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Parashat Hashavua Vayeira 2014 / 5775 - On Sarah, the Burka, the Modesty Police, and A Woman's Place

06.11.2014 by



This week's parsha, Vayeira, begins with the story of the three angels visiting Avraham and Sarah. These angels have a few jobs to do, and one of them is to inform the elderly couple that, in one year's time, Sarah will give birth to their first and only son, Yitzchak. This communication actually takes place between Avraham and the angels; Avraham is questioned by the angels as to Sarah's whereabouts, and he responds that she is nearby, in the tent. Rashi comments that this indicates to the angels and to us that she was צנועה - modest - in terms of sexuality and interactions between the sexes. She stays in the tent, hidden away from male (or any other) company, away from the possibility of temptation and sin.

The image of Sarah modestly in the tent, preparing the food, as Avraham asked her to, for the three guests, became a central feature in the way Jews traditionally understood a "woman's place." As Rashi said, her remaining in the tent while the three guests were outside is a sign of her proper womanly role. There are many similar stories in the Midrash and Talmud, praising wives who do not go out or mix with men, do not display themselves in public, and in general, stay, modestly, at home. The opposite sort of behavior, that of a woman who is often out and about, interacting with men, even apparently innocently, is seen in a negative light by the tradition. Famously, Dinah, just before she is raped and kidnapped by Shechem, "goes out" (Bereishit; 34,1), implying a cause and effect relationship between the two events. 

Recently, the question of women's modesty, revolving around dress, presence in the public sphere, role in the synagogue and other communal organizations, and more, has taken center stage in many Jewish communities. These issues are also being discussed by other communities as well. For instance, the move to cover Muslim women with various traditional garments is gaining traction in many Islamic countries and communities. Taking this Muslim traditionalism to an insane extreme, there is the barbaric behavior of Boko Haram and ISIS towards women; forcing them into slavery, making them “jihad wives”, and, of course, rape and murder. I just saw a bit of news someone shared on Facebook about an attempt in Saudi Arabia to do something about women whose eyes - the only part of them that is visible in public - are “too attractive”. The other day I saw a piece from the New York Post that was a bit closer to home (culturally rather than geographically): Flatbush Yeshiva has hired hall monitors to police their strict dress code among their female students, who are not happy about it in the least, and are complaining vocally. The issue of Haredi men unwilling to sit next to women on planes has also come up again, there is the long-running saga of the Women of the Wall, and of course we have the disaster of the mikveh scandal in DC, with a Rabbi, apparently, exercising religiously-based control over women, their bodies, and his “right” to gaze upon them.  

I’ll be honest. When I see these grotesque attempts to hide women, banish them from sight, put them at the back of the bus, and, along with that, take advantage of them, I find it harder and harder to stand up for even the basic traditional Jewish rules of modesty for women. I see a slippery slope from what I used to think were reasonable and healthy demands for modesty leading straight down to the hell of the full burka, and the crazy multi-layered covering of women from head to toe, which, believe it or not, exists on the margins of Orthodox life. I’ve seen these so-called “Taliban women” in the streets of Jerusalem, and believe me, it’s creepy. If a possible logical conclusion of dressing and behaving modestly is to end up looking like that, then, frankly, I am not that excited by the picture of Sarah demurely hiding in the tent.

Well, it turns, out, neither were the Rabbis. Later on in our parsha – a year later, to be exact - when the angels’ prophecy has come true and Yitzchak has been born, we are told that Avraham and Sarah made a party, to celebrate the weaning of Yitzchak.  The Torah tells us that Sarah “nursed children”. The strange use of the plural (she only had the one child) is understood by the Rabbis in a remarkable way. In the Midrash Rabbah they tell us that people suspected that the 90 year old Sarah had not really given birth to Yitzchak, and that he was actually someone else’s son. In order to silence the rumors, Avraham told Sarah, who the Rabbis say “was too modest” (!!!) to be immodest just this once, and let everyone see that she was actually nursing Yitzchack, and to offer to publicly nurse the children of any women who would like her to. What the Midrash has Avraham saying to Sarah is crucial: “This is not the time for tzniut (modesty); show your breasts, so everyone can see the miracle God did [by giving us this son, Yitzchak]”.

