Thursday, June 20, 2013

Have you heard the one about the Jewish girl who cared so much for modesty she pinned her dress to her leg so that her body would not be exposed as a horse dragged her to her death? Or, what about the Jewish man who was forced to run a gauntlet, but turned back, and wrote his own death sentence, after one of the blows knocked his hat off? As the girl would not allow her leg to be exposed, the man would not go forward with his head uncovered. He went back to retrieve his hat and died for his trouble.

I've heard both stories told in various contexts. Sometimes, these poor Jews are victims of the Nazis. In other tellings the Cossacks or Crusaders are their oppressors. I've even heard the stories told - one or the other - by rabbis who claim to have heard them from first--hand witnesses. Once, someone swore to me that he personally knew the girl with the pin.

Always, the man and the women are held-up as Jewish role models, worthy of our admiration.Several times, I've heard the story of the pin retold to Jewish teenagers, who were then bidden to be as modest as the girl was.

Well, let's slow down, I say.

First of all, neither the man nor the woman ever lived. Their sufferings weren't witnessed by anyone, and no one knew them personally. Both are characters in a Y.L Peretz story called Three Gifts. Anyone using these characters  to inspire other Jews should know they are fictional creations invented by an atheist story-teller.

Second, what's so wonderful about what they did? We're not commanded to cover our heads. That's custom, not law. I doubt any posek would say death is preferable to being bareheaded. So the man held up as a hero is in fact a sinner, someone who failed at the mitzvah of protecting his own life at all cost.  The same might be said about the girl who pinned her hem to her leg. We aren't allowed to wound ourselves on purpose.

Finally, a small criticism of our culture. The story is called Three Gifts. The second gift was the pin used by the girl to attach her dress to her legs. The third gift was the hat the doomed man died to recover. And the first gift? What was it? A few specks of dirt from Israel. In the story, a man died to protect a canister of Israeli soil that he had intended for his grave. His dirt was the first gift.

I'll let the reader decide why our scolds and moralists love the story of the girl's modesty and the boy's kippa, but never see fit to share the story of the man who died from his love for the land of Israel.

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