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Guest Post: BossGiraffe Weighs In

Monday, 23 January 2012

With all of the recent hullabaloo concerning modesty, BossGiraffe delivered the following message this past Shabbos:

I wonder if you are familiar with the Hebrew word tz’niut. It means modesty.  Every culture has a concept of modesty.  Imagine receiving an invitation to a CBT beach party to be held on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend.  We’re all to gather at noon, location–Huntington Beach, near Lifeguard Station 11.  What would you wear?  I imagine you’d put on your bathing suit.

But what if you decided to wear your bathing suit to shul tonight?  It’s also a congregational event, yet here…and now…we’d all consider such attire inappropriate—indeed, immodest.

Yesterday, I was at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.  I had been invited to participate in a panel discussion in a class entitled Ordination Seminar.  These students will be ordained as rabbis by the President of the College, Rabbi David Ellenson, two days after he speaks here at shul this coming May.

After class, I attended the Thursday morning service at which Torah was read.  I especially loved the music, which was led by Julie Silver—a fabulous contemporary songwriter whom we have hosted at our shul.   When I saw the Second Year Education student approach the Bima to read Torah, I turned to the professor sitting next to me—Dr. Leah Hochman, last year’s CBT Scholar-in-Residence, and exclaimed, “I sure am glad she’s wearing a talis!  The prayer shawl fortunately doubled as a cover up.  You see, the top she was wearing didn’t quite do that job!

Though tz’niut is discussed widely in Orthodox circles, modesty is a Jewish issue — not the purview of solely one group within the Jewish world.  I decided to discuss this tonight because there have been several disturbing news stories coming out of Israel in the past few weeks relating to this very topic.  In the town of Bet Shemesh, a group of Orthodox men spat at an eight year old girl whom they felt was dressed immodestly.  Their behavior is horrible…period.  However, if you were to see a photo of the little girl, you would be even more astounded.  The girl is Orthodox, too, and her dress was very modest…but not modest enough for these men.

We tend to use the word Orthodox to describe many different kinds of Jews.  Just as Jews in general do not all agree on…anything (you know—ten Jews…eleven opinions) the same can be said about  Orthodox Jews.  Indeed, there is a very wide divergence in views between Modern Orthodox Jews (sometimes called Centrist Orthodox) and Charedim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews-“Black hats”).

Here are some other disturbing stories recently in the news from Israel:  More and more public busses are making women sit in the back of the bus on routes that go through Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.  The Puah Institute, specializing in medical research on women’s health—and especially fertility—issues, recently held a conference, but wouldn’t allow female doctors to present papers or sit on panels.  A woman won an award for excellence in her scientific research, but she was not permitted on the stage to accept the award.  Instead, it had to be given to a man representing her!

This is not Judaism!  Certainly it isn’t Reform Judaism.  It isn’t Orthodox Judaism, either!  In a brilliant piece in today’s New York Times, Rabbi Dov Linzer, Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah—a leading Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in New York—writes that the Talmud, which is the basis of Jewish Law, places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thought about women squarely on the men.  He argues that the Charedim are the ones who are hyper-sexualizing women.  In the Ultra-Orthodox world, in order to protect men from their sexual thoughts, women must remove their femininity from their public presence, ridding themselves of the smallest evidence of their own sexuality.

Rabbi Linzer concludes:  “Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress.  But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered.  It is about comportment and behavior.”

Lest you think that Rabbi Linzer’s is a voice in the wilderness, let me mention what was taught this week by Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel/the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, and past president of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America:  “Without discounting the reality of sexual attraction and the need for modesty, it is imperative that we recognize the legitimacy and necessity of proper interaction between males and females.  If men have a problem listening to a scientific paper presented by a female doctor, let those men leave the room—but the female doctor should not be prevented from sharing her knowledge with her colleagues.  If men feel they can’t control themselves if they sit next to a woman on a bus, let such men move to the back of the bus—not penalize the women passengers.

Tz’niut is certainly a matter of worthy of our attention.  So is the right of women and men to live in the 21st century without the imposition of restrictions some might want to bring back from the middle ages!

As Reform Jews who have suffered from mischaracterization, let us be careful not to paint all Orthodox Jews with too broad a brush.  There surely are voices of reason among the Orthodox rabbinate who teach their people how to live observant Jewish lives in a fair and modern manner.

Shabbat Shalom!

Feel free to leave your comments here. BossGiraffe will get to them as soon, b’li neder.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, 23 January 2012 8:54 pm

    I was chastised as I walked through a Hasidic suburb of Brooklyn as I was wearing a tank top and jeans. I was kind of shocked, but I figured when in Rome.

    As a person who has zig-zagged across the spectrum of Judaic practice and is now Reform, I find it disturbing any time Jews look down at other Jews.

    So what were you wearing?

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Wednesday, 25 January 2012 9:01 pm

      I’m wearing a skirt.

  2. Monday, 23 January 2012 11:17 pm

    Yay for BossGiraffe! Well said.

  3. Tuesday, 24 January 2012 2:49 am

    At present I have almost come to dread reading the news from Israel that many friends share on Facebook.
    We can only agree with BossGiraffe and remember that this is nota view held by all Orthodox Jews. Yet it is a trend, a frightening one and one I particularly dislike as a woman and as a Jew.

  4. Leslie permalink
    Tuesday, 24 January 2012 4:15 pm

    Very well presented and received last Shabbat. 🙂

  5. the writ and the wrote permalink
    Tuesday, 24 January 2012 5:03 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I am Jewish, albeit Reform, so many of these things are unknown to me. It is not that I don’t respect them, I simply don’t know they exist. I am not often among Jews other than Reform, so the laws are new to me. I am thankful for this blog for opening my eyes to another side of Judaism.

  6. Wednesday, 25 January 2012 6:39 am

    I have to agree.

  7. Former Reform Jew permalink
    Thursday, 26 January 2012 2:56 am

    I’m not Charedi, but FYI, 99% of Charedi Jews would never, ever, ever spit on or harass anyone; and certainly not an elementary school girl.

    Such actions are forbidden in halacha (Jewish law).

    Just like seeing a man with a long beard, wearing a black hat and black coat, eating a ham sandwich, doesn’t mean that “Charedi Jews think it’s okay to eat ham”. There are, unfortunately, people who were raised in the Charedi world, who still dress the part, who violate halacha.

    That is all a separate discussion from the the role of tzniut in the Jewish world.

    How many girls (and even adult women) are promiscuous because they falsely equate sex with love?

    The Jewish way is to empower girls and women. By dressing modestly, objectification is off the table. By the time they’re ready to consider marriage, young observant Jewish men are looking for good character traits, commitment to mitzvot, and personality compatibility. Young observant Jewish women are focused on improving these qualities, and not their tan or their physique.

    The question is, do Reform parents want their daughters to base their self worth on their bodies, or their character?

  8. Debra permalink
    Thursday, 26 January 2012 10:23 am

    Frume Sarah, I love the photo illustration.

    Boss Giraffe, Yasher Koach. Concise, compelling, enlightening, terrific. I loved seeing Linzer’s column. I would suggest, regarding “the right of women and men to live in the 21st century without the imposition of restrictions some might want to bring back from the middle ages,” that the restrictions suggested by the religious extremists in question in many (most?) cases go well beyond anything seen in the middle ages. Segregated public transport? A mechitza for the sidewalks of public thoroughfares? Let’s not cast such aspersions at the middle ages!

    Former Reform Jew, where on earth in Boss Giraffe’s post or anywhere else in the public discourse of Reform Jews do you get the idea that Reform Jewish parents might “want their daughters to base their self worth on their bodies”?

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