Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Reflections on Tzniut and Beit Shemesh by Aryeh Klapper

January 19, 2012 by  
Filed under New Posts

The unconscionable physical and verbal violence against women in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere have degraded the religious concept of tzeniut (modestyby associating it with misogyny and oppression. Some Orthodox condemnations of that violence, by objecting to means while acknowledging shared ends, have added to that degradation.  My purpose here is to directly reject the ends, in other words to offer a vigorously Orthodox and halakhic understanding of the purposes and parameters of tzeniut that opposes the goals and not just the means of those who seek to use tzeniut as a weapon to subordinate women or intimidate them out of the public square.    

Here are four key points:

1. Tzeniut is a broad Jewish value whose practical expression is opposition to unnecessary and meretricious self-exposure, whether of the body or of the soul.  It relates to all people, male and female alike, and all of life.  Reducing it to a code for women’s dress and actions reflects an unhealthy obsession, equivalent to reducing love to an expression of (exclusively male) lust.

2. Tzeniut is intended to preserve and expand the domain of intimacy.  Intimacy is constructed by exclusivity of exposure, by sharing things about oneself that one does not share broadly.  People with inadequate emotional boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship though emotional sharing, and people with inadequate physical boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship through physical intimacy.

3.  Tzeniut is intended to preserve the integrity of personal space – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  People who “spill” emotionally compel others to respond to them – to feel pity when they express suffering, anger when they express betrayal, and the like.  This legitimately feels like a violation.  The same is true of unwanted touch, or of unwanted visual erotic stimulation.

4. Tzeniut is one value in the complex web of Jewish values, which must constantly negotiate its place in that web.  It can be trumped, or attenuated, when it comes into conflict with other Jewish values.  From the halakhic perspective, once tzeniut is correctly defined as unnecessary self-exposure, it becomes clear that it should not be applied mechanically, but rather on the basis of a sensitive and dynamic understanding of the necessary. 

It should be clear that excessive tzeniut can be pathological.  People who never share their emotions do not experience ultimate intimacy, but rather intractable loneliness.  People who never react to others’ emotions do not become fully developed selves, but rather stunted and selfish.  The goals of tzeniut can only be fulfilled in a society that fosters intimacy and empathy. 

Similarly, in the erotic realm tzeniut is intended to maximize the space for marital intimacy, not to make husbands and wives chary of each other’s bodies, and to give people autonomous control of their sexuality, not to disassociate them from their physical selves.

With these understandings in hand, we can approach the question of how the value of tzeniut should play out in halakhic practice with regard to women’s public dress, voice, etc.

My starting point is a Talmudic passage in Tractate Taanit(23a-b).  The gemara there records that a delegation of rabbis observed a set of peculiar practices of the great but enigmatic Abba Chilkiyah, grandson of Choni the Circlemaker.  Among these was that when he returned from laboring in the fields, his wife would go out to the city gate to greet him in her best Shabbat clothing.  When the rabbis asked Abba Chilkiyah why she behaved so, he responded “so that I will not look at other women”.

Now the subtext of the story, the implicit challenge of the rabbinic delegation, is why Abba Chilkiyah justifies his wife’s behavior rather than reproving her for being immodest.  After all, while preventing him from looking at other women, is she not causing other men to look at her? 

The answer is that Mrs. Abba Chilkiyah has the right, perhaps even the obligation, to do what is necessary for her own marriage, regardless of the effect on other men.  In this regard she is not the halakhic exception, but rather the rule: all wives have the right and obligation to make themselves attractive to their husbands, even though this will inevitably increase their attractiveness to other men as well. 

But why should this be so?  Here we need to recognize that Halakhah does not directly obligate women to dress or behave modestly, however that is defined[1].   Rather, such obligations emerge from laws

  1. regulating whether people, male or female,  can perform a set of ritual acts, such as making blessings, in the presence of people, male or female, who are exposing parts of their body that are defined halakhically as erva
  2. regulating whether people, male or female, can perform a different but largely overlapping set of ritual acts in environments that are likely to stimulate them to erotic fantasizing
  3. permitting men to divorce without a ketuvah, or forbidding men from remaining married to, women whose immodest behavior suggests the likelihood of adultery
  4. forbidding people, male or female, to enter or remain in situations that are likely to result in illicit sexual liaisons
  5. forbidding men to enter or remain in situations that are likely to result in a purposeless seminal emission
  6. requiring at least men, and possibly women, to study Torah whenever possible

Indeed, we need to recognize that Halakhah does not directly obligate women to dress or behave modestly[1], however that is defined.  Such obligations emerge instead via the obligation v’lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – “you must not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus19:14), The Talmudic Rabbis understood this verse metaphorically as creating a covenant of mutual responsibility, with the specific consequences that Jews are responsible not to create circumstances that cause others to violate prohibitions, preclude them from performing ritual obligations, or distract them from the study of Torah.  Each of these consequences is readily conceptualizable as an obligation to respect the others’ space.    

Now the “stumbling block” argument is always a potentially dangerous weapon.  Here is an illustration: The Talmud states that lifnei iver forbids fathers to give corporal punishment to grown children (Moed Qatan 17a), because this will cause the children to rebel and therefore violate their obligations to treat their parent with honor and reverence.  But what if children will rebel even when asked to perform minor household chores?  Worse, what if children learn this rule, and then give credible preemptive notice that they will disobey any parental command – does this effectively bar any exercise of parental authority?  If I tell my neighbor that if she ever cooks broccoli again, I will be driven to eat a cheeseburger – can I control her diet by claiming potential spiritual injury?

The answer is of course not – Halakhah does not allow one person to take advantage of the covenant of mutual responsibility so as to prevent another from living a normal fulfilling human life.  By the same token, Jewish law does not allow men to use erotic lifnei iver to prevent women from living normal fulfilling lives.

Now what constitutes a normal fulfilling life?  It should be clear that this is a sociologically dependent category.  In some societies it may be necessary to jog in public, but not in others; in some societies it may be necessary to sing in mixed company, but not in others; and so on.  It is likely that in each society, whatever is done habitually will have minimal erotic impact, and have minimal capacity to express intimacy.  None of these societies is intrinsically preferable according to Jewish law, so long as they are fully compatible with taking the obligations and values listed above with great seriousness.

Tzeniut is more easily implemented in a homogeneous society, where expectations of dress, behavior, and fulfillment are largely made by consensus.  It becomes much harder in a heterogeneous society, and harder still at the intersection of sharply distinct homogeneous cultures, where each side has difficulty even imagining why the other might see a particular behavior as an assault on psychological space, or conversely, as an infringement of normal human fulfillment.  

But people of good will negotiate such situations while making every effort to find solutions that serve everyone’s interests.  By contrast, thugs beat up their opponents and try to make them leave or hide.  No one who properly understands tzeniut could believe that physical, psychological and emotional assault, i.e. violent intrusions on the space of others, are viable means of implementing the values behind it.  The thugs in Beit Shemesh should be condemned by all those who hold tzeniut dear, not because they are overzealous, but because their understanding of tzeniut is warped. 


[1] With the possible exception of an obligation (probably for married women) to cover (or braid or tie up) their hair, which requires a separate analysis, as does the prohibition against crossdressing.  For a more extensive halakhic and textual treatment of the points raised in this article, please see the version found at www.torahleadership.org.


[1] With the possible exception of an obligation (probably for married women) to cover (or braid or tie up) their hair, which requires a separate analysis, and the prohibition of keli gever.

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