No, this is not a post about the mega popular blog by Rabbi Gil Student. I - like many others - am a big fan. This is a post about the erotic thoughts of men and women. In Halachic literature as well as the Yeshivishe vernacular these thoughts are often referred to by the short-hand phrase ‘Hirhurim’ which simply means ‘thoughts’.
The laws of Tznius as it applies to Hirhurim are designed to eliminate or at least reduce those thoughts. Hirhurim can sometimes lead to behavior that is forbidden by Halacha, some of it rabbinic, some of it biblical. On the biblical level punishments for sexually illicit behavior can range from financial fines, to Kares (a type of Heavenly meted out death), to death via a Beis Din (...if all conditions are met. Although in our day it could not be carried out even if those conditions are met).
The question always arises as to why women should carry the burden of Tznius? Why should they be forced to dress modestly? It is men who are obligated to avoid these sights and if they should encounter them to be able to control their thoughts – and certainly their actions.
It is also clear that Halacha is designed to prevent men from having Hirhurim. Women have no corresponding Halachos to prevent them from having Hirhurim. Men can dress practically any way they want in public. They can walk around shirtless; they can wear shorts, they do not have to cover their hair (for Tznius reasons – Kipot are worn for an entirely different reason which have nothing to do with Tznius). They can sing to their heart’s content; they can dance... all in front of women. There is a not a single Halacha that is designed to prevent women from having erotic thoughts.
The Jewish Press has published an interesting letter (the second one in that section)along these lines by Ms. Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs. She challenges the notion that only men have Hirhurim. She goes on to describe situations that indeed do cause ‘thoughts’ in women. From the Jewish Press:
Does anyone really think females do not have “thoughts” at a simcha, rally, or concert when they see young men dancing, jumping, gyrating and twirling? Do you really believe women are made of stone? Many of us seem to believe just that, since there’s no problem with women watching men.
I am not a woman but I am still absolutely certain that she is correct. Women have libidos too. I’m sure that Chazal realized this as did all the rabbinic authorities throughout the ages all the way down to our own.
If that is the case, why are there only Halachos about the Tznius of women? Why are there not parallel laws for men?
Ms. Dinerstein-Kurs suggests that it is in how each sex is educated. Women - she says – have been “properly taught”. Here is how she puts it:
While there is a difference in gender makeup, the fact is that when a he is “of interest” – whether it’s strong arms, a cute smile, a mellifluous singing voice – she notices!
Perhaps if males were as consistently inculcated with an appreciation of personal responsibility for their thoughts and deeds as females are from birth, males would be able keep their thoughts under control and not divest themselves of responsibility by making it a women’s issue.
I have to differ with her about this. Although she alludes to it, she does not pay sufficient attention to it. There are physiological differences between the sexes that causes a different response to erotica in men than it does in women. The response is physical and increases the desire in men to act on it… to relieve the sexual tension. Women may have a physical responses as well, but it is more subtle and not as physically obvious. A woman does not typically seek a release of that tension.
I don’t believe it is simply a matter of education. There is another thing that is different for men than women that may sound crude but nonetheless it is a critical difference in what each sex focuses on that arouses them sexually. Men focus on the female body - especially the exclsively feminine portions of it. This is what turns them on. I think most men will agree that that an exposed part of a woman’s body that is usually covered will give them instant Hirhurim. Female clothing that draws attention to that - will almost always cause such thoughts in men.
Women on the other hand tend to focus on other things that are not on a man’s body parts –as per Ms. Dinerstein-Kurs’ description.
It is also true that men by their nature tend to be more aggressive and act on erotic images far more frequently than women.
Judaism is not the only culture that sees human nature this way. Christian and Islamic cultures do too. It is obvious that our own sexually liberated western culture understands this very well since virtually all sexual stimuli in the public square involves various degrees of exposing the female body. As an example one need only look at the recent Academy awards. What were men wearing? What were women wearing?
Of course there are always exceptions but it is a mistake to think that both sexes see erotic stimuli in the same “equal but opposite” way. Or that men would respond the same way as women if they were “properly educated”.
Where to draw lines is a question of community standards. Halachicly - once the basics of Erva (nakedness) are covered, community standards can vary. I don't think it is unreasonable that Halacha asks women dress modestly by community standards in the public square.
As a general rule no community has a right to impose its standards on another – in either direction. Modern sensibilities of Tznius have no bearing on how people of a closed insular community like Meah Shearim view Tznius, and by the same token the Tznius view from Meah Shearim has no bearing on how the modern world sees it.
Every community is allowed to have its own Tznius standards provided there are no Erva violations – exposure of those parts of the body that are considered erotic by the standards of the Torah. It is when one segment insists that their standards be the common denominator for everyone that causes trouble. I think that this attitude is the source of almost all problems we see today in this area.