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Keeping Young Women Hidden — at the Expense of Their Bodies

Despite my earlier post, it now appears that Rabbi Yizhak Silberstein did support the idea that a girl whose mother refused to buy her “religious clothes” should cut her legs in order to force the mother’s hand. An apparent recording of the rabbi’s discussion of this topic surfaced on the Internet today, in which he says that girl deserves the “highest praise” for sanctifying God’s name with her absolute dedication to Torah.

Contrary to the original publication in Ynet, Rabbi Silberstein did not receive the question from the girl about cutting her legs, but merely offered his opinion on the case, which was originally brought to Rabbi Eliezer Sorodskin, the leader of an organization called Lev La’Ahim, whose stated mission is to help secular Israelis become religious. (The organization is most recently renowned for bloating registration at Haredi educational institutions, as reported in Haaretz ). The conversation took place at a conference of Lev La’Ahim held in May in Bnei Brak.

Sorodskin talked about the girl in positively ebullient terms. She apparently loves being religious but her secular mother refuses to buy her “religious clothes” — i.e., long skirts. The girl’s willingness to cut her legs in order to preserve the sanctity of her female body, according to both Sorodskin and Silberstein, is a model of self-sacrifice for the sake of Torah, an act worthy of emulation.

I don’t know if these rabbis even realize how un-Jewish this entire discussion is.

Aside from the obvious and ubiquitous Torah prohibitions about harming one’s body, the imagery of a pure innocent young person bleeding for the sake of communal purity and righteousness is just so Jesus. I was about ready for someone to bring in a crucifix and shout Hallelujah.

Really, though, as I said in my previous post, this story brings the issue of Orthodoxy’s treatment of the female body to a new nadir of horror. For those who still do not believe that Orthodox rhetoric leads to violence against women, here we have it — to the point of encouraging girls to act violently against themselves.

Self-mutilation, or self-injury, is a lesser known of the body-image disorders, but seems to be an increasing phenomenon in the Western world. Girls who cause themselves to bleed are expressing a profound self-hatred and disgust with their bodies. Moreover, the self-numbing that is required in order to effectively self-injure is clearly a response to enormous pain around body.

I contacted Adrienne Ressler Mott of the Renfrew Center for eating disorders, which has special programs for Orthodox girls, to find out how prevalent self-injury is in this population. She reported that between 2007 and 2010, 41.8% of the residential patients said that they intentionally self-harmed in the year leading up to treatment, and of those, 78.4% did so via cutting themselves. All told, out of the total residential population at Renfrew, 32.8% of the patients have cut themselves.

“There is the Jewish concept that all humans were created B’Tzelem Elokim (in the image of God)“, Mott wrote to me, “that the human body is a holy vessel and a gift from God and as such, we are expected to care for our bodies and treat them preciously…. The rabbi’s response can only lead to increased shame and lowered sense of worth.”

Women’s body shame, which is obviously a central component of self-mutilation, is a deeply troubling outgrowth of Orthodox rhetoric. The girl in question has already internalized the message that her body is not meant to be cared for gently and tended to lovingly, but simply must be covered at all costs. She has completely detached from her body as her own; in fact, her body seems to have become the object of a tug of war between her family and her rabbis. Offering to cut her own legs — which should be a major red flag for social workers rather than a model of religiosity — signifies that she has completely disconnected from sensation in her body.

How will she approach her own sexuality when she sees her body as bleed-able rather than as worthy of care? How will she ever be able to feel her own contours? And how will she ever be able to be physically present anywhere without carrying that enormous weight of constant body-shame?

Moreover, I am incredibly concerned about the tendency within the Orthodox community to pretend that this issue is relegated to extremists. This disingenuous attempt to pretend that “mainstream” Orthodox rhetoric could not possibly lead to female body-shame not only sweeps these important issues under the communal rug, but also completely silences any real reflection on Orthodoxy’s approach to female body self-concept. Orthodoxy is not immune; it is part of the problem. The super-emphasis on female body cover in Orthodoxy — from pre-pubescent ages vociferously told to cover up and tighten the knees, to adult women who are placed in a far-off room for every possible occasion so as not to risk being seen or heard — has become the foremost marker of supposed Orthodox religiousness. Schools, shuls and communities all across the Orthodox world are increasingly defined by how emphatically the girls and women cover their bodies and remain out of sight. This story is not an aberration but a natural outgrowth of today’s Orthodoxy.

“Anyone who demands self-mutilation as the price/rationale for tzniut is out of the range of what i would ever consider a rabbinic authority,” Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, the director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, told me. “I find this beyond objectionable, a denial of women as human beings.”

Mostly, I’m very worried about religious girls. I do not see how a girl can go through these kinds of rules and regulations from the age of zero and emerge with her body-concept unharmed. Not to mention her skin.


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