How threats of hellfire helped keep ‘immodest’ women in their place – from the ancient world to ‘My Unorthodox Life’

How threats of hellfire helped keep ‘immodest’ women in their place – from the ancient world to ‘My Unorthodox Life’

In the opening of Netflix’s popular new show “My Unorthodox Life,” fashion mogul Julia Haart explains that she grew up thinking that dressing provocatively had eternal consequences:

“It was your mother’s responsibility to teach you modesty. … If any of your body parts were uncovered, there’s a very special form of hell that is reserved for both you and your mother. In this hell, your mother would dip your clothes in acid, put them on your body, and so throughout the day your body would decompose from the acid. And then the next morning it would start all over again, for thousands of years, or however many years hell lasts. When you learn this as a child, and everyone around you believes it, you believe it.”

Haart grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community she describes as “fundamentalist,” though critics have questioned how the show portrays it. In both Christianity and Judaism, views on the afterlife are diverse – and most Jews in the U.S. today put less emphasis on what happens after death than what happens now.

As a scholar of early Christianity whose work focuses on depictions of hell, I see this education as rooted in two millennia of ideas about gender, bodies, sin and punishment that influence our society today – particularly for women.

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Some ancient Jewish and Christian depictions of the afterlife provide graphic depictions of sinners and their punishments. Many of these punishments are seen as “fitting” for the sin committed: They follow the ancient legal standard of “measure for measure” punishment, known as lex talionis.

Punishments for women, like the one that Haart describes, follow the norms of the ancient and medieval cultures that first created them, including drastically different expectations for men and women. In these texts, the “immoral” clothes that brought women to hell become the instruments of their own torment – threatening images used to keep them in their place. …

For example, only young women were punished for being unchaste in early Christian depictions of hell – even those like the Apocalypse of Paul, in which male and female sinners were punished equally for other sins.

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