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.”


Iftar in the Synagogue with Rabbi Asher Lopatin

September 15, 2009

For the past four years, my synagogue has cosponsored, along with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, an Iftar in the Synagogue, which usually gets about 20-30 Muslims and 60-80 Jews. I feel it’s in the tradition of Middle East Friday Night that we did at the Oxford Jewish Society twenty years ago when we had Israelis and Palestinians reading poetry over a Shabbat dinner that followed davening. Iftar in the Synagogue also consists of schmoozing, then a teaching by a rabbi (me) and an Imam about the dates for Jews and Muslims, then Mincha – and this time almost every Jews stayed – then our Muslims friends go downstairs to break their fast, to pray Salat – usually in the JCC – and then we all feast together on Halal food from the best kosher Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago. The dinner ends with Bircat Hamazon: which talks about the Land, Jerusalem and the future of the Jewish people. However, as we know, there are also universal parts to benching. It seems that at Iftar in the Synagogue everyone is looking at things that we have in common, that bring us together, rather than things that pull us apart.
But I wanted to point out that as concerned I am for peace in Israel, and for Muslims and Jews to get along and learn from each other in Chicago and America, as much of a believer I am that different people can come together and get a lot out of each other’s company, sometime the most rewarding part of an event like this is to see how it brings out the Jews. There were Jews at this Iftar – dozens – who only get to daven mincha in a shul, or only step into an Orthodox shul, when we can show them that we are open to Muslims coming to our synagogue as well. And if this is their path to Judaism, is this is the way we affirm that their heritage can speak to them as well, that’s great. That is what Morethodoxy is all about: showing people that despite what they may have been led to believe, Judaism is relevant in their lives. Judaism has a power to touch them.
I wish all of us, that just as doors to Judaism opened for some through Iftar in the synagogue, that we find ways to open the gates of Judaism, the gates of Mitzvot and Torah, which were closed to us this year. We have to be creative about finding those gates and figure out how to get through. Maybe even more creative than Iftar in the Synagogue. But we cannot afford to ignore all the doors that await us. We need to find those keys and those doors and allow ourselves to be led to new depths in our Yiddishkeit.
May we all have a year filled with open doors to grow closer to Hashem, our People and our purpose in life. A 5770 with more good, more opportunities for good, more appreciation of Hashem’s good and infinite gifts for us.
G’mar chatima tova l’chulan ul’chol Yisrael,

Asher Lopatin