Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud
By RABBI DOV LINZER
Published: January 19, 2012
IS it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women's bodies? From recent events in Israel, it would certainly seem that it is not.
Last month, an innocent, modestly dressed 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, living in Beit Shemesh, described being spat on and vilified by religious extremists — all men — who believed that she did not dress modestly enough while walking past them to the religious school she attends. And more and more, public buses in Israel are enforcing gender segregation imposed by ultra-Orthodox riders in and near their neighborhoods. Woe to the girl or woman who refuses to move to the back of the bus.
This is part of a larger battle being waged in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society over women's place in society, over their very right to have a visible presence and to participate in the public sphere.
What is behind these deeply disturbing events? We are told that they arise from a religious concern about modesty, that women must be covered and sequestered so that men do not have improper sexual thoughts. It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men's sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women's bodies.
This is not a problem unique to Judaism. But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, offers a perhaps surprising answer: It places the responsibility for controlling men's licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.
Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It's your problem, sir; not hers.
The ultra-Orthodox men in Israel who are exerting control over women claim that they are honoring women. In effect they are saying: We do not treat women as sex objects as you in Western society do. Our women are about more than their bodies, and that is why their bodies must be fully covered.
In fact, though, their actions objectify and hyper-sexualize women. Think about it: By saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man's sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin.
Of course, once you judge a female human being only through a man's sexualized imagination, you can turn even a modest 8-year-old girl into a seductress and a prostitute.
At heart, we are talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the responsibility of managing a man's sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the mentality behind the claim, "She was asking for it."
So the responsibility is now on the women. To protect men from their sexual thoughts, women must remove their femininity from their public presence, ridding themselves of even the smallest evidence of their own sexuality.
All of this is done in the name of the Torah and Jewish law.
But it's actually a complete perversion. The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men's sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.
It is forbidden for a man to gaze sexually at a woman, whether beautiful or ugly, married or unmarried, says the Talmud. Later Talmudic rabbis extended this ban even to "her smallest finger" and "her brightly colored clothing — even if they are drying on the wall."
To make these the woman's responsibility is to demand that Jewish women cover their hands, and that they not dry their clothes in public. No one has ever said this. At least not yet.
The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don't see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men's — and only men's — control.
Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one's body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah's call for modesty: learning "to walk humbly with your God."
Eight-year-old Naama could teach her attackers a thing or two about modesty.