Yael Shahar
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When modest dress cloaks abuse

Time to discard the distorted notion that girls are responsible for male self-control
Illustrative. A modest dress by Avec Les Filles. (Courtesy)
Illustrative. A modest dress by Avec Les Filles. (Courtesy)
(via Pixabay/Hannah Alkadi)

What’s the connection between the #MeToo campaign and the disappearance of women from the Orthodox public space?

In a controversial op-ed piece in The New York Times, Mayim Bialik argued that modesty was a defense against sexual harassment. She later apologized for appearing to blame the victims. But the argument has long been made in the Orthodox educational system: “Dress modestly and you won’t have to worry about improper advances.”

Obviously, this equation is just plain wrong! While modest dress may fend off unwanted flirtation, it is unlikely to deter sexual predators. In fact, it can be argued that the over-emphasis on female modesty actually empowers abusers. Why? Because it is not about sex at all; it’s about power.

Finally, some in the Orthodox world are beginning to understand how making Judaism all about women’s bodies can be a tool to dis-empower women. In a recent article on the Orthodox Union website Rabbi Eliyahu Safran presents a courageous stance on tzniuit, or modesty laws. “Traditional Judaism,” he writes, “has long maintained that the onus of protection from inappropriate and damaging relations between men and women was on women…. But the goal of tzniut must be shared by all. Its goal, to desexualize everyday encounters, must be embraced by both men and women. Addressing one side of the sexual equation without the other increases power imbalances and invites rather than diminishes abuse.”

Tzniut, argues R. Safran, “challenges us to see more than simply the surface.” But of course, this is exactly the problem: when we make tzniut all about how women dress, we are falling into exactly the same pattern: focusing on externalities rather than on what is “internal.”

Social symbol or behavioral trigger?

What exactly is the purpose of the laws of tzniut, as applied to women’s dress? For some, it is primarily a matter of group identification. But how far are we willing to go to enforce communal dress standards? Is it acceptable to push someone out of the community — and perhaps out of Jewish observance altogether — in order to enforce dress codes? If so, then the uniform becomes the single defining characteristic of the community — ahead of Torah learning, charity, or anything else.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the grounding of tzniut solely on what is or is not arousing to men (the impact of men’s dress on women evidently is not an issue). But of course, what provokes arousal will depend on how accustomed people are to interacting with the opposite sex. What is a turn-on in societies where men never see a woman’s elbow is not likely even to be noticeable in a society where men are used to seeing women in tank tops.

If, as R. Safran argues, the laws of tzniut aim at “to desexualize everyday encounters,” then one could argue — paradoxically — that a certain amount of “immodest” exposure might be a good thing; after all, exposure to the opposite sex leads to desensitization and desexualization of casual encounters, so that the mere sight of a woman will not produce arousal.

On the other hand, too much desensitization would rob the sexual act of its sanctity. In addition, limitations on sexual behavior serve as a reminder that limits are a necessary part of human culture. Just as we refrain from reaching out and taking whatever suits our fancy in a store, and just as we don’t say whatever we might think about others, we also put limits on what is and is not proper sexual conduct.

The self-fulfillment of negative expectations

So it is not tzniut per se that is the problem, so much as the fact that these laws are generally applied only to women. Even worse is the way this is often taught to young women: “Men are animals, so cover up!” Even where this more extreme attitude is not explicitly taught, it is never far below the surface. By hinting that men cannot be expected to control themselves, we are also teaching them that they cannot control themselves. Do we really want to teach a whole generation of young men that they are no better than animals? Would it not be better to teach self-control, so that people can live in the real world, rather than building them an artificial world where self-control is never needed?

When so many mitzvot are meant to bring out the best in us, the obsession with women’s dress reduces us to our worse impulses. If women must be continually on the defensive, covering up in the hopes that they won’t bring out the animal in the man sitting next to them on the bus, continually in fear of doing something that might provoke…what does that say about our expectations of men?

What’s worse, in lowering the expectations, we actually normalize sexual harassment; after all, the poor guy can’t control himself. If he could, women wouldn’t need to hide their sexuality.

A stumbling block before the not-so-blind

The argument that women who bare various parts of their anatomy (whether it’s collarbones, knees, or hair) are presenting a mikhshol lifnei iver, a stumbling block before the blind, is common. And yet, there is no actual Torah commandment: “Thou shall not become aroused.” Clearly, there is a responsibility for a man to prevent himself from acting inappropriately, but the prohibition on sexual arousal would appear to be a fence around a fence.

