As Israel and Jews all over the world have finally begun to acknowledge the depth of the problem in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities concerning the treatment of women and non-Haredi Jews, which include a lot of aspects of tzniut (the “rules” of “modesty”), I have been watching the various arguments and statements with considerable interest.
My discomfort with the treatment of women in Orthodoxy is one of the reasons I haven’t been Orthodox in twenty-five years. And my discomfort with the treatment of non-Haredim by Haredim is one reason I have never felt any attraction to that lifestyle.
These two things are actually connected in some ways, not just independent if equally problematic phenomena.
I have written elsewhere about some of the halachic issues, and will do so again, so for the moment, I’m going to let that side be.
Tzniut and its use as a tool to create misogyny and oppression in the Orthodox world bother me a lot. A whole lot. And while some might write that reaction off to my upbringing-- my mother, Rachel Adler, is also one of the mothers of modern Jewish feminist thought-- this is not just about feminism and civil rights and other applications of modern social and critical theory, although those schools of thoughts make excellent points in their critiques of tzniut and the treatment of women in Orthodoxy.
This goes back to the very principle proposed in the tradition for the founding concepts associated with tzniut. The idea that by women exposing too much of themselves, or doing things that could be perceived as sensual, they will cause men to become distracted by their yitzrei ha-ra (the urge “to do evil,” or probably more accurately, “for chaos”). Men, then thinking of sex, will stop studying Torah and praying and other holy stuff, and instead will do unthinkable and perverse things in the quest to slake their unquenchable concupiscent lusts, which apparently guys are universally prone to do....
The basic premise is flawed. Deeply flawed. Leaving aside, for the moment, the questionable premise that all men barely restrain vast arrays of unquenchable concupiscent lusts which can be set loose at any moment by the sight of a passing uncovered ankle, the fundamental idea put forth by these rabbis in our tradition is that because every man struggles with his yetzer (his drives), women need to cover themselves from head to toe, cover their hair, shut up, and, at some key moments, hide behind walls. (I could, of course, also mention that this whole scenario is a fairly ridiculous principle to the 10% or so of the Jewish People who are gay. But that’s another conversation, I think.)
But the thing is, that’s not how to master your yetzer. Self-control, self-discipline (both mental and emotional) and spiritual focus are not created by trying to control the world around you. They are created by exerting some measure of control on the world within. As any recovering alcoholic will tell you, you don’t stop drinking by trying to ensure that no one around you drinks and you never encounter alcohol. You stop drinking by deciding that alcohol will not control your life, and you will not drink it: regardless of what others may do; regardless of the situation you are in. This, my friends, is what it looks like to master your yetzer for something.
And since most people are not actually sex addicts, the principle should be all the better in its application to their lives, where it should be easier for them to come to control themselves and their sexual desires.
Not only is what the Haredim are doing in their communities in Israel and in America wrong for all the usual feminist/civil rights reasons, it’s wrong because it is, spiritually, an utter failure.
Instead of mastering their yitzarim, Haredim are obsessed with sex: not necessarily in the ways that we non-Haredim might recognize, but in their own ways. Non-Orthodox people often find it literally unbelievable how much time in the Haredi world is spent dealing with workarounds to prevent men and women spending too much time together, or time alone together, or touching each other in utterly benign and innocent ways, or generally keeping women silenced, covered, and locked into kitchen-and-cradle social roles, away from where men spend most of their time. I could write pages describing the insane chumrot (legal strictures) created over the past forty-odd years that have collectively moved Haredi Judaism from merely conservative (small “c”) to absolutely clinical when it comes to women and sexuality, and it would still be hard to believe if one hasn’t seen it all in action.
But, because of the ever-increasing rigidity and inflexibility of Orthodox halachic understanding, and the lack in that world of any real application of machloket l’shem shamayim (“dispute for the sake of Heaven,” cf. BT Eruvin 13a and elsewhere), this utter failure of an attempt to create spiritual discipline within individuals by social engineering has now become enshrined as halachah l’Moshe mi-Sinai (“laws given to Moses at Sinai”). But it is not so: it is a perversion of halachah and tradition. It has to go.
To master your yetzer, you must direct focus inward, not outward. You must be confronted, regularly, with the thing to which your yetzer drives you, so that you become accustomed to its presence, and are able to control your reactions.
This is one thing in which the Jews of the non-Orthodox world excel their Haredi fellows at doing. To put it another way, non-Orthodox shuls (synagogues) have no mechitzas (walls or other barriers separating the women and the men): on the contrary, men and women sit together. And both sexes wear less clothing than their Haredi counterparts-- even in very straitlaced non-Orthodox congregations. And I am sure that all my non-Orthodox readers will concur with me when I say that in twenty-plus years of davening (praying) at non-Orthodox shuls, I have never once seen a man break off in the middle of his prayers, grab a passing woman, and shout, “I can’t take it anymore, I gotta have you now!”
Have I seen a fair amount of idle chat instead of prayer? Yes: and I’ve seen the same thing amongst men in Orthodox shuls. Have I seen people praying together in amicable community, focused on tefillah (prayer) and Torah? Yes. In both Orthodox and non-Orthodox shuls. But never have I seen someone surrender to his yetzer because he happened to be near women-- even very attractive women. And while this may have something to do with the virtues of the people I have seen, it probably has mostly to do with the fact that in the non-Orthodox world, men and women are often together: often work together, do recreational activities together, often have casual contact with one another, and are accustomed to interacting with those of the opposite sex and even to seeing them in attractive and sometimes revealing clothing. And even those of us who are not able to consistently ignore the existence of attractive individuals of the opposite sex are at least able to put such thoughts aside long enough to sit through a service without being distracted into hypersexualized apoplexy. That may not be “mastering” your yetzer, but it’s a step on the road. And it’s certainly a better step than saying “I am tempted! The solution is for you to be less tempting!”
Tzniut as it is currently understood has got to go, not merely for reasons of rights and freedoms, but for spiritual ones as well. That’s what it comes down to.