Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
The sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week brought me to think a bit about the role of modesty in religious countries. Egypt is a country in which most women are religiously required or encouraged to cover themselves completely. Yet paradoxically it is also a country in which women on the street, even those who are covered, are constantly at risk of being sexually harassed by men. The following paragraph is from the Canadian government’s travel advisory on Egypt: “Women, particularly foreign women, are frequently subject to unpleasant male attention, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse. This often takes the form of staring, inappropriate remarks, catcalls, and touching.”
Trying to make sense of this dichotomy the author of a recent Associated Press article reacting to the Lara Logan case hypothesized the following: “Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game.” If this is so it paints the picture of a perverse and one sided take on the idea of modesty. It seems to me the role of modesty in religion is two fold. Firstly, to be modest before God. Flaunting the body is a kind of haughtiness because it shows we wish to be desired, respected, and approved of, not for who we are essentially (a being made in God’s image according to the Bible) but for something external. This is the quintessence of hubris, to be lauded for what one has rather than what one does. The same is true of flaunting one’s car, one’s money, or one’s house. Secondly, modesty keeps sexual desire in its place. Spiritual paths all seem to understand that sexuality is one of the most powerful human drives and that, if utilized correctly in specific contexts, that power can produce the holiest of things: the creation of new human beings with divine souls, and the deepest of human connections between two willing people.
While the Associated Press theory above may be correct, it bespeaks a one sided sense of modesty gone awry. Formulating modesty as something that focuses on women and not upon men leads to only half the population cultivating the important values that modesty should teach, and seems to actually result in an overall lack of modesty. Delineating a modest society or religion by how its women dress and not by how its men act leads to a bizarre double standard such as that in Egypt: women in extremely modest dress being sexually harassed by men who supposedly buy into the same religious value of modesty, but practice it not at all. A double standard of modesty is sometimes depicted, (admittedly with out the same violent results) in a county close to my heart, Israel. There are very religious Jewish sections of Jerusalem where upon entering one sees signs warning women to dress modestly, yet there are no signs warning men to watch what they look at, though there is much written in Judaism’s books of religious law about this very issue. In fact if one looks in the Talmud, Judaism’s most basic source of tradition and law, or even in later codes of Jewish law one finds almost nothing prescribing female dress, but much about the care men must exercise in guarding their eyes and speech.
Unless we see modesty as more than just how women dress but also as how we all act then we have facilitated hypocrisy rather than religious humility before God. As the prophet Micha (6:8) said so long ago, “What does God ask of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
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February 17, 2011 | 8:05 am
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Rav Yosef, my good friend and a rabbi I respect deeply, misunderstands my motivation in holding off on a prayer for Egypt. I certainly am frustrated with the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East. However, my main point is that we need to stop pandering and patronizing the Arabs and Muslims throughout the world, and actually show some respect to them. They can face the challenges of their past just as well as Jews and Christians can: the anti-Semitic elements of their religion, which need to be re-understood just as Judaism and Christianity evolved in their understanding of the “other”; the discriminatory treatment of the Jews in Arab and Muslim lands throughout history; the abominable attitude of the Arab leadership, trade unions and professional organizations toward the State of Israel - even in Jordan and Egypt; the leaders and mobs who pressured Great Britain not to allow Jews to enter Palestine when faced with murder and destruction in Europe - and even after the Holocaust before the rise of the State of Israel. I respect the Arabs and Muslims, and I think they are capable of rising to the challenge of becoming an enlightened people, a part of the developed world. Yes, they need democracy, and that means a different attitude towards women - we in the West need to work on that as well - and toward homosexuals and other “others” in their midst. Yes, I think the Palestinians can advance to the point where selling land to a Jew is not a capital offense, nor is a gay person forced to hide their identity.
People from developed countries throughout the world come to Israel to learn agriculture, science and to share in Israel’s rich culture. I do expect Arabs to learn from Israel as well. It is their loss, their sad loss, and certainly the Palestinians loss, that they have spent nearly 63 years fighting Israel instead of teaming up with Israel. The protesters in Tienanmen Square erected a model of the Statue of Liberty; they understood that America stands for freedom and liberty. In Egypt, protesters put Jewish stars on Mubarak to show how much they hated him - how sad that they did not understand that Israel represents their ticket to freedom, democracy and a thriving, open economy, rather than the evil they need to eternally fight.
No, I am not angry, I am waiting: I am waiting for the Egyptians to rise to the challenge and to be the human beings they can be. The prophets understood that they can be a great people. But unless we challenge them to pursue truth, not just populism, and unless we ourselves admit to that truth, we are not respecting them and treating them as our equals. They are God’s children just like we in the West are God’s children, and I have every expectation that I place on myself and my own religion.
I pray that we stop pandering and patronizing and start respecting our Arab and Muslims brothers in a way that allows them to enter a new era of truth and good. When that happens, I will be the first to say a Shehechiyanu. Until then, I pray for us to be strong, and never to compromise or ask others to compromise the values that have given us our freedom and our liberty.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin
February 16, 2011 | 9:32 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Rav Asher, my friend and my colleague:
If I had only seen your words, and did not know your golden heart, I would think that you were a mean-spirited person, God forbid. You are clearly angry at President Obama, and it feels like you have decided to take out your anger with him, on people who are not in any responsible for President Obama’s actions.
When Moshe first came before Pharaoh and angered him by declaring that even Pharaoh needed to heed the word of God, Pharaoh became furious with Moshe. And he proceeded to take out his anger against Moshe, by depriving the Hebrew slaves of straw. We recognize this absence of moral reasoning on Pharaoh’s part to be the flaw that ultimately renders him an irredeemable, hopeless figure.
