Thursday, July 07, 2011

Abnormal Modesty

There is much Michshol in the world in the area of modesty. That is not even a question. Much worse than simply wearing a ‘sexy’ sheitel. I in fact completely believe that most men respond to visual stimuli and that our minds often quickly travel to places they shouldn’t. Freud was right about the power of the sex drive. But Chazal knew this way before Freud did. That’s why standards of modesty have always been important for us.

The problem is that in our day, we have become so obsessed with it that almost any tragedy that befalls the world is seen as rooted in our own lack of Tznius. This attitude has caused more than its share of problems for us. It has caused many among us to adopt stringencies of dress and interaction between the sexes that I do not believe were ever intended by God or by Chazal.

Women do not have to be invisible. They are entitled to be a part of society and dress well. They just need to not be provocative. If a given man is aroused by a woman who is well dressed but modest, that is his problem. He should ‘avert his eyes’ if he thinks a mere glance will cause him to sin. I would suggest that a reaction like this is abnormal in any case unless he is looking to be aroused.

That there may other men like this is - in my opinion - more likely to be found in a world that goes to great lengths to separate the sexes. Like certain Chasidic enclaves. Contact between the sexes is avoided in the extreme. This makes them highly sensitized to things which the rest of us would not give a second thought.

There is no Halachic mandate to live in this kind of world. We are not required to go to abnormal lengths to avoid seeing a woman who is modestly dressed.

I truly believe there are objective standards of modesty that should apply to all. But in the zeal to go beyond the letter of the law, we have created a situation that has produced Burka ladies. And we have created a climate where women are seen almost entirely as sex objects. Or even as temptresses out on the prowl – intentionally or otherwise. So those who are modest by most Orthodox standards are asked to do even more – as described in that audio.

Increased modesty in dress is not the only area that seems to be gaining traction. Perfectly harmless photos of modestly dressed women that were heretofore completely acceptable are now taboo.

And a recent article in Ha’aretz tells us of yet another trend creeping into the mainstream - separate tables for the sexes in a home on Shabbos.

This is of course is nothing new in certain Chasidic circles. There is a rather famous story about a Chortkover Chasid, Rav Meir Shapiro (of Daf Yomi fame) being ‘uninvited’ by the Chafetz Chaim because of Rav Shapiro’s inisitence to be seated at a separate table from the woman on Shabbos. The Chafetz Chaim refused to sit separately from his wife. (There are various versions of this story – but I believe this is more or less the substance of it.) And yet separate tables are finding their way into the mainstream today.

Some Chasidic weddings even have separate buildings for men and women post Chupah. There are now sepearte sidewalks in certain neighborhoods in Israel. And let’s not forget Mehadrin (separate seating) buses.

There are those who might say, live and let live. What difference is it to me that one or another group adopts Chumros that are extreme? As long as they don’t force me to do it.

Normally I would agree. The problem is that that they do force me to it. Not physically, but by virtue of influencing those outside their world that their standard is the holier one. In a world that competes to see ‘who is the Frummest of them all’ no religious faction will allow itself to be outdone by the Frumkeit of another.

Yestreday it was mixed seating at weddings. Tomorrow it will be Shaitels. It is not to difficult to forsee a time where wearing a Shaitel will be something that only the modern Orthodox do!

It’s true that Burka ladies are currently ridiculed even by the far right Eida HaCharedis types. But the direction we have been going is definitely in that one. What better way to be ‘invisible’ than to cover oneself up from head to toe with a tent like dress?! … or the closest thing to it.

That the entire world of Orthodox Judaism is moving to the right is no secret. But the one area that seems to be focused upon the most is that of Tznius.

Women do not have to be invisible. Nor should they be forced to shoulder the full responsibility for men who might sin at the mere sight of their baby finger.

In a normal world men do not sin or even think about sinning at the sight of a modestly dressed woman. In normal households husbands, wives, and their guests should sit at the same table on Shabbos. Pictures of women need not be forbidden. There is no need for Judaism to become abnormal. God does not want to us to be abnormal.

And yet the trend is going the other way. Tznius standards are becoming more stringent with every passing day. Normalcy is being discarded as ‘the way of the street’.

Most people reading this might say that we will never adopt extremes like sitting at separate tables on Shabbos. Maybe not. But I would have said the same thing about separate seating at weddings 40 years ago. The Yeshiva world had mixed seating weddings. Today, some Roshei Yeshiva will boycott such weddings. And who would have dreamed that pictures of Tznius Rebbetzins would be taboo?!

I don’t know what anyone can do about the current state of affairs. Especially when all the ills in the world are blamed on a lack of Tznius. But the one thing I am convinced of is that we can’t continue to moving to the right forever. If we do way may move right into oblivion.

Can’t happen? It already has. The Essenes who lived during the second temple era were obsessed with Tznius too. Where are they now?

Update: I have modified this post to honor the privacy wishes of a family in distress