An immodest prohibition

‘...we no longer aim to produce a community of pious persons. Rather, we are striving to engineer a community where men simply never see women’ – Dr. Nachum Klafter

Graffiti and signs in Beit Shemesh tell people to wear only modest clothing (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Graffiti and signs in Beit Shemesh tell people to wear only modest clothing
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Jewish law instituted prohibitions, guidelines and safeguards regarding the interaction between men and woman – prohibitions of abiding alone with, touching and looking at a person of the opposite sex. It did not institute separate sides of the street for men and women to walk on, or separate hours for men and women in supermarkets. It did not obligate women to sit in the rear of buses.
Dr. Nachum Klafter, a prominent Orthodox American Jewish psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and academic, opines that “severe standards for modesty and gender separation have lowered the threshold for sexual stimulation, which has led to an increase in sexual problems. Gender separation, when it becomes so extreme, causes a shift in the locus of control from internal to external. With this approach, we no longer aim to produce a community of pious persons. Rather, we are striving to engineer a community where men simply never see women.”
Ultra-Orthodox publications do not include pictures of modestly dressed women and even altered the photograph of the new Israeli government so that the faces of the female ministers were either pixelated or removed entirely. In Beit Shemesh, the word “isha” [woman] was spray-painted over on a sign for a women’s health clinic.
In the article, “An immodest obsession: Vanishing Women,” (The Jerusalem Post, August 14, 2015), Shoshanna Keats- Jaskoll highlights the dangerous trend of erasing women from the public sphere in haredi communities in Israel and the US. In the article, Keats-Jaskoll interviews Menachem Schloss, a Beit Shemesh haredi psychotherapist. “A clear result of extremes in tzniut [modesty] is, ironically, pornography,” Schloss is quoted as saying.
“People with such mind-sets [that women should be hidden from view] are far more likely to perceive normal human drives as an addiction issue.”
As a result of this approach, young haredi men absorb the message that women are primarily sexual objects, and one has to be always on guard not to fall prey to their temptations. These men do not have the opportunity to learn how to interact respectfully with women or to appreciate and value them for their intelligence, personality traits, talents and contributions to society. Many young haredi men feel uncomfortable speaking to females, and they avoid looking at them even though these women are modestly dressed.
Recently, Rabbi Yitchak Zilberstein, a highly respected arbiter from Bnei Brak, in reply to a question raised by a haredi psychiatrist, recommended that limits for the sake of modesty should be placed on treatment by psychotherapists of patients of the opposite gender. Klafter, in an excellent article titled “Psychotherapy Treatment with Patients of Opposite Sex,” wrote: “It has been suggested to me that perhaps Rabbi Zilberstein’s advice is appropriate for a therapist who lives in the type of hassidic or haredi community where such efforts are made to prevent any interaction, public or private, between men and women.”
Keats-Jaskoll, in her article, points out that Rabbi Haim of Volozhin (18th century), one of the outstanding Torah scholars of his day, discusses the paradox of lustful thoughts, maintaining that when a man commits to never looking at a woman, his desire will burn like fire. “The very thing he seeks to avoid will come to dominate his mind,” she writes.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), a prominent scholar and spiritual leader, in discussing the basics of education, makes the point that if we wish that our children be protected against extreme weather conditions, we should accustom them while they are still young to be exposed to harsh weather conditions in order to develop resistance and be inoculated against severe storms and torrential rains. This rule pertains to physical health, and is even more pertinent regarding the field of spirituality and ethics.
In a responsum dealing with the inevitability of seeing and coming into contact with women in public places, the above author refers to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the most respected halachic authority of the last century, ruling that “one should be capable of riding on buses or subways in close contact with women without becoming sexually aroused.”
He adds that if an individual is not capable of doing so without becoming sexually stimulated, he would indeed be obligated to avoid being around women, but would also be obligated to take steps to change himself. “If one knows that he has a lustful nature and that he will become sexually aroused – then it is prohibited even if he needs to travel on buses and subways. But Heaven forbid that a person should be that way! This is a result of idleness.... therefore one needs to be involved in Torah study and in work, so he will no longer be like this.”
I recall an amusing incident that occurred many years ago. While climbing into her high chair, the skirt of my fouryear- old haredi granddaughter was accidentally lifted above her knees. When she noticed this, she began crying hysterically, “I am not tznua [modest]” over and over again. After several minutes, her mother succeeded in calming her down and sent her to her room to put on her pajamas. Several minutes later she exited from her room completely naked and ran around the house singing, dancing and laughing until her mother finally corralled her and put on her pajamas.
It is very unfortunate that the zealots of the haredi community in Beit Shemesh and other extreme enclaves have not accepted and incorporated the enlightened views of the three previously mentioned supreme Torah scholars.
The writer is a supervising psychologist at the Marbeh Da’at Mental Health Center, Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center. He edited Rabbis and Psychologists: Partners or Adversaries (2014), Reader for the Orthodox Jewish Psychotherapist: Issues, Case Studies and Contemporary Responsa (2014) and authored Thinking Out of the Box: Unconventional Psychotherapy (2015).