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by Tara Bognar

Modesty and Desire

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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.

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© 2011 Lilith Magazine