We both know that the masses who rose in Egypt have been legitimately suffering for generations. We both know that that risked great danger to liberate themselves from a tyrant. And I would hope that we can not only admire their courage and appreciate their struggle, but that we can also to find it somewhere in our hearts to pray that they indeed achieve a life that is better, and a life that will not bring our two peoples into conflict.
I understand. You are angry with the President. But it is precisely when our anger toward one party begins to blind us toward the humanity of another, that we have to re-check our moral compass. And it is precisely at this kind of moment that we are most in need of prayer, if for no one else’s sake then for our own.
February 15, 2011 | 2:41 pm
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Rav Yosef’s prayer about events in Egypt got my juices flowing: There is something that is bothering me about what is going on in Egypt, but even more so about how the media and the Obama administration is handling it. Please allow me to speak as a Jew and a Zionist:
When President Obama gave his famous Cairo speech, we were bothered that he took out the 4000 year old Zionist dream of the Jewish people, and replaced it with pandering to the Arab world. That pandering that directly led us to where we are now: We now have a situation where moderately pro-Western, and barely pro-Israel regimes are under attack - or have been driven out - without any strong, pro-Western, reasonable voices to take their place. The administration spent two years focusing on Israel’s “settlements” in Jerusalem, and cut funds for democratic voices in Egypt, Iran and elsewhere that could have been ready to help guide these countries into an era of true democracy, of true positive change for the Arab and Muslim world. No! The idea was to get kudos from the Arab world by appearing balanced: In other words, beat up on Israel, and let Arab and Muslim dictatorships (Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Tunisia, Yemen, etc.) do whatever they wanted with their people, and hope that the Arab and Muslim world sees that America is on their side.
Well, America is still being accused of being the pawns of the Zionists, and, not only that, we are accused of propping up a bunch of corrupt regimes. And we are nowhere with the Palestinians - who actually came much farther under George Bush, who didn’t make a big deal of Jews living in Jerusalem. The mobs in Tahrir Square enabled the military to take over - a peaceful coup - and they are celebrating dissolving parliament and their constitution. Hmm… Maybe they will get lucky and rebuild everything, but it sounds to me like the Egyptian military, not a great fighting machine, now has an even better chance of consolidating their corrupt ownership of the Egyptian private sector and of maintaining even better the power they had under Nassir, Sadat and Mubarak. That is not democracy.
Who are the democratic elements? From the religious Right, the Muslim Brotherhood, who want to destroy Israel and destroy the West - including democracy and everything that goes with it. From the left, the secularist parties also talk about doing away with the peace treaty with Israel. Where are the voices who will rebuild a moral, ethical and just Egypt? Nowhere.
So, if we really care about the Egyptian people, and Arab and Muslim people of the world let’s stop pandering:
First, America needs to be balanced: We recognize Damascus as capital of Syria, and Cairo as capital of Egypt: So America needs to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Second: A majority of Jordan is Palestinian. They need to be given their full civil rights, and Jordan needs to be recognized as a Palestinian state.
Third: The powers in Egypt - including the media - should be ashamed at how cold they kept the peace treaty with Israel. America needs to let every party in Egypt know that not only do the Americans expect the new government of Egypt to keep all its existing treaties, but for over a billion dollars we expect to see good, warm relations with Israel. Israel should be the model for Arabs for a state with a strong military and yet a strong democracy that can allow the army not to take over. America should be flying Egyptian leaders to Israel to observe how a true democracy works. And even if no one goes, that is the expectation. If you want us to admire your courage, if you want us to think that something is happening beyond the demagoguery and lies of Nassir’s populist United Arab Republic, then the Arab world is going to have to shape up.
When I hear something like that coming from the Obama administration, then I’ll write a prayer.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin
February 11, 2011 | 2:25 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
God and God of our ancestors:
We are grateful to You for restoring us to our land after millennia of exile and wandering. This is the work of Your hands; it is wondrous in our eyes. We turn to You today for the sake of Zion, and for the sake of peace.
You have blessed humanity, these past centuries, with the wisdom that has given rise to the emergence of democracy, a political order than recognizes and honors every person’s God-given value and dignity as no political order has ever done before. You have in this way brought freedom into Your world on a scale unprecedented in human history.
You taught us at Sinai that freedom is a means, not an end. You instructed us that when - in freedom - we would devote ourselves to Your vision, then this freedom would ennoble us and bring forth blessing. And that when we would harness our freedom to achieve tzedaka umishpat, righteousness and justice, then we would remain worthy of your Presence among us. And we learned, often painfully, that freedom without moral vision could auger calamity. It is because of this that we petition You daily to grace us with understanding, wisdom, and discernment, and is it because of this that we turn to You today with both hope and concern.
Even as Medinat Yisrael, the first flowering of our redemption, struggles nobly and continuously to make its own freedom and democracy a more perfect tool of tzedaka umishpat , we today casts our eyes with both hope and concern to our great neighbor to the south, as freedom has finally reached the land of Egypt.
You have commanded us in Your Torah to harbor no enmity toward Egyptians, for we had been strangers in their land. And so we pray that their new-found freedom indeed bring them the dignity and justice they rightfully seek and desperately deserve. But we know as well that Your people’s place in this world can be a precarious one, and that we are often subject to the great winds of history. And so we beseech You, our God and God of our fathers, to look with favor today upon the words of Your servant Isaiah, who envisioned the day when freedom would bring only knowledge of You, and knowledge of You would bring only peace:
And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts find favor before You God, our rock and redeemer.