An Insult to Women--and to Men!

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We've all been reading of tensions in Israel due to the "Hareidization" of standards of conduct involving women and men. Serious problems have emerged in Bet Shemesh, because some Hareidim were disparaging and spitting at a modern Orthodox girl who was dressed modestly--but not according to Hareidi norms. There has been a long ongoing battle over public buses where the Hareidim demand that women sit in the back and the men in the front. They allow no intermingling of the genders, so they impose their values on everyone else.

The Puah Institute, specializing in medical research on women's health and especially on fertility issues, recently held a conference, but would not allow female doctors to present papers or to be on panels.

The New York Times reported (front page, of course) that an Israeli woman won an award for excellence in her scientific/medical research. At the presentation ceremony, though, no women (not even the prize winner!) were allowed to appear on stage. The prize winner was not allowed to receive her award directly, but a man received it on her behalf.

These and other such stories are generally depicted as examples of discrimination against women--which they certainly are! Halakha does not demand--and I think halakha repudiates--such ignominious behavior. The Hareidi view is based on various ancient texts that view women as temptresses, as sex objects who must keep themselves as covered as possible and as out of sight of men as possible. Unless they do so, they will tempt men to sinful thoughts and sinful deeds.

While these ancient texts reflect realities in ancient times, they clash mightily with the contemporary way of life and with our contemporary ethical sensibilities. In modern times, women participate actively in all aspects of life; interrelationships between men and women are common. We live in a world where men and women can and do work, study, and socialize together in a modest and serious way. While we surely must insist on proper levels of modesty, we must not discriminate against and degrade women by seeing them purely as temptresses who must be kept out of sight of men to the extent possible.

While the Hareidi extremism has correctly been criticized for its unfair attitudes and treatment of women, I believe the Hareidi position is equally insulting and unfair to men. It assumes that men are overwhelmed by passion and cannot control themselves when they are confronted with the presence of females. It assumes that men simply cannot deal with women as fellow human beings, but only as sex objects.

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. If some men feel they will lose control of themselves if a female doctor goes on stage to receive an award, then let those men stay home.

The goal should be to create frameworks for normal interactions between men and women, where men and women conduct themselves properly without reducing each other to mere objects of sexual attraction. It could be argued that the higher are the walls of separation between men and women, the greater the level of repression--and obsession with sex! It is not natural and not healthy to maintain a worldview that doesn't allow for normal, modest interaction between males and females.

It is of interest to note that the Hareidim generally are selective in their application of ancient halakhic texts relating to "the role of women". They disregard texts when they feel it is convenient to do so.

Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13) forbids fathers from teaching their daughters Torah--including the Written Torah. Do any Hareidi schools follow this policy?

Rambam (Hilkhot Ishut 13:11) rules that a husband should prevent his wife from leaving home more than once or twice a month. "There is no beauty for a woman except in dwelling in the corner of her home." Do any Hareidim follow this?

The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 245:20-21) rules that an unmarried man may not be a teacher. Since mothers bring their children to school, the unmarried male teacher might be attracted to them. Do any Orthodox schools, including Hareidi schools, prevent single men from teaching?

The Shulhan Arukh (ibid.) rules that women may not be teachers, since fathers bring their children to school, and we are concerned lest there be improper thoughts or conduct between the fathers and the female teachers. Do any Orthodox schools, including Hareidi schools, follow these rules? Don't many Hareidi communities encourage young women to become teachers?

Here is a short list of guidelines which I believe should govern relationships between males and females.

1. Neither men nor women should dress, speak, or act in a licentious manner that is designed to arouse the sexual attention of others. It is proper to dress nicely, neatly, and modestly.
2.If a person dresses, speaks, and acts in a proper, dignified manner, it is not his/her responsibility if others are sexually aroused by him/her. That is their problem. It is their responsibility to control their thoughts and emotions, and/or to remove themselves from situations that they find to be sexually provocative.
3. Normal interactions between men and women are a feature of our societies. Men and women may work, study and socialize with each other in a modest and serious manner, without frivolity. Women may present papers at academic conferences, may sit on stage at public gatherings, and may serve in positions of responsibility.

Our goal as thinking halakhic Jews is to be clear on our responsibility to be holy, and to treat ourselves and others as fellow human beings--not as sexual objects. As we live as modest and respectful human beings, we enhance our own dignity and the dignity we show to others. This is not an inconsiderable accomplishment.

(Note: I've written an article on the topic of Tseniut (modesty) that is appearing in issue 12 of Conversations, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. It provides much more elaboration on topics raised in this blog.)