Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
One of my favorite stories is one told of a great rabbi and mystic who lived several centuries ago, Rabbi Menachem Mendal of Kotzk. He asked his students, “What would you do if you knew you had only one more week to live?” The first answered, “I would spend it with my family,” another said, “I would spend it doing mitzvoth, good acts of kindness,” a third said” I would spend it studying Torah, meditating and praying.” Then they turned to Rabbi Menachem Mendal and asked him, rabbi, “and what would you do?” Answered the rabbi, “I would do what I do every day.”
I have often wondered what it would be like to know I was dying. We all are, you know. Religion runs the risk of missing this. Often it either focuses on a different world after death, and so misses the impact of living here and now in a way informed by the reality of our death, or fixated on how to perform the details of this life, its proscriptions, beliefs and rituals, shrinking the space humans have in which to sit back and really feel the great reality of death; that we are dying and on some level, for even the most profound believer, death brings with it annihilation, nonbeing as we know it.
Some will instinctively dismiss this notion with, “yes, but for a better life with God.” Perhaps, but even if that is so, if we do not give ourselves the opportunity to know we are dying, to feel the dread of oblivion first, then we have ignored an important gift. Being human, truly being present in the here and now, means knowing we will cease to be. Many deny death, ignore death in these and other much more superficial ways, but to live in a state of avoidance is perhaps to not really live.
How would you live if you knew we are dying? (Which again I remind you, we are.) What regrets do you have? What changes can be made? What letters written? What experiences had? What really is meaningful and what is not? Why are we here? What is my unique place and mission in this mysterious, but I believe meaningful, world?
12.12.13 at 12:42 pm | Life and Joseph and his brothers.
11.20.13 at 8:41 pm | 75% of Jews who, according to the Pew report, do. . .
11.11.13 at 1:50 pm | Appreciating the words of a Morethodoxy non-fan
10.31.13 at 12:08 am | We can't afford to be distracted
10.30.13 at 12:06 pm | Why nothing is neutral
8.18.13 at 4:46 pm |
12.2.09 at 11:12 pm | (22)
11.20.13 at 8:41 pm | 75% of Jews who, according to the Pew report, do. . . (12)
1.31.13 at 6:55 am | The Orthodox establishment should consider. . . (11)
February 22, 2012 | 1:22 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
An item posted yesterday (2/21) on JTA quoted political commentator Alan Steinberg as asserting that “[Sen. Rick Santorum’s] stance on social issues will be a plus, particularly in the Orthodox community.” This is a markedly glib assessment however, reflecting both an ignorance of and disrespect for the sophistication and nuance of Jewish law. There may be other reasons that Orthodox Jews may prefer Santorum, but his positions on several social issues stand in stark opposition to deeply entrenched Jewish legal tradition.
Jewish law does prohibit abortion on demand. Not because it regards a fetus as a human being, rather because it sees a fetus as representing potential life. Though this distinction may seem subtle, it carries enormous legal implications. Jewish Law not only permits but actually mandates abortion in a situation in which a fetus is (unwittingly of course) threatening the life of its mother. This is directed by the same principle that mandates that Shabbat be violated when life is in in danger. In Maimonides’ words, “the laws of the Torah were not given to inflict vengeance on the world, rather [to bring] compassion, kindness and peace to the world. (Laws of Shabbat 2:3)”. Nor is the halachik discussion about abortion limited to cases in which the threat to a mother’s life is physical, with numerous authorities also regarding the prospect of severe emotional or psychological trauma as grounds for abortion.
And the issue is actually bigger than abortion per se. Jewish law bestows virtually no legal status at all upon fertilized embryos that are not implanted in a mother’s womb. This is why the Orthodox community has always been vocally in favor utilizing such embryos for stem cell research (See for example the statement of the Rabbinical Council of America’s statement). While stem cell research is not as hot an issue as it was a few years ago, its return to research prominence – or the emergence of another, similar technology – is not at all unlikely.
