Women relegated to the back of the bus, women eliminated from public street posters, 8 year-old girls attacked due to their "lack of modesty." We are witnessing a growing situation in which religious groups have succeeded in marginalizing women within the public space or excluding them from it, as women are viewed as a temptation, a sexual distraction.
I am a religiously observant person, a Rabbi, and yet I deem this interpretation as a distortion and falsification of Judaism's idea of modesty. I have spent some time recently trying to articulate where the problem lies; after all, I too subscribe to values of modesty. Let me attempt to explain it as I see it.
Some years ago, a Rabbi friend told me the following story. A congregant had approached him and asked to speak to him about a situation that was on his mind. The Rabbi asked him what the problem was:
"Well Rabbi," He said, "Yesterday, I attended Sheva Berachot."
"Mazal Tov!" responded the Rabbi. "What is the problem?"
"Well, the kalla got up to give a Devar Torah" the congregant said uneasily.
""Wonderful!" responded the Rabbi.
"Well," said the man, "She was very attractive and it was inappropriate."
The Rabbi engaged him in discussion on the topic, with the congregant frustrated by his inability to express what he found as the point of his discomfort. At a certain point, he blurted out: "A women is just, quite simply, an object of immodesty!"
When men perceive women as a sexual object, I believe that however much they hide women away, they will still be aroused by something that reminds them of the sexual. And because these men are fighting to repress their sexual urges and to somehow eliminate them, they see women everywhere, they identify sexual stimulation in the slightest reminder of a woman. They push women further and further into the background to be continually frustrated that they feel continued sexual attraction. I recall reading a book in which an Islamic woman who wears a Burka, remarked that the men could identify which women had an attractive figure and would make sexual comments to women, even as they were covered from head to toe!
So here is the point. The Haredi community is terrified that sexuality will lead its men to sin. It responds by subjecting its women to increasingly stringent standards of dress, and removing them from the public space. But despite the fact that they require women to recede, the problem endures.
Now – this entire perspective is highly un-Jewish. How so?
First, modesty in the public arena is not to achieved by suppressing women; it is not women who are to pay the price. In most places that the Shulkhan Arukh addresses modesty, the man is instructed to restrict his gaze and not to look at a woman in an inappropriately sexual manner. But it doesn't say that a woman is required to button up in order to prevent or "protect" the man. Men are expected to take care of their sexual drives and to control their eyes and minds.
I think that something else should be said about the Jewish sexual ethic. Judaism has a host of laws regarding social interaction between the sexes. A man and a woman (who are unmarried) are not to be in a closed room alone (Yichud). They are not supposed to flirt or engage in affectionate physical contact (negia). A man should not look at women to gain some erotic pleasure (Histaklut assura and hirhur). Now, these laws are there precisely because men and women interact in the public arena, and because sexual attraction does exist between men and women. Hence, in order to facilitate a non-sexualized public space, these are regulations that seek to eliminate sexual opportunity and a sexually provocative environment. But this is precisely the point: These laws allow the genders to interact. They do not restrict the mixing of the genders!
It is certainly true that contemporary Western society has created a highly sexualized, provocative, flirtatious and even promiscuous public environment. Jewish tradition should have strong critique of modern society in this regard, and any Halakhically sensitive Jew would do well to guide his life, family and home, in an alternative direction. Possibly this overt sexualization is what sends our Orthodox world into retreat. After all, when the wider society is so audacious, traditional Judaism with its emphasis upon modesty, fidelity and marriage may justifiably attempt to protect itself. And yet, the overemphasis upon laws of modesty and gender separation become absurd. In an almost absurd and perverse reversal, it thrusts sexual attraction into the centre stage; so much so that it appears at times as if these God fearing people have sex on their mind every second of the day, as if they may succumb to illicit desire at any given moment!
Judaism is fully aware of the wild nature of sexual attraction. And yet Jewish Law has created a mechanism to keep the public space sexually neutral. If people are dressed modestly, if they don't engage in physical contact or allow themselves to be alone in private, then Halakha says that this is the standard that will ensure a holy public space.
After that, any man who has a problem must take care of his problem on his own.
Rabbi Moses Feinstein- the great American posek of the 20th Century – ruled that a Jew may travel the subway at rush hour even if he or she is pressed against the opposite sex. His assumption was that people who were crushed together in the train, would have preferred a more spacious environment, and hence there was no intent to engage in physical contact; the entire situation being against their personal desire and that a normal person would not be subject to sexual arousal. He did warn that if a particular individual was sexually aroused by the situation, they should take care of their "problem" by travelling at non-crowded times.
Similarly here. Women can be on street posters, the buses should be mixed. At the same time, I certainly would like to see people dressing in non-provocative clothing. But even with the street as it is, the street or bus cannot be worse than a crowded subway carriage. A normal person can control their eyes and minds. Women should not pay the price here.
This can be done. Let us hope that we can build God-fearing communities, that are respectful to all genders, that exclude no group or individual, that are seen as exemplars of kindness and respect, that engage with society and sanctify God's name.