Female Modesty in Israel: The Ultra-Orthodox v. the Rest of Society

Extracts from an article by Dov Linzer, Orthodox rabbi, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, published in The New York Times on January 19.

Last month, an innocent, modestly dressed 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, living in Beit Shemesh, described being spat on and vilified by religious extremists – all men – who believed that she did not dress modestly enough while walking past them to the religious school she attends. And more and more, public buses in Israel are enforcing gender segregation imposed by ultra-Orthodox riders in and near their neighborhoods. Woe to the girl or woman who refuses to move to the back of the bus.

This is part of a larger battle being waged in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society over women’s place in society, over their very right to have a visible presence and to participate in the public sphere.

What is behind these deeply disturbing events? We are told that they arise from a religious concern about modesty, that women must be covered and sequestered so that men do not have improper sexual thoughts. It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men’s sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women’s bodies.

This is not a problem unique to Judaism. But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, perhaps offers a surprising answer: it places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.

Put more plainly, the Talmud says: it’s your problem, sir; not hers.

The ultra-Orthodox men in Israel who are exerting control over women claim that they are honoring women. In effect they are saying “We do not treat women as sex objects as you in Western society do. Our women are about more than their bodies, and that is why their bodies must be fully covered.”

In fact, though, their actions objectify and hyper-sexualize women. Think about it. By saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man’s sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin.

Of course, once you judge a female human being only through a man’s sexualized imagination, you can turn even a modest 8-year-old girl into a seductress and a prostitute.


6 responses to “Female Modesty in Israel: The Ultra-Orthodox v. the Rest of Society

  1. It is hard to find fault in this analysis. It is therefore hard not to find fault in the silence of our government over this significant human rights abuse in Israel.
    When your friend is screwing up his life this badly, it’s OK to mention it to him.

  2. Many of the Saudi students in my ESL class are covered from head to toe. Not much difference, it seems to me.

  3. Absolutely correct. The comparison does Israel no favours.

    • The Israeli government and public opinion generally are appalled by the bigoted views of the ultra-orthodox. The article quoted was written by an orthodox rabbi who opposes the bigotry of the ultra-orthodox.

  4. The Abrahamic religions have all three been both terrified of and obsessed with sex. Much of Christianity and some of Judaism (or vice versa) have got over some of it; very little of Islam has, so far as I can tell.

    I interpret a hijab as a symbol saying ‘I come from a culture that does not require its menfolk to restrain themselves at the sight of a woman’s hair.’ For a veil or a burqa, as the lawyers say, ‘a fortiori’.

    Maybe the men of these extreme religious beliefs *like* being aroused at the slightest hint of the presence of a woman. Maybe it makes them feel manly. But that feeling represses women. I prefer a society where stimulation may be found but not acted on without consent, and one is able to work or play without being derailed by it.

    Take back the night, ladies, if you can.

  5. I read the article about the little girl and I was appalled. I talked to “my” rabbi and he was equally appalled. He is a Reform rabbi. All Jews everywhere must do what they can to restrain these ultra-orthodox. The article I read in the L.A. Times implied great condemnation. Not enough !