Sexual responsibility

Does Judaism really believe that humans are nothing but walking libidos?

understanding tzniut boo (photo credit: )
understanding tzniut boo
(photo credit: )
Understanding Tzniut By Yehuda Henkin Urim 141 pages; $19.50 Sex is a hot issue. But for Orthodoxy the preoccupation with illicit sexual attraction has taken on an all-encompassing centrality. Concern that men will be enticed by women while they make their way through the public sphere has provoked religious leaders to take radical measures. Dozens of public bus lines, catering to a predominantly haredi population, regularly separate the two sexes, placing women at the back of the bus while men are seated up front. Increasingly more demanding standards of dress are being adopted by haredi women. A small fringe group headed by Bruria Keren of Ramat Beit Shemesh has even chosen to adopt the dress code of radical Islam, including total face coverings and multiple layers of clothing that totally hide the curves and shapes of the female anatomy. There are small groups of these women in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and other places. In the haredi media the situation is the same. Female images of any kind are conspicuously absent from all haredi newspapers. Haredi sensitivities to the dangers of lascivious influences are so developed that even a young male singer whose voice sounded uncannily female was banned from the haredi airwaves. The sacrifice made by religious women to adhere to the strictures of chastity and modesty imposed by the norms of their communities is enormous. Some women are willing to burn wigs made of human hair worth thousands of dollars in deference to rabbinic opinion. Others opt to search out new women-only job settings created especially for the haredi public in towns such as Modi'in Illit and Betar, thus forgoing socioeconomic upward mobility. Even the more modern circles of Orthodoxy have been affected by this trend. Just recently a group of religious Zionist soldiers were thrown in military prison for refusing to take part in a lecture given by a female soldier. A list of leading religious Zionist rabbis signed a petition demanding that the IDF accommodate modern religious soldiers' demands for separation of the sexes. Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, written by Yehuda Henkin, former rabbi of the Beit She'an Valley and author of the Bnei Banim compilation of halachic responsa, provides a framework for understanding religious communities' attempts to bundle up, segregate and generally desexualize the public sphere. The book, a series of articles published previously in modern Orthodox journals of Jewish law such as Tradition and Hakirah lacks a single cohesive theme. It even includes chapters that have nothing whatsoever to do with tzniut (roughly translated as modest and chaste behavior and dress), such as one titled "After Gush Katif: May One Oppose Israel's Government?" and "A Memorial Day for European Jewry - Did its Rabbis Err?" But the bulk of the book is a discussion of Jewish legal sources dealing with women's dress codes and the mingling of the sexes and how they are implemented by contemporary halachic authorities. Henkin might get too technical and bogged down by the intricacies of Jewish law for the taste of the general reader. But it is precisely here, amid the legalistic nitty-gritty of the centuries-old halachic discourse among rabbis, where Henkin stages his argument against extreme trends in Orthodoxy. His most central argument against the religious community's obsessive preoccupation with tzniut is habituation. Quoting extensive halachic sources, Henkin shows that sexual arousal is culturally dependent. Centuries ago the rabbis understood that in cultures that condoned the free mingling of the sexes, dress codes and strictures against socializing with the opposite sex could be loosened. "Where women walk around in halter tops or less, a short sleeved blouse is minimally provocative and when pornography is rampant, viewing a woman's face is not titillating." Henkin never explains why this is so. Perhaps it is a type of conditioning. If a man is bombarded with sexuality, he gradually loses his sensitivity. His threshold rises. He becomes numbed. Another possibility is that in cultures where speaking with a woman, shaking her hand, seeing her hair is the norm there is no reason to read into these encounters a sexual connotation. The range of platonic relations between men and women widens. Women's dress or behavior is not given a lascivious interpretation by men. Whatever the reason, rabbis have cited habituation as a justification for permitting a number of practices which some halachic sources prohibit. For instance walking behind a woman, inquiring about a married woman's welfare, mixed seating at weddings and being exposed to women's hair during prayer. For Henkin, habituation is a force for potential leniencies in Judaism. In communities and cultures where men and women mingle freely, certain strictures can be abandoned. He is careful to point out that it is forbidden to introduce the mingling of the sexes in communities where it does not already exist. Rather Halacha can only legitimize an existing practice. But Henkin never fully examines the possibility of how habituation could work in the opposite direction to introduce ever more stringent behavior - a phenomenon that exists today. What happens if communities become accustomed to covering up and segregating their women? Devoid of contact with members of the opposite sex from an early age, would men become hypersensitive sex maniacs? Would every movement by a woman, even the most innocent, trigger uncontrollable sexual excitement? To say that men are solely a product of conditioning like a sexually crazed version of Pavlov's dog is a degrading view of human nature. Where is free will? Does Judaism really believe that humans are nothing but walking libidos, lascivious products of their circumstances? One would be hard pressed to find an answer to this question in Henkin's book. But, thankfully, if one looks hard enough one can find it. In a footnote to a subsection entitled "Limits to Enactments," Henkin does offer a short explanation. He cites a Jewish law that prohibits a man from gazing at the colored clothes of a woman he knows because it is liable to spark sexual fantasizing. "That being the case," asks Henkin, "why didn't the Sages forbid the wearing of colored clothing altogether, at least outside the home?" Good idea. Why not institute a sweeping black-only apparel policy for women like the one adopted by haredi men? After explaining that women would never accept such a policy since they "seek to be attractive," unlike men, apparently, who seek to be repulsive, Henkin points out as an afterthought an incisive insight that does not even warrant being included in the main body of his book: " is the responsibility of the man not to look, and not the responsibility of the woman to avoid affording the man something to look at." Too bad Henkin's insight does not have a more central position in halachic discourse. If it did, expectations would be higher that men exercise their free will. And men would be expected to solve their sexual hang-ups on their own without thinking so much about what women should be doing to help them. Then, to borrow a phrase from Henkin, there would not be a danger of "being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else."