Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Of Matisse, Skirt Lengths and Teaching Skills

In a recent essay in the Orthodox Journal Conversations, Esther Lapian attacks the Modern Orthodox Memlakhti-dati school system in Israel for caving in to Haredi standards in terms of girl's education. She tells the story of her daughter choosing the artist Henri Matisse as the topic for her school project and getting a poor grade on it despite the hard work she put in. What is interesting is the response Mrs. Lapian got from the teacher when asked for an explanation:

"Well," she said hesitating, "it was a bit skimpy." "Skimpy?!" I cried in disbelief. "She's in fifth grade. She could have chosen 'Water' or 'Color' or 'Why Is the Sky Blue?' Instead she picked a difficult topic and handed in work she did herself. What do you mean by skimpy? "Well," she said quietly, "the truth is … I have never heard of Matisse." ("When Worlds Collide: Why Observant Student Teachers Refuse to Teach in the Memlakhti-dati School System" Conversations Spring 2010 pg. 134)

Mrs. Lapian goes on to note that:

Part of the reason why the teacher in the Matisse story continues to teach in our schools is because she looks the part. She and hundreds like her are teaching in our schools, despite the fact that they may be inferior teachers, because her elbows are covered, her skirts are long, and in the case of married women, her head is covered.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the dati-leumi establishment has become obsessed with the dress code of women. Prominent rabbis write outrageous articles measuring centimeters on the neck and on the arms. While the suitability of male teachers is measured in how much they know and the quality of their prayer, in the case of women, the skill of pious dressing can override the skills of good teaching. (pg. 138-39)

I would see this issue as a variant of the dress code challenge I raised previously. Every time one chooses to make an issue out of something, by implication one is also saying that other things are not important. Think of it as a point system in which you have a limited number of points to invest. Thus every point you invest in women's dress is a point you are not investing in women's learning or in male civility. To invest in something of minor importance is not just wasting a point it is the support of the negation of a virtue that has value. In our case of women's dress, one cannot play innocent in the statement being made. When you state that women have to be dressed a certain way you are also saying that women do not have to be well educated and that men do not have to respect them. The fact that you do not come out and explicitly say this is irrelevant; it only means that you also support mendacity as well.

It is very easy to say, as politicians regularly do, that you support certain values, whether they are long skirts, children, motherhood or apple pie. Because such support is so cheap, it is also irrelevant and meaningless. Values only mean something if you are willing to pay a price for them, particularly when that price is that of another value. In the real world values are going to clash with each other. They gain their meaning precisely when put up against the other and sacrificed for something higher. Do not tell me what values you support; tell me what price you will pay for them.

(For a different reaction to this article see QED.)


Yosef said...

It is unclear to me how it in any way follows that a male who values modest dress on females also disrespects them as people. It is not necessarily true to say that to value one behavior is to devalue another behavior that does not exlicitly contradict the first. One can easily imagine a fanatic of the modern orthodox stripe demanding that women dress in a certain way AND have a college degree.

Izgad said...

In terms of dress, when I come out and say that women need to wear skirts that go below the knees there is the implicit question as to how far I am willing to go to enforce this. Living in a secular state and secular society, Orthodox neighborhoods are not going to be able to stop improperly dressed women from coming through unless they turn to extra-legal means like goon squads. If I believe that women in mini-skirts cause suicide bombings to happen by angering my patriarchal deity, then it makes sense to yell at such a woman, beat her or even blow her brains out. So my views as to the value of modesty are linked to what I think about goon squads.

Let us be honest with ourselves all around. Every time Modern Orthodox Jews talk about the value of college and secular education, it de facto comes at the expense of their religiosity. Every guy who goes off to law school is a guy not learning in kollel. So my valuing of law school is directly connected to what I think about kollel. The theoretical solution for this, and the validity of Modern Orthodoxy stands or falls on its ability to accomplish this, is to engage the secular as having some sort of religious value; my Judaism needs to specifically be about Judaism’s encounter with the Outside world.

Janet said...

Good point with excellent illustration. Unfortunately, every time that I have argued that resources and attention are limited, so every chumra is really a kula in another area, people dispute that resources are limited.
* "You can limit the number of hechshers you trust without spending more on food."
* "You can spend more time to check vegetables without sacrificing anything else."
* "You can insist on strictly kosher food at a job interview or otherwise draw attention to your religion without hurting your chances of getting the job."
* "You can send your kids to private school for 13 years without it hurting your ability to afford a house in the eruv."

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Well what do you expect the Dati Leumi to do?
The attempts to build a bridge to the secular world which were so important to the early DL's turned out to be one way paths with DL youth leaving to join the chilonim, not the other way around. Many in the DL community have now figured out that if it's a choice between walling ourselves into a religious ghetto like the Chareidim or risking losing our youth to the seculars through exposure to them, the former is preferable.
Is it a cop-out? Yes, absolutely but in the absence of a dynamic leadership which is prepared to energize the movement through the spirit and philosophy of the Ravs Kook, there seems to be no current alternative.

Clarissa said...

The Matisse story is sad. When I was growing up, practicing Judaism or even knowing about it was, of course, out of the question. But my father always said that we will remain Jews as long as we respect learning and knowledge and pursue them as our highest goal. "This is the part of our identity that nobody can take away from us," he would say.

It's sad that today children would be robbed of unfettered access to knowledge because of some meaningless formality-based considerations.

Miss S. said...

Did you become a member of Rabbi Angel's Institute? I hope so. I love the Conversations journal personally :-)

Izgad said...


This post came out of me finding out about the Institute and reading the Conversation Journal. It is funny the amount of friends who seem to have found the Institute (for sane Judaism) before I did. :)