For the sake of tznius – religious modesty – Orthodox women cover their hair, their arms and legs below the shoulders and knees, and, in some cases, their collarbones. In some ultra-Orthodox communities the requirements of modesty even extend to men, who won’t wear shorts or short sleeved shirts in public. And for Orthodox women throughout the world, wigs are a multi-million dollar business, and those who don’t wear wigs often cover their their hair with headscarves instead, which, if not for their style of wrapping, are practically indistinguishable from the hijab worn by Muslim women.
Which is why it’s the height of hypocrisy that on Tuesday, Rabbi Moshe Sebbag, the (Orthodox) rabbi of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, told the JTA that he supports the regulations adopted in 15 French municipalities to ban the burkini. Sebbag insisted that the ban is not a threat to religious freedom but is instead, about “who will rule here next”.
The burkini, he continued, “is not innocent, it’s sending a message.”
And what message is that, exactly? Is it the message sent by Orthodox Jewish swimwear company Aqua Modesta which sells modest swimwear for women virtually indistinguishable from the burkini? Or is it the message sent by the company Splashgear which is endorsed by any number of Orthodox communities, and though it makes modest swimwear (and water-friendly hair covers) designed for Muslim women serves just as many Jewish women?
What message does it send it that Rabbi Sebbag’s rebbetzin, with whom he has six children, wears her hair covered around Paris, and keeps her knees and elbows hidden? Is it about who will rule Paris? Or is it about religious freedom?
Unfortunately, Sebbag wasn’t alone. A Chabad rabbi who serves the French Riviera area, Yosef Pinson, piled on, telling the The Jerusalem Post that if the burkini ban is offensive to Muslims “they should go back to a place where everybody dresses the same.” So Pinson is going to shave his beard, cut off his peyos (side curls) and start wearing Yves San Laurent?
Sebbag and Pinson’s decision to side with xenophobes is shameful, but more than that, it’s bad for French Jews. Religious difference has become more and more maligned in France over the past few years, equated with the threat of otherness and religious radicalism and violence. But conflating religious garb and terrorism is dangerous, and misguided.
It’s especially harmful when viewed in the context of France’s two hundred year old commitment to religious freedom, which, while not quite the Golden Age of Spain, has still managed to create a vibrant multiculturalism, where observant Jews, Muslims and Christians can live together with the same rights and privileges. By siding with the bigots and xenophobes, and equating religious dress with terrorism, Sebbag and Pinson are doing themselves, and their communities, a grave and dangerous disservice, and putting their own religious freedom in peril.
Rabbi Jordie Gerson works as a full-time Rabbi for Adventure Rabbi in Boulder, Colorado. She is an accomplished writer and speaker with a blog at the Huffington Post religion. Follow her on Facebook.