On Modesty and Misogyny by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 23, 2011

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.”

A Plea for True Respect for Arabs and Muslims by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 17, 2011

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

Why Am I Not Excited About the “Revolution” in Egypt? By Rabbi Lopatin

February 15, 2011

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