Now this story has its own weird and problematic elements, but I want to focus on the moral relativism, if you will, which Avraham exhibits here pertaining to Sarah’s modesty. “You are too modest, now is not the time for that”, he says. It would seem that modesty is situational. There are times when it makes more sense, times when it makes no sense at all. In the ancient world, where women really were not, by and large, independent actors, were often seen as property, and the rule of law was shaky, at best, it probably made a lot of sense, most of the time, for women to stay in the tent, cover up, take advantage of their husband’s protection, and keep the potential rapists, seducers, and kidnappers away. It was a wild world, without, I would remind us all, modern birth control or medicine, in which the classic forms of womanly modesty were probably a good evolutionary and social strategy. But even in that world, Avraham and Sarah teach us that there are times to be less modest. The lesson seems to be: modesty is not a set of absolute rules and standards, it depends.

Today, in what we like to think of as the civilized western world, women are out of the tent. They are doctors, lawyers, Talmudic scholars, communal leaders, heads of state, etc., etc., etc. It is simply inappropriate to try and force upon them the lifestyles and behaviors of their great grandmothers. The efforts by religious fanatics - Islamic, Jewish, whatever - to cover women up, hide them, make them somehow disappear - while at the same time spending an inordinate amount of time thinking and talking about how these women should or should not look, dress, and present themselves - is nuts. I am not sure what socio-psycho dynamics are at work here. They would seem to include the desire to exercise and maintain power and control, a fear of modernity and especially of modern women, old-fashioned misogyny and discomfort with female sexuality and sex in general, and God knows what else.

To these people we must say, echoing what Avraham said to Sarah, that this is not the time for that kind of modesty, this is not the way, today, in the modern world, to be modest. It is simply, in terms of the reality of the world that men and women in the west live in today, inappropriate.

If that is the case, is there still any room for modesty about sex and the body at all? Any real need for it? Well, if we observe how the pendulum has swung away from the traditional attempt to keep women covered to the current vulgar, over-sexualized, trashy culture in which we live, and the insane expectations we place on women in terms of how they need to look and present themselves, I think the answer is clear.  The current situation is surely just as unhealthy as the oppressive, obsessive covering-up of women, and just as sick. The hyper-sexualization of public space, the triumph of pornography, the unreal relationship the culture has with body image, looks, and dress; the way women and sexuality are depicted in popular culture and the media, are also clearly unacceptable. I think it should be clear to all of us that not all societal control of sexuality, and of the public presentation of sexuality, is a bad thing. It is not, as Foucault and his followers would have it, always just about the selfish, overbearing exercise of power and control. After all, we live among people, and interact with them, and how we look, dress, behave, and speak sends messages to members of the opposite sex all the time; to pretend otherwise is to lie. Though I am certainly not comfortable with the joy with which the tradition contemplates Sarah stuck alone in the tent, I do understand the value that is expressed with that image. All of us, men and women, have an obligation to interact in a moral, mature, and modest way with the people around us. This, I think, is a healthy message, a healthy way to live, and is the one that Judaism has always championed.

I recently saw a great piece by Camille Paglia on this, triggered by the kidnapping of Hannah Graham (after her piece was published, she was found, dead),in which she points out the foolishness of blithely and naively pretending that the way one presents one’s sexuality in public doesn’t matter, and is really no one else’s business. I’ve printed the entire piece below, but look at the last paragraph:

“Misled by the naive optimism and “You go, girl!” boosterism of their upbringing, young women do not see the animal eyes glowing at them in the dark. They assume that bared flesh and sexy clothes are just a fashion statement containing no messages that might be misread and twisted by a psychotic. They do not understand the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature.”

As does Ms. Paglia, Jewish tradition has a profound respect for the sexual urge, and states plainly that אין אפוטרופוס לעריות – “there is no one who can control sexual activity.” Knowing this, Jewish tradition calls for sexual modesty, sometimes going to what look like real extremes to separate the sexes, keep women away from always-assumed-to-be-predatory men, and men away from the women who tempt them so. I think the basic assessment is correct, we are all highly sexual beings, and the trick is to deal with it intelligently, humanely, and appropriately – to the time, the place, the social realities in which we live - without oppressing one gender or the other – or both.