Jewish Law also stands at odds with Senator Santorum’s anti-regulation approach to the relationship between humankind and the Earth. Judaism’s legal approach is defined by the tension between the Torah’s dueling directives that we subdue the Earth (Genesis, Chapter 1) and simultaneously guard over it (Chapter 2). We are thus directed for example, to take full advantage of the earth’s fertility, and are simultaneously prohibited to needlessly destroy fruit-bearing trees. We are permitted to use animals for purposes of work and food, but we are prohibited to cause them physical or emotional distress (even muzzling an animal while it is threshing grain is prohibited by the Torah), or to drive a species toward extinction (see Nachmanides to Deuteronomy 22:6, regarding the requirement to shoo away a mother bird before taking its young). The Talmud (Brachot 35a) charges us with the obligation to navigate the tension between “the Earth and it fullness are God’s” and “the Earth He gave to the sons of man”. We strive for balance, recognizing that we are at all times both “subduers” and “guardians”. In the words of the Midrash, “At the time when G-d created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, ‘Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards! (Kohellet Rabbah 7)
On issues like feminism and even homosexuality Judaism’s worldview is more sophisticated, nuanced and wiser than Senator Santorum’s is. The two should never be confused for one another.
February 13, 2012 | 8:41 pm
Posted by Rabbi Seth Winberg
Note from Asher Lopatin: Some of the arguments in this article parallel my own arguments challenging Rabbi Shaul Magid’s ideas regarding specific laws in the Jewish tradition.
Guest post from Seth Winberg who received rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and an M.A. from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Winberg is currently Assistant Director at the University of Michigan Hillel.
Poor Rabbi Dov Linzer. I am honored to have been a student of his remarkable erudition and emotional sensitivity. Reacting to unconscionable behavior in the name of Torah by some Jews in Israel, Rabbi Linzer’s op-ed, “Lechery, Immodesty, and the Talmud”, appeared in the New York Times late last month. A full analysis of talmudic sources appeared on his blog a month before the op-ed. The upshot of Rabbi Linzer’s argument is that the Talmud “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.”
Professor Shaul Magid quickly responded in an open letter to Rabbi Linzer: “To instantiate your reading of the Talmud would require you to act decisively to abolish all the legal mandates that objectify women’s bodies and put the onus on the men to take full control of their libido and desire.” Rabbi Linzer did not go far enough for Professor Magid in promoting liberal values.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, also attacked Rabbi Linzer. According to Rabbi Shafran, Rabbi Linzer exploited the violent behavior directed at women and children in Israel to further his ideological agenda. Rabbi Shafran implies that Rabbi Linzer’s reading of talmudic texts is wrong. But Rabbi Shafran offers no evidence for this claim. Perhaps Rabbi Shafran will soon share his reading of the talmudic sources.
Until then, Rabbi Shafran provides no substantive objections to Rabbi Linzer’s reading of sources. Instead he resorts to name calling. Rabbi Linzer’s ideology, says Rabbi Shafran, is “redolent of the Conservative movement’s early days.” (Professor Magid, the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue, would surely disagree with Rabbi Shafran for two reasons: (1) for Professor Magid, Rabbi Linzer is too Orthodox to be Conservative and (2) because for Professor Magid “Conservative” is not an insult.)
Professor Magid’s open letter to Rabbi Linzer at least provides substantive arguments for us to consider. Unfortunately, the letter contains inaccuracies about halakhah. Let me provide two examples. First, Professor Magid claims that “traditional Jewish law” does not allow women to say kaddish in the presence of men. What “traditional” source says women cannot say kaddish with men? The first halakhic source I know of which condemns women saying kaddish is from the 1600s long after the Babylonian Talmud (see Havot Yair, 222). That source does not mention modesty as a concern. And as Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen has pointed out, Havot Yair’s objection was a minority view at the time in Amsterdam, and he agreed in principle that women could say kaddish in the presence of men.
One need only point to a responsum of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, to show women may say kaddish in the presence of men (see Iggerot Moshe, Orah hayyim, vol. 8, #12).
The most troubling inaccuracy in Professor Magid’s open letter is about mehitzah, the partition which separates men and women during public prayer. He asserts that the purpose of a mehitzah is to prevent men from seeing women. The more commonly accepted purpose of a mehitzah is to prevent intermingling of men and women in the context of public prayer (see Iggerot Moshe, Orah hayyim, v. 1 #39 and #41, and Seridei Esh, v. 1, #8, p. 19 which reports Hasidic opposition to Rav Moshe’s view). Contrary to what Professor Magid says, the mehitzah is not put up to prevent sight-lines. Professor Magid’s vague language also suggests that the mehitzah is of talmudic origin. In fact, there is no discussion of mehitzah in pre-modern halakhic literature, let alone talmudic literature. (See Rabbi Dr. Alan J. Yuter’s “Mehizah, Midrash, and Modernity: A Study in Religious Rhetoric” in Judaism 28 (1979): 147-159.)
