Dovid Kornreich
Dovid Kornreich

What They Are Telling The Boys

Daphne Lazar Price wrote a very thought-provoking article on her blog regarding the messages we send to our religious girls and boys regarding gender roles and behavior. I was impressed with her honesty and her willingness to listen. She is honest because admits she only knows about one side of the educational equation—the girls’ side. And she genuinely wants to know about the boys’ side: What messages are they boys getting about acceptable societal norms and expectations?

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At first, I was a little puzzled about her ignorance about boys’ education in some respects.
She asks:

“They tell us not to walk alone at night. They tell us not to drink because we could get raped if we are drunk. They tell us to be aware of our surroundings. They tell us to carry a whistle to scare off a potential attacker.” And what are they telling the boys?

Is Daphne Lazar Price really concerned about girls’ physical safety when they are in proximity of Orthodox boys?

I would imagine that by observing boys in our Orthodox community –how they typically speak and behave—you can deduce the kind of messages they are receiving. Does it really need to be said that if boys in the Orthodox Jewish community aren’t getting girls drunk at parties in order to rape them, it means they aren’t getting the wrong kind of message? And if they aren’t attacking women walking alone at night, then score one for the rabbis because we aren’t sending that message either. See why I’m puzzled?

But in case it wasn’t already obvious to everyone, let me make it absolutely clear: Orthodox boys are hearing a non-stop message from their Orthodox rabbis that any touching (‘negiah’), or even being secluded in a room with a girl (‘yichud’) is a sin. So Daphne Lazar Price can rest assured that that boys are clearly being educated in maintaining safe boundaries. Jewish boys and men may have their share of social problems and issues, but physical violence towards women and girls is certainly not one of them.

It is an insult to even suggest that this might not be the case.

And even getting full, enthusiastic consent from the girl is irrelevant. All pleasurable physical contact and seclusion with girls is strictly forbidden before marriage (ever since King David’s time in direct response Amnon’s rape of Tamar, and after marriage as well to any woman but one’s wife.

But after thinking about it, I realized that Daphne Lazar Price is probably more interested in the promoting healthy relationships and mutual respect than insuring there is consent and safe boundaries. Perhaps she wanted to make this issue as timely as possible and have it coincide with domestic violence awareness month. But I don’t think it was worth the insulting insinuation.

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One issue she raised is the lack of balance.

“They tell us how to behave. They tell us not to be too loud or too aggressive. They tell us not to be overconfident.” And what are they telling the boys?

 “They tell us to smile. They tell us to act more feminine or ladylike.” And what are they telling the boys?

It seems from her side that girls get the message that the onus of maintaining community standards of modesty in the public sphere is placed directly and solely on girls. It seems that only girls are expected to look a certain way, act a certain way and think a certain way.

But as someone who has four boys of his own in the yeshiva system, has been involved in young men’s Jewish education for over two decades, and was himself a boy educated by the yeshivah system, I’m here to tell you that this simply isn’t true.

In Orthodox boys’ education, there is serious emphasis placed on shemiras enayim (‘guarding of the eyes’) and shemiras habris (‘guarding of the covenant’). Shemiras enayim means a Jewish man cannot gaze at any part of a woman’s body—even the little finger of a female cashier when she is handing you change. So if they stare at your changing bodies, it is not because of any message they are getting from their educators. It is simply because it is difficult to always succeed in suppressing natural urges.

Shemiras habris means that a Jewish man cannot watch or read any pornographic material or be exposed to any erotic images or voices– out of concern that it will cause a seminal emission. (It should be appreciated that his prohibition has a pro-feminist side-effect of preventing Jewish men from regarding women as mere sexual objects solely intended to provide male pleasure.)

This is why I’m always amused when I hear Jewish feminists–usually women– claim that Orthodox Judaism is misogynist or is too controlling of women’s bodies. I guess I can’t blame them for not knowing what they are telling the boys, but I thought it was common knowledge that Orthodox Judaism is quite “anti-men” as well. It places a tremendous amount of pressure on Orthodox males to suppress all sexually charged thoughts and behaviors before marriage, and it regulates physical intimacy between couples to a significant degree even after marriage.

So if you are going to just label Orthodox Judaism ‘misogynistic’, you are leaving a lot out of the picture. You might as well call Orthodox Judaism ‘misanthropic’. That would be more accurate.

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But all this talk about Orthodox Judaism being overly controlling and limiting—on both sexes– regarding sexuality, is really missing the point.

To provide a wider perspective, two points need to made:

1) Judaism does not place self-expression and self-actualization as its highest value. As I have written previously, the autonomous self is not the object of worship that liberalism have made it into. Judaism says meaning ought to trump gratification.

Let me give an example which is not related to sexuality or gender roles. Let’s say a Jew is really good at sports. He has the talent and the physical ability to become the world’s greatest ping-pong champion. Or the greatest chess master. But he also has the talents necessary to become a decent teacher, health-care provider, or social worker. My mentors have told me (The Informed Soul pp 70-71) that Jewish values would dictate that this person ought to devote him/herself to the help professions, and not pursue the fame and riches of being a professional ping-pong player.

Why? Because meaning trumps self-actualization and ego gratification.

This hierarchy of Jewish values applies to sexuality in the following manner. Judaism requires Jews to forgo unrestrained sexual self-expression because in return, they will achieve a far more meaningful (i.e., a more committed, stable, family-oriented) intimate relationship in marriage.

2) One of the primary goals of Judaism is to sublimate the entire physical dimension of life and refine it until it is elevated and sanctified.

Again, this goal of sanctity applies across the board—not just to human sexuality. It applies to eating and drinking and attending to all one’s physical or emotional needs, comforts and pleasures. 1) The food and drink Jews consume must be kosher and blessings must be made before and after enjoying them. These onerous rules and requirements serve to sublimate the animalistic appetite and sanctifies the pleasure. 2) The human body must be covered by clothing because the human being possess inherent dignity and sanctity that will be desecrated if it is unnecessarily exposed and viewed as merely an attractive animal. 3) The human sex drive also has the potential for elevation and sanctification and it is achieved through the exercise of all the significant restraints that Jewish law imposes on us. (For further reading on this theme, see Family Redeemed” by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik)

In addition, the presence of the Divine is very sensitive to the level of sanctity of the Jewish people. It can only be felt in our communities when our intimate lives are remain within a committed relationship and private—not to be made available to just anyone and not put on display in public.

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So in conclusion, although Jewish law and custom may seem overly controlling or even stifling in the realm of modesty and sexual expression, 1) Judaism’s approach is designed to infuse deeper meaning and spirituality into to all physical aspects of living, 2) it applies to both sexes, 3) is not the result of male rabbis’ misogyny or need to control, and most importantly, 4) the goals that are achieved are sublime and ultimately more rewarding than any fleeting, flirtatious fling with the opposite sex.

About the Author
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying and teaching talmud and Jewish thought in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
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