Monday, July 04, 2011

Rabbi Approves of Girl Inflicting Wounds for Modesty Reasons

A letter is sent from a college campus midrasha to an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi. The letter writer explains that a young Jewish woman on campus who is a counselor at a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה) is becoming more devout, but her non-observant parents disapprove. She wants to wear long skirts for modesty reasons, but her parents have forbidden her from doing so. reports that the letter continued, "The young woman thought that if she inflicted wounds on her legs she could tell her parents that she is wearing a long skirt to cover the wounds."

According to ynet news, the letter was sent to Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein, the son-in-law of prominent Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, for his opinion. Shockingly, Rabbi Zilberstein approved of the young woman inflicting wounds on her own legs so she could dress modestly, wearing the long skirts her parents have forbidden.

If this story is authentic, it is quite troubling on many levels. The young woman is in college and should be able to determine what she wears on her own, without her parents' consent. [The ynet News translation was erroneous. It said that she was a college student, but the Hebrew explains that she was a counselor in a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה), meaning that she is likely a teenager.] It should never have gotten to the point where she feels compelled to do self-harm in order to wear modest clothes.

While the commandment to honor ones parents is competing with the young woman's belief in modest dress, there is precedent in Judaism for disobeying ones parents if it leads to adherence of the law in other cases. But above all else, it is in violation of Jewish law to inflict harm on oneself. Inflicting wounds on oneself is a transgression of Jewish law. It would be religious malpractice if Rabbi Zilberstein actually condoned this practice.

According to the article in ynet news, the rabbi responded to the questioner writing, "She is allowed to inflict wounds on her legs in order to dress modestly and evade sin."

There is already documented evidence that young women are self inflicting wounds at a high rate. Reports of intentional cutting and self mutilation among teens, especially young women, is shocking. In a November 2008 article in the Huffington Post, Leslie Goldman wrote about the growing epidemic of troubled Jewish teenage girls who are suffering from eating disorders and body image problems that lead to cutting themselves. I would presume Rabbi Zilberstein was not familiar with this crisis when he penned his response.

Ynet reports, "In his reply, the rabbi commended the student's initiative, saying 'the blood from the self-inflicted wound will atone for the people of Israel,' adding that the coordinator should allow the student to commit the act." The rabbi's opinion is odd. In fact, it even calls to mind the sacrificial system of a bygone era in Judaism. When I first read Rabbi Zilberstein's response I couldn't help but notice that he seems to draw on Christian symbolism.

If there's truth to this story and Rabbi Zilberstein in fact opined that this young woman in college should continue to inflict wounds on her body so that she'll have an excuse to dress modestly in the face of her parents' disapproval, then he owes an explanation for his warped logic. I understand and respect those who feel strongly about modest dress, but there are boundaries. No person in their right mind would grant approval for such a horrible act.


Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraëli said...

Something here needs to be corrected, and it's partially my fault since I think I first showed you the link. You write about a "young woman in college". This is because, as usual, ynetnews does a poor job of translating from Hebrew to English. The original article, in Hebrew, is here:,7340,L-4082069,00.html The woman who wrote to R'Zilbershtein is a counsellor/supervisor at a MIDRASHA, not a college. In the Israeli charedi scene this means the person in question could be anywhere from what in the USA could be 9th to 14th grade (in the Israeli secondary Bet Yaakov system they add an extra 2 years to high school, granting a private {not gov't recognised} teaching certificate by the end of those two years, and fully expecting the young woman to be married by then).
This is NOT a college woman. She may be a minor, may be not, but the society she's choosing to live in definitely is treating her like a minor, and she, presumably, wants to see herself that way as well (they're supposed to go straight from their father's custody to their husband's). And yet, listening to her rabbis is more important than listening to her parents. And maiming herself in order to avoid listening to her parents is worth it, according to the rabbis.
An American reader who reads "college" might not realise the severity of this story.

Jonathan said...

Jewish women, throughout the ages, can be proud to boast of many stories that demonstrate their adherence to protecting their modesty.