The modern west too often gives up on any attempt at modesty altogether, seeing it as backwards, restraining, controlling, and oppressive. After all, if it’s all about the pursuit of happiness, a happiness which is, more and more, defined as physical, material, and sensual pleasure, why limit it, why control it? Go for it! Just do it! Traditionally-minded communities, feeling terribly challenged by this permissiveness and promiscuity, are getting more and more extreme in their attempts to shut the whole thing down – cover the women up, control them, separate the sexes, etc. Besides being creepy and oppressive, these efforts are doomed to failure; in their extreme nervousness about what they see as sexual license, they put sexuality as much in the center of their thinking as hedonistic modern communities do, which certainly can’t help them achieve their goals of propriety, fidelity, and monogamy.     

We need to be honest and intelligent about what modesty should look like in the 21st century. We dare not ignore the need for restraint, and respect, and common sense, nor can we revert to oppressive and chauvinistic pre-modern behaviors.      

I wish us all good luck.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Shimon Felix


The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil

Camille Paglia

The disappearance of University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham two weeks ago [her body has subsequently been found, SF] is the latest in a long series of girls-gone-missing cases that often end tragically. A 32-year-old, 270-pound former football player who fled to Texas has been returned to Virginia and charged with “abduction with intent to defile.” At this date, Hannah’s fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

Wildly overblown claims about an epidemic of sexual assaults on American campuses are obscuring the true danger to young women, too often distracted by cellphones or iPods in public places: the ancient sex crime of abduction and murder. Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.

Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.

Too many young middleclass women, raised far from the urban streets, seem to expect adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes. But the world remains a wilderness. The price of women’s modern freedoms is personal responsibility for vigilance and self-defense.

Current educational codes, tracking liberal-Left, are perpetuating illusions about sex and gender. The basic Leftist premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia. Progressives have unquestioned faith in the perfectibility of mankind.

The horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism — toxins embedded in oppressive outside structures that must be smashed and remade. But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.

Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil — but so does conservatism these days, when evil is facilely projected onto a foreign host of rising political forces united only in their rejection of Western values. Nothing is more simplistic than the now rote use by politicians and pundits of the cartoonish label “bad guys” for jihadists, as if American foreign policy is a slapdash script for a cowboy movie.

The gender ideology dominating academe denies that sex differences are rooted in biology and sees them instead as malleable fictions that can be revised at will. The assumption is that complaints and protests, enforced by sympathetic campus bureaucrats and government regulators, can and will fundamentally alter all men.

But extreme sex crimes like rape-murder emanate from a primitive level that even practical psychology no longer has a language for. Psychopathology, as in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s grisly Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), was a central field in early psychoanalysis. But today’s therapy has morphed into happy talk, attitude adjustments, and pharmaceutical shortcuts.

There is a ritualistic symbolism at work in sex crime that most women do not grasp and therefore cannot arm themselves against. It is well-established that the visual faculties play a bigger role in male sexuality, which accounts for the greater male interest in pornography. The sexual stalker, who is often an alienated loser consumed with his own failures, is motivated by an atavistic hunting reflex. He is called a predator precisely because he turns his victims into prey.

Sex crime springs from fantasy, hallucination, delusion, and obsession. A random young woman becomes the scapegoat for a regressive rage against female sexual power: “You made me do this.” Academic clichés about the “commodification” of women under capitalism make little sense here: It is women’s superior biological status as magical life-creator that is profaned and annihilated by the barbarism of sex crime.

Misled by the naive optimism and “You go, girl!” boosterism of their upbringing, young women do not see the animal eyes glowing at them in the dark. They assume that bared flesh and sexy clothes are just a fashion statement containing no messages that might be misread and twisted by a psychotic. They do not understand the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature.

Paglia is the author of Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars.

The question of women's modesty, revolving around dress, presence in the public sphere, role in communal organizations, has taken center stageRabbi Shimon

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