The news broke last week, and the public, especially the Orthodox community, has been struggling to make sense of the whole thing and who is at fault for the shocking turn of events.
The leader of a bizarre sect of fervently Orthodox women in Israel, who cover every inch of their flesh and face in burka-like layers of clothing, was arrested “on charges of assaulting and neglecting her 12 children, some of whom are believed to have committed incest.” (JTA). The Rabbanit Bruriah Keren, as she is called, has postured herself as a kind of guru to her followers, acting as their spiritual guide. She has taken on herself extreme measures of modesty in the name of serving God and encouraged her followers to do so as well. Even to those who considered her methods insane, the news of a self-proclaimed holy woman allegedly abusing her children is a shock.
The defense for Keren claims the charges are part of a conspiracy against her, waged by the ultra-Orthodox establishment who do not approve of her extreme ways. Honestly, it wouldn’t be that surprising if there was some truth to that, but whether or not the religious-powers-that-be have had a hand in her demise, clearly something was very wrong in that household.
Still, there’s also something wrong with the way certain parties have been reacting to the news, laying blame where little, if any, is due.
There’s a general feeling of “I told you so” amongst those who have been following, disapprovingly, the whole frumka story since it was first featured in Israeli newspapers a while back. Keren and her followers’ extreme displays of modesty have struck many as abnormal, even psychotic. How perfect that the leader of this sect is now shown to be, allegedly, a depraved individual, harmful in a way that is more concrete — not to mention criminal — than the fuzzy, harmful psychological influence she’s had on her followers. Now everyone can agree she’s a bad egg.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, except for the hint of satisfaction (a-ha, I knew it!) such thinking lends to hearing about the abuse of children.
More disturbing even is the perspective of Life in Israel blogger Rafi G, who, after acknowledging that it would not be fair to demonize the whole frumka group just because one of their members is a “sicko,” writes:
But now I have just come into more information. The woman arrested, it turns out, was none other than Rabbanit Bruriah keren, herself. The founder and leader of the group. So the group is not just an eccentric group with on sicko as a member. the group is rotten from the core.”
Rafi G.’s statement touches on a larger philosophical debate about whether a message can be valid if the messenger’s authority has been invalidated (can one can learn Torah from a sinner?), but it doesn’t specify that the group’s principles are rotten; rather, he insists that the group’s members are.
Questioning the sincerity and basic goodness of an entire group of people because of its leader is wrong.
More likely, Keren’s followers are more distraught and confused about this news than the rest of us. This more compassionate view was the focus of a recent JPost article: “A fringe sect of Jewish women with a Taliban-like dress code will be overcome by a major spiritual crisis after the arrest of the group’s leader on charges of child abuse, haredi sources in Beit Shemesh predicted Wednesday.” That sounds just about right. And, interestingly, The Awareness Center, which specializes in combating rabbinic sexual abuse, has taken a similar view, posting a note that treats Karen’s followers as potential victims rather than potential perpetrators: ” If you or anyone you know is involved Bruria Keren or any other group like her’s there is a great deal of information that you might find as helpful. … Please feel free to contact us if there’s anything we can do to help,” it reads.
But to go back to those “haredi sources in Beit Shemesh” who predicted an oncoming spiritual crisis for Keren’s followers. With that understanding comes another implication of I-told-you-so — that following an “independent” spiritual leader rather than the established spiritual authorities will lead to crisis. Said Shmuel Poppenheim, spokesman for the “zealously religious” Eda Haredit group, “We always knew those women were crazy … Now we have been vindicated, and those women will have to stop their insane behavior.”
But wait, there’s more: “Even the strictest rabbis who require women to wear black head coverings and black stockings understand that a woman must allow herself to be a woman,” Poppenheim said.
As long as she’s a woman in the precise way the rabbis prescribe, that is.
While it is in some ways refreshing to see ultra-Orthodox authorities acknowledging that there are positions too extreme to be psychologically healthy, it’s also maddening to see them putting the blame for such extremism on others rather than acknowledging that, just perhaps, their own preachings might have something to do it. Writes the JTA:
Established Orthodox communities, including the fervently Orthodox Chasidim and haredim, have dubbed the sect “the Taliban” and described it a Jewish aberration. Some believe its members were secular women who in embracing religion took it to an unusual extreme.
Sure, blame it on the baalot teshuvah who don’t know how to keep their newfound zeal for religion within the “normal” boundaries of Jewish practice. Indeed, most of us know newly religious people who go to greater extremes in their observance or religious philosophy than we might think normal or healthy, but these extreme ideas don’t come out of thin air.
What the Orthodox authorities aren’t acknowledging is that these women have been taking the establishment’s own severe teachings about modesty to their most extreme conclusions: Women should cover their elbows, throats, legs, and hair — but covering their faces is crazy! Women should not be publicly acknowledged because it’s not modest — but women who choose to stay at home and take themselves completely out of the public sphere are insane! Women’s voices should not be heard by men lest they arouse desire, but a woman who refuses to talk to a man on the phone is a total nut job!
If it weren’t so sad and so real, this whole thing could be viewed as a kind of satire — a group of women holding a mirror up to the society in which they live and showing the reality of the ideals being preached to them. The ideal of moderation, of striking a balance between taking part in the bodily/secular world and yet being apart/ from or above it, is one most consider central to the practice of Judaism, yet it is no where to be seen in that reflection. I
If the Beit Shemesh community can recognize Rabbanit Bruriah Keren and her followers as a distorted reflection of themselves, even if they can’t publicly acknowledge it, perhaps they can find a way to restore some of that balance, and some good could come out of all this.
–Rebecca Honig Friedman