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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

February 1, 2012 by

Modesty and Desire


Rabbi Dov Linzer, a prominent figure in Open Orthodoxy, recently published Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud in the New York Times. The article explicitly responds to some recent attempts by ultra-Orthodox leaders in Israel to enforce their standards of “modesty,” (E.g.: Segregated elevators; segregated buses; a newspaper blurring out the mother’s face in the family picture accompanying the article about the murder of the mother and father). Linzer rebukes the ultra-Orthodox for hyper-sexualizing women and calling it “modesty” to police their dress and public presence. He cites Talmudic sources to correct the ultra-Orthodox understanding of Jewish law in this area. Linzer says:

The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don’t see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men’s — and only men’s — control.

He concludes:

Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning “to walk humbly with your God.”

As much as I prefer Linzer’s approach to the ultra-Orthodox one to which he is responding, this last paragraph is puzzling and troubling to me.

For one thing, although Linzer states that Judaism teaches “men and women alike” to be modest in dress –one wonders why Jewish tradition would even bother addressing men’s clothing; like the screeds (and publishing habits) of the ultra-Orthodox, Linzer’s article ignores the possibility, the reality, of female lust. [1. To be fair to both Rabbi Linzer and the ultra-Orthodox, the rest of the world often does as well. It is only very recently that the idea of eye candy or fan service for women has caught on in popular culture, and old standbys about how men’s attractions are based on looks and physicality while women’s are based on status, humor, wit, etc., don’t seem anywhere near to be being extinguished. I believe this is not unrelated to the experiences of more than one of my women friends of realizing, in their late twenties or thirties, that they are not actually physically attracted to men they have spent years in relationships with, that they do have the capacity for attraction that is as deeply physical as it is mental and emotional, and how positively genuine physical attraction can affect sexual intimacy).]

But I am even more troubled by his almost off-hand assertion that Jewish modesty traditions are about more than clothes, that they are about not needing to “be the center of attention.”

It strikes me as disingenuous to imply that there is anything “men and women alike” about Jewish tradition and being the center of attention. It ignores the world of difference between the opportunities accorded to men and women to act publicly.

While there are certainly many inappropriate ways to gain and occupy public attention, men have had and continue to have many legitimate and even valorized ways to be center of attention.

Men have been honored as scholars, taught in front of masses, had their names written down, remembered, and recited. They have been encouraged to study and, as students, to raise their voices in learning and questions. They have been asked to stand as the center of attention of an entire congregation, men and women, to give a d’var Torah (teaching on scripture) or to be called to the Torah, or even to act as the congregation’s messenger (shaliach) to God. According to their skills and inclinations, they have been groomed as teachers, rabbis, gabbais, Torah readers, prayer leaders, community leaders, political leaders, and more.

For men, seeking and using public attention are not, in and of themselves, at all condemned.

(Linzer himself is writing in the New York Times, a prestigious publication with international distribution. At the end of the article his tag line that informs readers that he is not just anybody, he is an Orthodox rabbi and the dean of a rabbinical school).

Yet women have not been permitted any of these. Traditional women’s observances take place in solitude (ritual bath-mikvah), relative solitude (the kitchen and the home), or at best, in the company of women alone. The public venues of Jewish life have been largely closed to them.

In a historic context of exclusion from schools and synagogues and current day de facto and de jure exclusion from public leadership roles, being dressed in a startling manner when she does happen to come into men’s field of vision is possibly the only way that a woman could have been the center of mixed-gender attention.

Traditional Judaism does not need to resort to the concept of modesty to preclude women from public attention. A myriad of other laws do the job and our surrounding culture offers plenty of support – urging women to be smaller, to take up less space, to not sound too smart, to not speak too loudly, to share or deflect praise, and to not call attention to their own skills and accomplishments. [2. A real problem when it comes to applying for jobs and raises: “(S)elf-promoting women risk having less influence than women who are more modest, even though women who self-promote are considered more competent than their more-modest counterparts.” Brag Like a Lady: Self-Promote Without Backlash]

Although women are taking on more visible leadership roles than ever before, progress is slow and uneven: Young Israel bans women from publicly reading megillah at Purim and from serving as synagogue presidents. Men conservative rabbis find full time jobs and prestigious placements more easily than women rabbis. The gender gap in leadership and wages in Jewish organizations is worse than in the nonprofit sector at large.

I applaud Rabbi Linzer’s efforts to articulate a more gender-egalitarian understanding of modesty. He certainly faces an uphill battle. Encouragingly, his movement’s advocacy for women’s public leadership roles, including chanting Torah, leading certain parts of services, and even the quasi-Rabbinic Maharat position, indicates an at least implicit understanding that the concept of modesty, if it is to treat “men and women alike” currently leaves a great deal of room for women to grow more prominent and be the objects of more public attention rather than less.

See also:

  • Rabbi Joshua Gutoff’s respectful but critical response to Rabbi Linzer’s article identifies significant issues ignored by Linzer’s approach, which he considers apologetics.
  • Rabbi Shaul Magid’s An Open Letter to Rabbi Dov Linzer on Modesty and Jewish Law argues that Linzer’s article ignores both Talmudic sources and traditional Jewish legal structures that undermine his arguments.



