Misunderstanding the Talmud’s concept of modesty

Significant component of the Jewish concept of 'tzniut' is maintaining the inherent sanctity and privacy of our bodies.

March 14, 2012 22:18
3 minute read.
Haredi man passes women sitting in front of bus

Haredi bus protest with women 311 . (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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A little bit of knowledge is dangerous, we are told, and Rabbi Dov Linzer would do well to be mindful of that adage. His “Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud” (New York Times, January 26) is a good example of why the intricacies of Jewish law are best debated in the yeshivas or in rabbinic journals, rather than in op-ed pieces addressed to a Jewish and non-Jewish laity that for the most part never cracked open a volume of Talmud.

In addition to presenting a dangerously scant analysis of this delicate topic, Linzer confuses and conflates several distinct notions that exist within the Jewish-Talmudic approach to tzniut (modesty), and in the process confounds and misleads his readers.

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He maintains that in essence tzniut is a “religious tenet that begins with men’s sexual thoughts” and the need to prevent them, and which in the mistaken minds of his haredi (ultra-Orthodox) counterparts “ends with men controlling women’s bodies.” Rather, he contends, the Talmud’s regulation of tzniut actually “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men,” as if to say, “it’s your problem, sir, not hers.”

The prohibition against harboring licentious thoughts, more precisely referred to as hirhur, is an important halachic imperative. In this regard, it is correct that the responsibility rests primarily upon the owner of those thoughts (whether male or female, I might add,) to “deal with it” by making the correct choices and avoiding the persons, places or things that would promote such thoughts.

But Linzer fails to mention an entirely separate and equally significant component to the Jewish concept of tzniut, which has very little to do with regulating men’s sexual thoughts, and is focused on the duty to maintain the inherent sanctity and privacy of our bodies, and on us staying cognizant of our being in the presence of God at all times.

Remarkably, the laws of tzniut forbid excessive or unnecessary exposure and immodest behavior by any person (again, whether male or female), even within the most personal and private settings and even when in total solitude.

By arguing that the mandate to uphold tzniut “lies squarely with the man” does Linzer mean to suggest that Jewish law would routinely permit women to appear in public in flagrantly immodest states of dress or undress, and would simply tell the offended male bystanders to “deal with it,” saying “it’s your problem, not theirs”? I hope not.

In a generalization that is astonishing, as much for its indiscriminate sweep as for its lack of supporting data, Linzer argues that the greater degree of coverage of women that men seek, the more they “objectify and hyper-sexualize the female body.”

While this may sound cogent at first blush, if we continue with this line of reasoning we inevitably arrive at its bizarre and absurd converse. That is, that the ones with the most platonic and respectful attitude toward women are actually the men who desire the least amount of coverage of them! I suggest that both of these simplifications are equally flawed.

The analysis of the conflicts that took place in Beit Shemesh recently is simple and straightforward. They arise not because the responsibility for modesty is being incorrectly assigned to the female gender, as Linzer posits, but rather because there exist vastly disparate and hopelessly incompatible viewpoints among citizens as to what constitutes immodest or offensive public behavior. Secondly, it occurs when one group employs harassing and intimidating tactics to impose its own definitions of modesty upon their unwilling, disagreeing neighbors.

The former is a debatable and subjective matter of opinion that will not easily be resolved. The latter is inexcusable and deserving of our unequivocal condemnation. It is also clearly forbidden by the Torah and outlawed by society.

The writer is the regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis.

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