It would seem that most men have entertained inappropriate thoughts about women on occasion. However, that tends to happen regardless of dress and often regardless of anything other than sexual cycles (yes, men do have hormonal cycles). Putting the onus upon the women to cover up is perilously close to blaming rape victims for being inappropriately dressed.

But more, shifting responsibility to others rather than cultivating self-discipline can be used to enforce any standards at all. Once we make our own weaknesses someone else’s problem, we stop trying to improve.

Girls, do a mitzvah so the men won’t have to!

In the article cited above, R. Safran argues:

Likewise, yichud, separating men from women in every possible encounter falls short in and of itself. The real problem with using the religious concept of yichud as a means of protecting ourselves from sexual predation is that yichud was created by men on the assumption that women are a temptation to sin — not that they are vulnerable to attack. In other words, it is a practice entrenched in religious authority, making it an unrealistic candidate for progress toward empowering women – which is an important component of protecting them.

And here we come to the other side of the story: the impact of over-emphasizing the female body on women — and particularly on adolescent girls. Girls just coming into puberty are often extremely self-conscious about their bodies, sometimes to the point of developing body-centered neuroses. Some of these neuroses can be fatal; others lead to eating disorders and depression. Many young girls already feel a sense of shame at their appearance, often bordering on self-loathing. The last thing they need to hear is: “You are visible! Someone might notice you! Cover up!”

Perhaps a better approach would be the more positive one that emphasizes the dignity and the value of the human body, rather than seeing it as the enemy. Rather than making young girls even more afraid of their own bodies, the positive approach tells them that their bodies are too precious to be treated casually, and that in keeping a certain amount “under wraps,” they are making a statement of self-worth.

The problem is that this is still very one-sided. By putting the onus on the women to cover up, rather than on the men to control themselves, we are effectively saying, “Girls, do a mitzvah so the men won’t have to!” This brings us back around to lowering expectations of men while raising them for women. Anyone who has seen a Haredi family out hiking on a hot summer day has seen the resulting one-sidedness: little girls sweltering in thick skirts, long sleeves, and stockings, while their brothers walk at ease, in shorts and sandals.

The little woman who wasn’t there

The inevitable endpoint of the over-emphasis on tzniut is the “vanishment” of women. The disappearance of women’s pictures and women’s voices is the obvious endpoint to extreme separation of sexes. This requirement that women “disappear” from human society is subtly destructive: causing women to feel less than human, to devalue themselves, to feel lessened and, in some cases, to feel unclean. Even if this separation was originally intended to achieve a worthy goal, the harm done far outweighs any possible benefits.

The good news is that this separation is still a fairly new thing — only two generations have grown up thinking of it as normal. But once it passes the third generation (the point at which custom settles into minhag) it will be very hard to roll back. A step forward would be for some of the more prominent rabbanim to come out against events where women are hidden, segregated buses, or segregated social events. Recently Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll called on some of the more prominent rabbinical associations to “take a stand against this damaging practice of disappearing images of modest Jewish women from Orthodox publications, and stand up for the dignity of Jewish women.”

But more is needed. Rabbis should lead by example by refusing to attend segregated social events or lecture before segregated audiences. Lip service is not enough.

When tzniut is un-Jewish

The current focus on tzniut is certainly a reaction to the promiscuity of the secular societies around us. However, Judaism has plenty of other ways to prevent the encroachment of secular values, most of them far more positive — and far more effective — than expecting half the population to disappear!

What’s more, in seeking to avoid the encroachment of non-Jewish cultural values, when we make tzniut solely about women’s dress, we are subscribing to a very non-Jewish value — the focus on external appearance over the infinite value of a human being.

Worse still, to the extent that the focus on tzniut is grounded in (or fosters) a sense that the body is the enemy of the soul, we also drift perilously close to another non-Jewish value — the Diest/Christian notion of dualism. This dualism clashes headlong with the Jewish view that part of our goal in being embodied is to uplift the body and all of its desires. Hence, Birkot Hanehenin (blessings of benefit: food, sights, smells, and sounds). Hence, Taharat HaMispachah — family purity.

To repress our sexuality is to abandon our posts. It is like saying to God, “Sorry, this part is too hard for me. I’ll just hide over here until it’s over…” That which is repressed is not uplifted. It is simply left behind.

Sadly, when men make women responsible for repressing male sexual urges, it is the women who are left behind.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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