  • TK

    ‘For men, seeking and using public attention are not, in and of themselves, at all condemned.’

    Wow. This really hit home with me, and religion doesn’t even have to answer the equation. In high school, I remember people calling out girls for ‘just wanting attention’ whether they were wearing a certain outfit or talking a lot in class. Because, well, god forbid. It’s the same reason some people are still hesitant about women asking men out. One person gets to explore and assert themselves, the other must wait and react.

  • http://www.tarabognar.com Tara Bognar

    TK, thanks for commenting! You’re so right that this phenomenon is, unfortunately, not something that sets Judaism apart. It’s very interesting, and infuriating, that it’s such a common accusation.

    In Jewish contexts I’ve seen it a lot even for things like women taking on tzitzit and tefillin. It goes very much against the Pirkei Avot principle of judging a person on the side of merit.

    On the secular side, here is a related (and fun) post from the AntiGirlfriend about an artist, Lilly McElroy who literally thew herself at men and recorded the results.

  • Sigal Samuel

    Great article, Tara! I was puzzled and troubled by the same aspects of Rabbi Linzer’s article; thank you for responding to it so thoughtfully and articulately.

  • http://interrupting.blogspot.com Joshua Schwartz

    great article, tara.
    re: men and tznius, i think actually all of these articles are missing a very important component of ultra-orthodox culture, in which the language of tznius is deployed specifically to refer to regulations re: men’s dress as well. now, of course, tznius is still a discourse largely devoted towards regulating women’s bodies and behavior, but in the hasidic world, men are not supposed to wear jackets which are too short or pants which are too tight, since they are not deemed tzniusdik.
    i actually think the backhanded egalitarianism present in this case provides us with an opening to discussing tznius which jibes with feminist ethics.

  • Pesach

    You seem to believe that there is inverse relationship between modesty and being the center of attention. Perhaps i haven’t fully understood what you have written.

    The requirement for men to be the center of attention should still be a humbling experience for the individual in that position. A true leader can be the center of attention whilst not letting his ego interfere with that job.

    It seems to me that is the understanding of modesty that Rabbi Linzer’s was explaining in his article. Your perspective on this is flawed in my opinion.

    My apologies if I have read your article incorrectly and misrepresented you.

  • Drisha alum

    Tara— a lot of what you are saying is reflective of general society, not just Jewish society. It is the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbinate…I’m not sure about the stats on Reconstructionist women rabbis. Women are underpaid everywhere— We have a disproportionate representation of men in leading positions in the business, political, and, yes, also the religious world. Rabbi Linzer is someone who empowers women- he is not Young Israel, he is not haredi, he is not someone who is looking to keep women in the mikvah/home (examples which are NOT reflective of my experience as a Jewish woman…not in the least). Rabbi Linzer is fighting the fight…for you… It is unfair and immature to place a set of sexist norms in the same sentence as Rabbi Linzer. He was writing for the NY Times…not for The Jewish Week or Lilith.

  • http://www.tarabognar.com Tara Bognar

    Sigal – Thank you!

    Josh – The simple fact that there are clothes rules for both men and women is at least a modicum of apparent egalitarianism and may well be a good starting place. There are still so many differences though… I’d be curious to hear where you’re going with it!

    Pesach – I think that we agree that Judaism encourages men to use their skills and talents in a way that benefits both themselves and their community, and/even if that puts them at the center of communal attention.

    Drisha alum – Yay Drisha! First I will say that I absolutely agree that suppressing and undervaluing women’s voices and leadership is a society-wide and Judaism-wide problem. That wasn’t my focus here (although I did mention it in multiple places).

    I appreciate R. Linzer’s efforts, as I wrote in my last paragraph. But I think his words in the NYT article are actually inconsistent with his efforts to increase women’s scope of public religious activity.

    A reader of the New York Times who is not already very knowledgeable about the Jewish community and R. Linzer’s corner of it would have no way of knowing that R. Linzer, who is identified at the end only as an “Orthodox Rabbi”, is actually working to encourage women’s public roles – work that goes against the grain of other organizations that identify as Orthodox (e.g., Young Israel) as opposed to Ultra-Orthodox. On the other hand, a casual reader of my essay here might actually have a much more positive impression of R. Linzer’s work in that regard.

    As far as placing sexist norms in the same sentence as R. Linzer: I believe that I can respect R. Linzer and his work and still express significant disagreement with him about issues of gender and sexism. I don’t really see where immaturity comes into it.

    Finally, I am truly glad that your experiences do not reflect a restriction of your religious expression of Judaism to private arenas. There have always been exceptional Jewish women (exceptional by their intellect, luck, wealth, social standing, family connections, and often, by necessity, all of the above) for whom that has been the case – but I would argue that, both historically and today (in many communities), that has not been the sociological or the ideological norm. I believe that to the extent that R. Linzer, or any of us, wants to effectively change that for the future – not just for exceptional women but for ordinary women as well – it must first be acknowledged without apologetics or obfuscation.