|Modesty in Islam|
I completely understand my cousin Elana Maryles Sztokman’s frustration. As I do her approach to rid the world of its attitudes and methods of dealing with female sexuality. But her approach ignores an undeniable reality. That a woman’s physical appearance is often seen by men in sexual terms, whether intended by the woman or not. And whether admitted to by men or not.
This has nothing to do with whether that is right or wrong. It is in fact wrong – as Elana points out - for society to see women as sex objects. I agree with her about that. But wrong though that may be, it is a fact of human nature that the Torah recognizes. And for which many of its laws were written. As well as the reason our sages added to those laws.
The question is how we deal with this aspect of human nature. Why is the focus only on female appearance and not on male appearance? Should there be any restrictions on how women dress? If so where are the lines to be drawn, if any? And what about restrictions on the way men dress?
I don’t know that there are simple answers to these questions. But let me attempt some rational approaches.
The Gemarah refers to sexual matters with the word Arayos - which translates as skin. Giluy Arayos translates as the exposure of skin but is used to refer to Halachic adultery - a capital offense for which one must give up his or her life rather than transgress.
Let us acknowledge that in most civilized cultures,exposed female skin is a stimulant for male sexual arousal. The more of it that is exposed, the more sexually arousing it is.
The same is not true for women. Although there may be a degree of visual sexual stimulation for women, it is nowhere near the same as for men. Exposed male skin does not generally arouse women sexually - as does exposed female skin for men.That’s why the porn industry is filled with images of women in various states of undress and in all manner of suggestive poses. There are far fewer pictures of men like that. To the extent that there are some, it is usually gay porn. Which again is geared to the male visual component.(Yes, there are exceptions.There are always exceptions.)
What should society do about this very real fact of life? It is important to make absolutely clear that it is first and foremost a Halachic responsibility of men to avoid gazing lustfully at women. Or viewing erotic images of them . That these images are everywhere, proves how effective they are in selling one’s wares. Madison Avenue uses soft porn in many cases to sell the products of their clients. And certainly Hollywood does. There is little anyone can do about that.
But there are things we can do within our own Jewish community to protect ourselves from images that lead to sinful thoughts and the even more sinful behavior.
This is where modesty in clothing comes in. Do women have an obligation to contribute to the holiness of our people? A holiness that by definition excludes eroticism outside of marriage? I think we all need to do our part, women included.
Nature is nature - and like it or not, exposing more flesh than is allowed by Halacha (in other than marital relationships) detracts from the God given holiness of the Jewish people. I don’t think that is arguable.
That now seems to be dawning on general society too. At least that part of society that has any common sense at all. As Elana reports in her Forward article:
The truth is that the spread of the “modesty” obsession from religious school settings to public school settings has been going on for some time, in both Israel and the United States.
The obsession with covering girls’ knees is no longer the territory of religious schools alone. Earlier this month, according to a report in Ha’aretz, a group of 12th-grade girls at the Israeli state Ben Zvi High School in Kiryat Ono were asked to cover their knees for yearbook photos, or stand behind a bench to hide their legs. Their exposed knees, they were told, were not “respectful” of the school.” No boys were asked to cover their knees.
One can quibble about various methods used to enforce modesty. Some of which are pretty egregious. Especially in some Orthodox environments. I agree with Elana that in many instances those methods go way too far. In a few cases they go from the sublime - to the ridiculous - to the downright evil.
But to completely ignore human nature in the name of some sort of feminist egalitarianism is going way too far in the other direction. The fact that egalitarian feelings are part of the equation is obvious from the very last sentence of the above excerpt: ‘No boys were asked to cover their knees’.
Although Elana, a former president of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), does not recommend it as a form of feminist protest, she actually defends their right to walk around topless in public if they so choose. Apparently because men have that right.
That said, based on her descriptions I agree with her about how various schools demand and enforce ‘modesty’ rules. Their methods are inappropriate. But the answer is not to ignore it. It is instead to teach young people about human nature and human dignity. What our daughters and sons need to know and should be taught is that first and foremost, women are not to be defined as sex objects. Women are creations of God just like men and deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect. In Judaism, both men and women have God given roles to fulfill. Being a sex object is not one of them.
But at the same time they must be taught about human nature. Men do look at women sexually. The more of a woman’s skin that is exposed, the more lustful a man’s heart becomes. Men in our day must therefore work mightily on Shmiras Enayim – guarding their eyes from gazing at women in sexual ways. But women should contribute to that too by dressing in ways that minimize being seen as sex objects. That men don’t have to do that nearly as much as women is based on human nature as well. Is that fair? No. But it is reality.
It is a reality recognized in all civilized cultures and major faiths. Some of which (like Islam) make Jewish concepts of modesty look promiscuous by comparison! It is a reality recognized by the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, who concluded that all of mankind’s actions are based on the libido (sex drive). One can disagree with Freud. But one cannot discount the very nature of the male sexual psyche which focuses on the visual versus the female sexual psyche which does not focus on the visual. At least not as much by far.
Where to draw the line is a bit more difficult. As in all things there is a happy medium between extremes. But to suggest, as Elana does, that we abandon all that in favor of some egalitarian goal is in my view ridiculous.