By Batya Ungar-Sargon
“No one has a right to tell a woman what to wear, least of all a man who thinks his fear of women's sexuality gives him some kind of divine right to control.” This was said to me in a recent interview with Chana Cohen, 30, a freelancer in Queens, NY who recently stopped observing the Orthodox Jewish laws of modesty or tzniut.
Orthodox Judaism places certain restrictions on what women are permitted to wear, though the status of these restrictions is contested: are they halachah (law) or minhag (custom)? It’s hard to say. While the concept of erva or “sexual incitement” comes up in the Talmud, it rarely names explicit body parts that one must cover or hide. One of the few named is the thigh: “A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement,” the Talmud says in Berachot 24a, “Uncover the leg, pass through the river. Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen.” The latter is a quote from Isaiah, as though the Talmudists needed a verse describing God’s anger at the people of Israel to inform them under what circumstances to be aroused. While the Talmudists then attempt to compare a pinky finger to Makom Hatoref (literally, the place of filth or pudenda, but idiomatically, the place that devours, an excellent pun), they are quickly shut down.
Maimonides specifically mentions the laws of modesty in the context of limiting what men are allowed to look at, rather than directly restricting women’s wardrobe choices. This issue was raised during the backlash against Ultra Orthodox men terrorizing young girls on their way to school in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. But the question of whose responsibility it is that men avoid the negative thoughts associated with ervaseems to shift back and forth between men and women. On the one hand, stories abound of men taking part in establishing the female dress code. There is an oft-told tale of Satmar Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum inserting a hand into stockings to determine which are modest enough to warrant his blessing. Books on modesty written by men are also not in short supply, and men frequently stand at the entrance to girls’ schools to make sure that the girls are dressed modestly enough, possibly by checking their own level of arousal. But a host of other stories where women are literally being erased continue to reach us—stories of Hilary Clinton’s face being cut out of a photo in Hamodia, or of the Charedi press blurring the faces of little girls, or of women disappearing from Jerusalem’s billboards because “Who needs this headache?” as one media consultant in Jerusalem put it in aHa’aretz article.
Demanding that women cover up to keep them from arousing men has the same effect as hiding women from the public eye. This practice renders women sexual in essence and defines women by their capacity to arouse and to endanger the true subject of the religion—men. Even if the woman feels less sexual as a result of covering up, there is a structural level at which she is still treating her body as essentially sexual. “I used to dress to attract men, and now I dress to avoid doing so,” says Ruth Kaminsky, a twenty four year old who lives in Palo Alto and has recently become religious. For Kaminsky, her closeness to God is expressed through her choices to avoid being seen as a sexual object, but she admits that there are aspects of dressing modestly that echo dressing to attract: “In both instances, you are picturing your body from an outsider’s perspective,” an outsider who is potentially aroused by it.
Cohen, quoted above, used to be religious and is now no longer so. On leaving the laws of modesty behind, Cohen says “at first I recoiled. I thought: I look like a slut. Then I thought: Who cares? Who decides what makes someone a slut? It is my body, and I don't care if someone finds it offensive. So the practice of leaving tzniut meant adjusting the way I felt in my own skin. It was a shift from regarding my body as something to police for the consideration of others, to something that was utterly mine.”
Many women view dressing in accordance with the laws of modesty as a spiritual exercise that frees them from feeling sexualized. However, this practice bears a striking and uncomfortable structural resemblance not only to the erasure of women from the streets of Jerusalem, but also to the practices employed by women attempting to attract sexual attention insofar as it requires that women take stock of their bodies from the perspective of a male gaze to determine what should be covered up or revealed. This is not a call to arms for women to burn their modest clothing, but rather, an attempt to alert readers to the covert sexualization of women that occurs when they are instructed to cover up, and even when they choose to.
Ultimately, women should dress as they please. But a culture of covering up is, in fact, a sexual culture, and it behooves the Orthodox community to recognize that attempts to protect themselves from impure thoughts create a highly sexualized culture in which women are the temptation of the “true” male citizens. Maybe it’s time to take a leap and pass through the river.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a Brooklyn-based freelancer and Phd candidate. Her work appears regularly in City Limits, Tablet Magazine, and Bookslut.