One of the most striking ironies of the Nechemya Weberman trial, which ended with his conviction on 59 counts of sexual abuse, was the revelation that the unlicensed therapist was a member of the Va’ad Hatznius, or modesty patrol, the self-appointed arbiters of right and wrong in the Satmar community.
Until recently, the Va’ad Hatznius was little known outside the Hasidic community, but its actions have reverberated through the community for years. Although they ostensibly monitor the moral behavior of both sexes (men and women are both warned not to read English books, watch television or surf the internet), most of their energies are directed towards ensuring that women and girls dress and behave modestly.
Their reasoning is clear: When a female wears revealing clothing or chats with the opposite sex, it could entice the men, and lead to dire consequences. In other words, the goal of their injunctions is to inhibit the sexual impulses of the male population.
Where did the tradition of the Va‘ad Hatznius originate? And what do the Hasidim themselves think of it? The term V‘ad Hatznius doesn’t appear in the Bible or in the Talmud, but Maimonides does write, in Hilchos Yom Tov 6:21, that “the Beit Din [rabbinical court] must appoint officers during the festivals to patrol the gardens and orchards and along the rivers to prevent men and women from gathering there to eat and drink, lest they fall into sin.”
The Jewish communities of eastern Europe didn’t use the term Va’ad Hatznius either but religious leaders did issue rulings, forbidding women from publicly wearing fashionable clothing and jewelry, said Dr. David Fishman, professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The rulings were announced after prayer services in the synagogue or through posters hung on the synagogue door. In larger cities, posters were hung in a number of places.