Professor Magid may consider these the quibbles of an Orthodox rabbi. (I do not.)
A final broader comment about Professor Magid’s open letter. Rabbi Linzer demonstrates a pattern of attitudes (not laws) regarding modesty in the Talmud (not post-talmudic halakhic literature). Professor Magid responds with examples of rabbinic law (overwhelmingly post-talmudic) that he does not like for ideological reasons. Surely Professor Magid realizes that an Orthodox rosh yeshiva is not going to abrogate normative halakhah on the basis of a pattern of attitudes regarding modesty.
Rabbi Linzer is trying to have a real conversation about important values. If Rabbi Shafran and Professor Magid take Torah and ideology seriously, perhaps in the future they will engage in relationship building with their liberal Orthodox colleagues and leave polemics for other situations.
The larger challenge in this discussion is the extent to which the entire conversation is dominated by men. (I am guilty as charged.) I am pleased to see Rabba Sara Hurwitz adding her perspective. I pray that other women—students and graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, the Drisha Scholars Circle, GPATS, and similar programs—will add their voices too.
February 13, 2012 | 8:34 pm
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Rabbi Shaul Magid’s “Open Letter to Rabbi Dov Linzer on Modesty and Jewish Law” tries to limit Rabbi Linzer’s attempt to defend all of genuine Jewish law and tradition from being the basis for the radicalism that we are witnessing in Beit Shemesh, Meah She’arim and other places. “What anyone claims as the position of the Talmud is false by definition,” he writes. Clearly Rabbi Linzer can only stake out “a Talmudic position and not the Talmudic opinion.” I agree with his point that no one, and no one source, can speak for all of Judaism.
Nevertheless, after making his point, Rabbi Magid then attempts to do exactly what he criticizes Rabbi Dov Linzer of doing: painting all of Jewish law and tradition with a single monochrome brush. Whereas Rabbi Magid accuses Rabbi Linzer of defending all of Jewish law - and showing how progressive it is - by a single quote from on passage of the Talmud, Magid tries to show how the Jewish legal system as a whole, as we know it today, “serve[s] as the foundation of the problem” and that the “key authoritative texts of the tradition” have given rise to misogyny and bias against women. If Rabbi Magid were following his own arguments consistently - and I support his argument - he would have to admit that Jewish law and Jewish sources are diverse and not monolithic. Just as some authorities could bring proof to refute Rabbi Linzer’s declaration that “The Talmud says (to men): It’s your problem, Sir [if the women are not dressed in the way you would want them to dress]; not theirs.”, likewise, Rabbi Linzer and those Modern Orthodox who support his view can bring real sources through the generations that would support his arguments.
Rabbi Magid tries to show that there are no nuances or disagreements in traditional sources regarding mehitza, prohibition on hearing a woman’s voice or even women saying Kaddish. While there certainly are sources which claim the purpose of a mechitza (separation in a synagogue between men and women) is for the men not see the women, Maimonides, in his key halachic work, the Yad Hachazaka, specifically rejects the idea of seeing, and writes that the purpose is merely to separate, not to hide the women. There are traditional Jewish sources which challenge any prohibitions on a woman’s voice, except if it sexually intended, and Chavot Yair, four centuries ago, dismissed any halachic prohibition on women saying Kaddish. Modern Orthodox women cover their hair today because they are following what the Talmud calls “Jewish tradition” through the millennia, not because men might be attracted to women’s hair. That was established a century ago by the Lithuanian author of the Aruch HaShulchan. Even chareidi women who wear gorgeous, natural hair wigs, are not doing so to reduce sexual attraction.
Rabbi Magid can claim that these sources are minority sources, or contrived, but the history of halacha is filled with minority opinions that come to dominate. Just consider Maimonides trying to claim that the scores of anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Torah and the Talmud are merely metaphors! Do we really believe this? Well, Orthodoxy does, whether it was contrived to fit Judaism into Greek thought or not. When the Tosafists of the 12th century saw women shaking lulav or saying blessings over hearing the shofar, they found internal halachic justification for such behavior, without the need to reject the halachic system.
Modern Orthodoxy might not be the only way, and the Ultra-Orthodox view of women and modesty may indeed be able to find sources in the halachic tradition. However, Rabbi Linzer, and those of us in the Modern Orthodox world who support his enlightened view of relations between men and women, do not need to jettison the traditional halachic system to find a better, and, in our own mind, a more Torah true attitude. From Maimonides to the Tosefists to the Chavot Yair till today, rabbis will struggle to understand what the halacha and the Talmud is really saying. They will end up with diverse understandings based on who they are, where they are living, and which values they are sensitized to. But this diversity is not false or disingenuous : it is the way the halachic system was designed to work to allow us to meet the challenges of every generation. Rabbi Linzer’s take on modesty and men’s responsibility is a Torah-true outcome of that process, which can find real halachic sources from the Talmud till today.
February 9, 2012 | 1:16 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Recently I came a across a passage in the Misilat Yisharim (Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato, that seems so prescient of the times we are living in now as Jews with all our infighting and outfighting and acting out on the right and left. If we keep in the forefront of our minds the following words of the Misilat Yisharim I think it will help to guide us as to what actions will be for the greater good of the Jewish people, the glory of God and to be a light unto the nations, and which actions, in contrast, are detrimental to those noble ends.
“…Though one should run to do mitzvoth (commandments)…there are times when they can lead to quarrel, such that the mitzvah and the name of Heaven will desecrated instead of sanctified. In such cases certainly the Chasid (pious person) is obligated to put aside the commandment and not to run after it.
Though we are obligated to perform the mitzvoth with all their details and not to be afraid or ashamed, even so mitzvoth require great discernment, for this statement was said only about absolute obligations; but any added piety that if a person performs it the public will mock them for it, should not be performed; as the prophet says: “Walk humbly with your God.”
Thus a person who wishes to be pious must weigh all their deeds with attention to what their deeds’ repercussions will be according to the time, place and culture in which one is living. If not acting will cause greater sanctification of God’s name, we must hold back and not act. All acts must be judged according to their repercussions not according to whether the act itself seems good. These things can only be discerned by one who has an understanding heart and common sense; for it is impossible to codify the details of this which are infinite….This should be our vision of the path which shall bring true light and faith, to do what is straight in the eyes of God.”
-Chapter 21: On the Balancing of Chasidut (Piety)
February 7, 2012 | 2:12 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Readers in the Los Angeles area have been buzzing (no pun intended) for almost two weeks now about the Jewish Journal’s cover story about bugs in vegetables. The story aroused much exasperation and cynicism in the Pico-Robertson ‘hood, as it implied that one could conform with the prohibition on consuming bugs only through a combination of tedious inspection and washing of some vegetables, paying an exorbitant price for others, and giving up entirely on yet others. The story featured the sweeping sub-headline “The presence of even one bug can render an entire vegetable not kosher. On this matter, Orthodox rabbis are unequivocal.”
Unfortunately the Journal story omitted a significant portion of the classical halachik discussion on this issue, the portion that applies normative halachik leniencies to the bug issue. For the sake then of expanding the parameters of the discussion in the ‘hood, I offer the following brief points (you are invited to check the Bnai David – Judea bulletin over the next several Shabbatot for the fuller discussion at www.bnaidavid.com):
(1) We are forbidden to eat bugs that are big enough to be seen by the naked eye. And leafy vegetables that tend to have bugs on them at least 10% of the time, need to be checked. On this, Orthodox rabbis truly are unequivocal. What’s the checking procedure? To quote the Star-K website, “Make a complete leaf by leaf inspection, checking both sides of the leaf. Wash off any insects prior to use.” Pretty straightforward.
(2) Bugs that are not on the surface of leaves, but which are lodged inside the florets of broccoli for example, are by Torah law, deemed insignificant (“batel”) as they occupy less than 1/60th of the broccoli’s total mass. There is however, a potential complication introduced by rabbinic law, which generally regards any complete organic unit (like a bug for example) as being resistant to the laws of “insignificance”. Thus the possibility that embedded bugs too must be removed.
(3) However, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, the Star-K’s rabbinic administrator explained in a 2007 article, why the laws of insignificance pertain to embedded bugs nonetheless. There is a reasonable chance, he points out, that any given head of broccoli may contain no bugs at all, which is to say that the presence of embedded bugs is a “safek” (doubtful). And as a general halachik principle, we only refrain from rabbinicaly prohibited items when they are certainly present, but when they are only possibly present, we rule leniently. In Rabbi Heinemann’s words, “[in] cluster vegetables, where parasites hide themselves in the vegetable’s florets and we cannot see them through visual inspection, the halacha postulates that we can take a lenient position and assume that the florets are insect-free”.
(4) He continues that it is nonetheless “proper” (perhaps to insure that we’re not dealing with an unusually heavily-infested head) that the Star-K’s checking procedure be used, which involves the following fairly simple steps: “Agitate florets in a white bowl of clean water. Examine the water to see that it is insect-free. If insects are found, you may re-do this procedure up to three times in total. If there are still insects, the whole batch must be discarded. If the water is insect-free, look over florets to see if any insects are visible on the tops and stems. If no insects are noticed you may use the vegetable.” Again, pretty simple and straightforward.
(5) Rabbi Heinemann was far from the first to rule leniently on these matters. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, in his classic halachik work Aruch HaShulchan identifies three additional reasons why bugs that are embedded in vegetables need not be checked for or removed (at all). One of the three reasons is that the rabbinic stringency concerning complete organic units was never meant to apply to items that people find repulsive (like eating bugs for example)
Of paramount significance is Rabbi Epstein’s motivation for seeking leniencies in this area. He observed that the religious Jews of his day routinely ate vegetables, only removing the bugs that were visible on the surface. “And it is unthinkable to suggest”, he says, “that the people of Israel (“Clal Yisrael”) are all stumbling with regard to this prohibition.., and it is proper therefore to search [for leniency] in their merit.” And he concludes his discussion by saying, “and God will judge us meritoriously, just as we are bringing merit to the people of Israel”
It is this spirit, the halachik authority taking responsibility both for the law, and for the people, that has sadly fallen out of today’s bug conversation, warping much of the contemporary rabbinic approach.
Please do follow up with your own rabbi with further questions, but the general approach outlined above, is a solid halachik framework.
February 7, 2012 | 2:10 pm
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
American Jews, secular and religious alike, have been united in their rejection of Jewish extremists’ headline-grabbing attempts to keep young girls and women out of public spaces in Beit Shemesh, Israel on the grounds of religious modesty.
Observers, journalists and pundits have rationalized these actions to be little more than the misguided work of self-anointed Haredi Jews known as Sicarii. The Sicarii is a group much like ancient religious zealots bearing the same name, who drove Judaism to near destruction with their radicalism and uncompromising benightedness in 66 A.D. These latter-day, rebels, who notoriously spit on a modestly dressed eight-year-old girl on her way to school, screamed epithets, and removed benches from public bus shelters, are indeed fundamentalists.
Their misdeeds, however, bring to light an extreme manifestation of a subtler, yet deeply rooted perception of tzniyut; it also reveals how the interpretation of religious modesty has cultivated an underlying resistance to and exclusion of women assuming ritual leadership roles in Jewish synagogue life in Israel and America.
Thankfully, most women are not spat on and harassed in public; however, female spiritual leaders are not welcome as bona fide members of Modern Orthodox rabbinic and professional networks. Female scholars are not featured in scholarly journals, nor are they invited to speak on public, mainstream panels. Currently, there are only two female heads of co-ed Orthodox Jewish day schools in America. And, with some notable exceptions – notable because they are exceptions – women for the most part do not have roles in synagogue lay or religious leadership.
Far too often, tzniyut is cited as the reason for the imbalance. In June 2010, after being graciously welcomed to speak at the Young Israel of Hewlett, Long Island, a rabbi in the Long Island community, who would likely never identify with the Sicarii, wrote an acerbic essay lamenting my very presence as an ordained Rabba, or spiritual leader: “Leading Torah scholars have condemned the appointment of a woman to a rabbinic position as ‘a breach of tzniyus [modesty]’ ...because of the event, this coming Tisha B’Av, we will have something else to cry about.”
Modesty is the halakha or Jewish code of law, most readily summoned upon as the basis to exclude women from public leadership roles. Yet it is fairly typical for certain Modern Orthodox congregants to also be regular consumers of “immodest” television programs, films, and entertainment. These individuals deal with women in the secular boardroom and courtroom, but they do not want women standing before a shul because, well, it’s immodest.
When taken to an extreme, it is considered a “breach of modesty” for women to appear on billboards or to travel with men; when walking outdoors in certain communities, it is deemed immodest for girls and women to wear clothing that does not cover their bodies from head to toe.
But should the same principle of tzniyut be invoked in Modern Orthodox communities as a way of preventing women from offering a few words of Torah from the pulpit, from announcing the time for mincha on Shabbat afternoon, from reciting Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, or from even holding a fully adorned Torah for a few precious moments?
February 7, 2012 | 11:46 am
Posted by Rabbi Zev Farber
The story is told (b. Taanit 24a) that Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Avin left his teacher, R. Yossi of Yoqrat, in order to study with Rav Ashi. As leaving one teacher for another was an unusual thing to do, Rav Ashi asked him why he did so. Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Avin responded: “A man who has no compassion even for his own son and daughter – how could he have any for me?” The Talmud explains:
[Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat] had a beautiful daughter. One day, he saw a certain man making a hole in a palm-leaf fence and peeping at her. He said to him: “What are you doing?” He responded: “Master, if I have not merited marrying her, will I not at least merit looking at her?” [Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat] said to her: “My daughter, you are disturbing [God’s] creations, return to your dust, and let men not stumble on your account.”
The story of Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat and his daughter is particularly chilling. A normal father would have been angry at the man for peeping at his daughter; instead Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat blames the innocent girl for being attractive. Although the Talmud uses the story of Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat as an example of cruel and unjust behavior, more than a millennium later this type of thinking has returned to the surface.
Rabbi Dov Linzer and Male Responsibility
It would be redundant for me to excoriate the behavior of the Sikrikim in Beit Shemesh, as many others have already condemned them for spitting on little girls and roughing up opponents. One of the best of such rebukes was by my own teacher, Rabbi Dov Linzer, in a New York Times op-ed, Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud. However, Rabbi Linzer’s response diverges from many other condemnations of the Sikrikim with a radically different focus for Jewish laws regarding tzniut (modesty).
The basic idea behind tzniut – and I use the term to refer to modesty in the sexual arena rather than humility – is to desexualize public space and interactions between men and women. Rabbi Linzer argues that according to his reading of Jewish law, the Talmud “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.”
Professor Shaul Magid’s Critique
Although the article was well-received by many, a number of critiques have been launched and I would like to focus on Professor Shaul Magid’s critique in Religion Dispatches. Although he applauds Rabbi Linzer’s “anti-misogynist” attitude, Professor Magid suggests that Rabbi Linzer’s position “is actually in conflict with key authoritative texts of the traditions,” and supports this claim with a number of examples.
Magid challenges Linzer: “To instantiate your reading of the Talmud would require you to act decisively to abolish all the legal mandates that objectify women’s bodies and put the onus on the men to take full control of their libido and desire.” In my opinion, Professor Magid pushes his case too far.
A Reframing of the Conversation
Rabbi Linzer’s op-ed paints with a broad brush and was surely not meant as a full articulation of Jewish law. To clarify matters somewhat, I would like to offer my own reframing of Rabbi Linzer’s position. [To see Rabbi Linzer’s own articulation of his position in different words, see his blog post on tzniut. See also R. Aryeh Klapper’s excellent article on tzniut in Text and Texture for a distinct but related take.] Jewish law wishes interactions between men and women in the public sphere (i.e. non-marital interactions) to be de-sexualized. If men feel aroused as a part of their normal interactions with women it is the responsibility of the men to control this. The Talmud is aware that it is difficult to predict what may stimulate a man’s sexual thoughts. This fact motivates statements like that of Rav Sheshet (b. Berakhot 24a), for example, that staring at a woman’s little finger can be like staring at her fully unclothed. As Rabbi Linzer aptly points out, this is not a requirement for women to wear gloves, but a requirement for men to note when their minds are wandering in the wrong direction and fix it.
However, the above paradigm applies to ordinary interactions, i.e. interactions that are not meant to be sexual. I do not think that Rabbi Linzer’s claim that women are not responsible for men’s lewd thoughts applies to situations where women may actually be sexualizing the atmosphere on their own. Men also have a right to ask for desexualized public space. Even secular law is aware of this fact, which is why there are statutes against public indecency. The question becomes: What kind of behavior sexualizes the atmosphere? It is with regard to this question that, I feel, Professor Magid and Rabbi Linzer are speaking at cross purposes.
Tzniut as Sociologically Determined
By its very nature, what sexualizes a given environment is sociologically determined. Although there is no discussion in the Talmud about “laws of tzniut,” the Talmud does list certain behaviors as “provocative” in the context of divorce and fault. A terrific example is found in the Tosefta (t. Ketubot 7:6).
If [a woman’s husband] makes a vow that she must allow any man to taste her cooking, or that she must fill up and then pour out garbage, or that she should tell random men intimate details about her life with him – she may leave and [her husband] must make the ketubah payment, since he has not behaved with her in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel (dat Moshe ve-Yisrael).
Similarly if [a man’s wife] goes out with her hair exposed, she goes out with her clothing in tatters, she behaves arrogantly with her slaves, maidservants or the neighborhood women, she goes out to weave in the public marketplace, she washes or is washed in the bathhouse in the company of random men – [if he decides to divorce her] she leaves without her ketubah payment, since she has not behaved with him in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel (dat Moshe ve-Yisrael).
The text deals with one type of fault that violates a marriage: humiliating one’s partner through his or her behavior. The list of a wife’s inappropriate behavior is clearly not meant to be exhaustive or objectively determined. I believe this applies to other iterations of this list as well. In Talmudic times, a woman going out with her hair exposed or tattered clothing would have been sexualizing the environment around her with her public display, which is why a husband can call such behavior “fault.”
Halakha may be timeless but society changes; what may have been considered sexualizing behavior in one society may be considered harmless in a different society. Thus, a modest woman living in Saudi Arabia may not feel comfortable wearing a polo shirt in public, whereas a modest woman living in a Western society would. Furthermore, if a man from this same Western society were to complain that he finds women in polo-shirts erotic, we would have every right to tell him that this is his problem; it is he who is sexualizing the environment.
Context Specific Modesty
In fact, modesty can be context specific within the same society. A woman who wears an ordinary bathing suit to the beach is not sexualizing her environment; this is how women on the beach dress. However, if this same woman were to wear the same bathing suit to the office or the supermarket she would absolutely be sexualizing the environment. What constitutes innocuous behavior versus erotic behavior is extremely context specific and the question is where to place the bar.
Speaking for myself, it seems to me that telling modern religious girls and women that they may not wear regular T-shirts or regular-fit shorts because their knees and elbows sexualize the environment is misguided. In fact, I believe making such rules accomplishes the opposite; the rule actually sexualizes the woman more. By telling young teenage girls that they are being provocative even when they aren’t trying to be, we may unwittingly make them feel sexualized even during their normal interactions with men – exactly the opposite of what halakha is trying to accomplish.
A Conflict in Values
The challenge for modern religious men and women is that we live in a culture where a “modest amount” of sexualizing of the environment is not considered problematic. Although most of us live in societies where public nudity or sexual expression is prohibited, Western society does condone a certain amount of conscious public sexual display, especially in dress.
Consequently, not all clothing worn in our society is, in fact, appropriate for religious women. Plunging necklines, skin-tight outfits or dresses with thigh-high slits are designed to sexualize the environment to some degree. This may be considered appropriate in secular society but not for modest Jewish women. Although it goes unmentioned in his op-ed, I trust Rabbi Linzer would agree with this point, which is why I believe Professor Magid’s challenge goes too far. Of course halakha still has what to say about women’s, as well as men’s, public comportment.
The Need for Tolerance
Undoubtedly, we live in complex societies wherein people of different religious beliefs and values must get along. Even if halakha forbids certain types of dress, the religious man has no right to attempt to force this “dress code” on anyone else, and certainly not to use violence and other scare tactics. Just as the Talmud rejected R. Yossi of Yoqrat’s warped perception, we reject our own modern manifestations of it. This is self-evident and axiomatic. It has been agreed upon by the vast majority of religious Jews who have commented on the recent abhorrent behavior in Beit Shemesh, and need not be belabored here.
The important contribution of Rabbi Linzer’s piece – and my own – is to encourage our community to consider how the burden of desexualizing the environment has fallen completely upon the shoulders of women over the years. This burden has contributed to the disempowerment of women in the religious Jewish world and, ironically, has sexualized them even more. When women are held liable for every male sexual fantasy, they inevitably become nothing more than sex objects. This is the ultimate violation of tzniut and is not the fault of Talmudic law, but of the skewed perception of it in our times.
Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta