One of the most insightful people of the 20th century was Sigmund Freud. One of his theories was that all human behavior was controlled by the libido – otherwise known as the sex drive. If not directly seeking sex the libidinal energy is redirected subliminally into other productive behavior. Most of Freud’s theories which not long ago were considered gospel in the field of human behavior have been discredited. But I’m not so sure about this particular theory.
It seems to me that everything that is currently happening in Israel is – one way or another tied to sex. The constant refrain one hears of late on virtually all matters Charedi is the word Tznius – modesty. Although modesty is a Jewish value at non sexual levels too, the word Tznius as currently used – refers to the way women dress, or to what level if any they should be seen in public.
The question arises - are women considered sex objects in Judaism? I don’t think the answer is all that simple.
The fact is that Judaism honors women. It attributes to them great wisdom. The expression used in the Gemarah is Bina Yesirah. It also commands husbands to honor their wives over themselves. It is the woman that is entrusted to raise the children. They set the tone for the home. The home is where the greatest influences on the children are. The Gemarah tells us: Chachmas Nashim Bansah Baysah – the wisdom of women builds the home. I think that may be one reason that non Jewish women always say that Jewish men make the best husbands. That we Jews honor our women has not gone unnoticed among non Jews in our day.
But Judaism also recognizes the sex drive and how it operates in men. For men sexual stimuli are mostly visual. The Torah sanctions – and even encourages sexual activity in the context of marriage. Outside of marriage sexual activity is forbidden. Some of it at a biblical level and some of it at a rabbinic level. Chazal enacted precautions so as to prevent illicit sexual activity. One of the most oft cited examples of this is that men are required to avoid gazing even at a woman’s little finger if there is a sexual thought behind it.
In light of all this we can better understand the focus on Tznius and the differences in various Orthodox communities in today’s world.
In the modern world where social contact between the sexes is fairly common Halacha dictates the normal precautions to be taken in order to avoid being sexually aroused. Utilizing these precautions - men and women engage in all manner of social and communal contact in the public sphere. There is little danger that such casual contact will lead to anything other than... well - casual contact. We thus have Orthodox female lawyers, accountants, doctors, dentists, executives and politicians. All well dressed and yet modest by Halachic standards.
In the insular world of Meah Shearim and Bet Shemesh women are mostly hidden from sight. The mere glimpse of a women’s femininity will generate licentious thoughts. Many additional precautions are taken to prevent that. These precautions extend to very young girls – well under the age of 12.
There are no pictures of women at any age anywhere. Not on posters or billboards and not in any of their publications - no matter how modestly they are dressed. Women wear only loose fitting clothes. They are covered up ‘head to toe’. They are separated from men completely in public: separate seating on buses; never walking or sitting behind a woman; in some cases there are even separate sidewalks. Some Chasidim even require their wives to shave their heads.
It may be a self fulfilling prophecy to feel the need to hide women like this. A lot of what one sees as erotic is based on what one is used to seeing. In a society that virtually hides women, it is not a stretch to say that a libidinous thought may emerge in a man at the mere sight of a woman not dressed according the Meah Shearim standards.
On the other hand in societies like Hollywood where Tznius in dress practically does not exist, it takes a lot more to be sexually aroused than even the sight of a woman in a sleeveless, backless evening gown. Again - it’s all about what one is used to seeing, I think.
The irony is that the more ‘religious’ one is about separating the sexes and avoiding all contact with women - the more women are seen as sex objects. Every discussion about Tznius revolves around the idea that a man will be aroused by the sight of a woman.
As we go up the 'Frumkeit' ladder, we begin to see increasing levels of covering up and increasing levels of separation between the sexes. The more RW one is the more women are treated as sex objects.
To cite an example of this - I recall the Charedi fellow from Ramat Bet Shemesh who was stopped and interviewed about the extremists from his camp calling an 8 year old girl a whore. His angry response included a statement along the lines of "We are healthy men'. Translation: When we see a woman we see a sex object.
Unfortunately the collateral damage of all this is being acted out on the world stage by extremist Charedim in Israel. All kinds of unreasonable demands are being made upon the rest of even religious society. What the most of even the Charedi world takes for granted as well within the limits of modest behavior between men and women is seen as not only a violation of Tznius, it is seen as forcing conditions of immodesty upon them. The following excerpt from a guest post on Cross Currents illustrates this:
I spoke last week with Rav Kopshitz, the Rav of the Eida Chareidis of Beit Shemesh. I asked him what his personal opinion was of the abuse being directed by the kanayim against residents of my neighborhood. He answered “and what do you think about the abuse being directed against Chareidim?” I answered that I completely opposed it, but that I hadn’t heard of much. His reply was striking: “The police are abusing us when they take down our signs asking women not to walk on some sidewalks, because they’re trying to force us to walk immodestly in our own homes.”
Right! Women if women end up on the wrong side of the street and encounter a man – no matter how Tzanua she is - it is considered immodest by this Eida Rav and all of his ‘Chasidim’. Is there any greater proof that women are seen as sex objects in this world? They can deny it all day long by quoting the Gemaros I cited above. At the end of the day women in the public square are treated as sex objects.
To the extent that women there go along with it is merely a function of their own indoctrination. They are taught to believe that men will always see them as sex objects. That’s why many joyfully abide by - and even laud - all the restrictions placed upon them. Not being a ‘stumbling block’ to men by minimizing (some would say eliminating) their femininity and presence in public is their way of serving God. And their insular lifestyles assure that they will stay that way.