I could not comment the extent of my feelings on my brother’s post, I posted this:
“He goes to school and his female classmates are dressed like strippers. He goes anywhere and that’s how the women are dressed.” Where does this guy live that all girls and women are dressed like strippers? I apparently need to up my game and improve my stripper attire!
My brother responded:
I would not have used the word strippers. It is a harsh word. However, I completely understand the point he was trying to make. We are a nation where words like chastity, modesty, and holiness have become bad words while the opposite actions and attitudes are celebrated. We have truly become a nation that has forgotten how to blush. The prophet Jeremiah warned ancient Israel about the same thing in the book of Jeremiah.
I couldn’t take it at that point, so I responded:
Modesty is a function of perception. Hasidic Jews and fundamentalist Muslims look at me in my workplace attire – typically pants and a shirt, never low cut – and they consider that immodest. I have had this conversation with many people, but as a woman I find that there is no universal standard for “modesty.” People sometimes say, it is common sense. No, it isn’t. You have fundamentalist religionists who have their own standards of modesty (typically those modesty standards focus on covering up women as much as possible, but Hasidic men. for example. have to wear beards and black pants and button-down shirts at all times). I refuse to be held to other groups’ standards of modesty. Fabricated female modesty rules also send messages about men and women and taking responsibility for one’s actions that I don’t want to get into on a social media post but I would be happy to discuss my opinion in person.
A person’s mode of attire does send certain messages. If I am dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, I am signaling that I am in a casual mode. If I am dressed in a cocktail dress and heels, I am signaling that I am going somewhere special, perhaps to a wedding or a gala. Wearing shorts, a tank top, and running shoes signals that I am going out for a run on a warm day. Sporting a Yankees shirt signals that I am possibly going to a Yankees game, or at least I am supporting the team for that day. Donning a heavy coat, gloves, boots, and a hat signals that it is cold outside, and that I am attempting to stay warm. If I see someone wearing a US Postal Service uniform, I will assume that the person works for the US Postal Service. Someone wearing a military uniform is probably active military personnel. These are all situations in which clothing signals a message.
However, what if I am wearing a mid-thigh length sleeveless black dress and high heels? Would someone assume that I am dressed to go to a fancy social function, or would they assume that I am a prostitute? That depends on one’s perspective. The fundamentalist religious person who believes that the human body should be covered up as much as possible will automatically assume that I do not share their values in terms of “modesty.” I am not one of their membership. I am an “other.” Am I lacking in morals? Am I indeed a prostitute, or am I just lacking in “modesty”? Do they consider my bare arm and bare calf to be literally offensive to them, or do they just take it as a signal that I do not adhere to their rules? Does the fact that I am dressed differently mean that I should be treated differently? Should they avoid me, or should they try to proselytize to me in order to inform me of the error of my ways? Is my uncovered status a signal that they have the right to touch me without permission? At what point would adding clothing to my person make me more acceptable in their eyes?
Some guy driving a delivery van cat-called at me while I was out walking the other day. Nothing I was wearing was tight or revealing in any way. I was wearing long pants, a jacket, and a button-down shirt. Apparently, that’s “hot” in certain circles. It’s further proof that no matter what you’re wearing, someone is going to interpret it in whatever way they wish. Obviously, if you are working in a job or attending a school that has a dress code, you must comply with that dress code during working/school hours, but otherwise, wear what makes you comfortable and move on.