One mere example is a story from the Bolshevik Massacres: one young Jewish girl was roped to a horse before it was made to gallop away, almost assuring that she was be publically executed one of cruelest ways imagineble.

This young women, upon being tied to the rope, took a sharp pin from her hair. With what may have been her last action, she PIERCED her dress to her flesh lest her modesty be exposed while she was dragged along, poetntially to death.

Question: Is this young girl a Jewish hero, upon who the heavenly bodies would one stay stand in awe of? Or a mere fundementalist lunatic, who even transgressed Jewish law while she was it at?

What do you think?

Aside,how can you publicly criticise another (let alone a true Torah sage) before you have verified the facts? Then again, I've always suspected that there was a special heter for bloggers to speak lashon harah, rechilos, motzei shem rah etc. Am I wrong?

rachel kapen said...

Assuming that this story is accurate, it is indeed quite troubling yet not very surprising. We are dealing here with a haredi rabbi who belongs to a world a non-haredi person cannot understand. For this rabbi the saying: Lamut b'ohalah shel Torah- to die in the tent of Torah is the guiding light.Yet again, as we already know, you can't believe everything you read, even in Yediot Ahronot.

Sharon said...

I wonder about this story and whether or not you have been able to obtain any verification. What caught my attention first was the comment that her parents forbade her from wearing long many non-charedi teenage girls do you know whose parents can tell them anything about what to wear (that they would listen to anyway!. And why would she be asking her parents for permission to wear long skirts? I could see if she was asking them permission to do something non-normative; like obtain a body-piercing.... but the length of her skirt? As a teenage girl my parents sometimes told me my skirts were too short ( I was a teenager in the 60's....) but too long? I don't think so. Even knowing the nareshkeit that often goes on in the charedi world this seems suspicious. I certainly hope it is not true.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


Thanks for catching this. I made the appropriate emendations to the post.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


I know of several young people who become more frum while their parents disapprove. Haven't worked on a college campus at a Hillel where a fad was becoming frum I received many concerned phone calls from the parents of these students. There are many reasons why these parents didn't condone their children's move to more observance. At a very basic level it has to do with the parents' feelings that their children will not be like them in adulthood. Also, there is a feeling that the children will be taught to look down on the parents' lack of observance. For many parents there is also the concern that their children will no longer eat in their home, etc.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like another hoax, perhaps like the recent, false report about a haredi court's decision to kill a dog.

Jon said...

Rabbi Miller, the allusion was not to Christian ideas, but to Jewish ones. The blood of an offering atones for the sin of that offering in more cases than not - check out the descriptions of the various offerings in the Torah. In the modern Yom Kippur service, we read at length about the way in which the High Priest spilled the blood at the altar, followed by his vidui, for that reason.

Jonathan said...

Apologies - it was the Chelminski massacres.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Jon, I mentioned the blood connection to Jewish sin offerings, but the notion of blood expiating sin is a very real aspect of Christian theology today.

Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraëli said...

To all those doubting the accuracy of this story, and all those who are "sure" that it's another hoax, like the dog in the bet din story. You can download the entire talk of R Y Zilbershtein from the Lev L'Achim conference, 28 Nisan 5771, here: (first link).
It's a really long file, so here are a few pointers:
At timecode 1:17:00, the Q&A session with Zilbershtein begins. Before beginning, the one presenting the questions - a certain Sorotzkin - states that ALL the stories are true. Some have had names or other insignificant details changed to protect the people's privacy, but all the important details of the questions are accurate, none of the stories are made up.
Following this, he goes on to field many questions. Some are interesting, some are kinda disturbing.
At timecode 2:17:00 the story about the girl who wants to cut herself begins.

Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraëli said...

One more thing to correct... sorry that I keep doing this. It was the letter-writer who was the counsellor, and the potential cutter was a student there. The counsellor wrote the letter on behalf of the student, who had asked her the question, or asked her to consult a "gadol" for the answer.

Religion and State in Israel said...

Link to the specific audio segment found at: