How the Talmud Teaches Modesty

Article excerpt

A battle is being waged in Israel over women's place in society, and their right to participate in the public sphere.

Is it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women's bodies? From recent events in Israel, it would certainly seem that it is not.

An innocent, modestly dressed 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, living in Beit Shemesh, was spat on and vilified by religious extremists -- all men -- who believed that she did not dress modestly enough while walking past them to the religious school she attends. And more and more, public buses in Israel are enforcing gender segregation imposed by ultra-Orthodox riders in and near their neighborhoods. Woe to the girl or woman who refuses to move to the back of the bus.

This is part of a larger battle being waged in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society over women's place in society, over their very right to have a visible presence and to participate in the public sphere.

What is behind these deeply disturbing events? We are told that they arise from a religious concern about modesty, that women must be covered and sequestered so that men do not have improper sexual thoughts. It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men's sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women's bodies.

This is not a problem unique to Judaism. But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, offers a perhaps surprising answer: It places the responsibility for controlling men's licentious thoughts about women squarely on the man.

Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It's your problem, sir; not hers.

The ultra-Orthodox men in Israel who are exerting control over women claim that they are honoring women. In effect they are saying: We do not treat women as sex objects as you in Western society do. Our women are about more than their bodies, and that is why their bodies must be fully covered.

In fact, though, their actions objectify and hypersexualize women. Think about it: By saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man's sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin.

Of course, once you judge a female human being only through a man's sexualized imagination, you can turn even a modest 8-year-old girl into a seductress and a prostitute. …