Monday, February 16, 2009

Obsessing Over Issues of Modesty

Before we approach the issue of "darcha acharita", avoiding temptations, let's examine the Halakhic parameters of two prohibitions.

1) Hirhurim … sexual thoughts. Many think that it is prohibited for a man to experience any such thoughts whatsoever about any woman (other than his wife, obviously) ever. Well, I don't know what is and what isn't prohibited. I only know what others have said. Both the Me'iri and the Ezer Mekudash (quoted in Otzar HaPoskim 23:3:8:2, for your convenience), both frum yidden, maintain that it is prohibited to engage in purposeful and intentional sexual fantasy. Occasional thoughts are not prohibited, as long as not purposeful and intentional. So guess what, gents. Chill. You may, on occasion, experience some level of inappropriate thoughts. It may be the way men were built, an issue which would require another post by a social biologist. In the words of the Ezer Mekudash, "the Torah was not given to angels." You are not angels, gentlemen. Get over it. You are not obligated to decimate such thoughts, even when they occur, on occasion, inappropriately. A simple victory by "fall" (to use a wrestling term) is all that is required. Do not act on these desires, including … no purposeful intentional sexual fantasy. Beyond that, there is no Halakhic obligation to be overly focused on this challenge. Don't obsess. R. Yisrael Salanter (אגרות ומכתבים מאת ר' ישראל סלנטר, מהד'שרגא הכהן וילמן, סי' כה ) wrote that obsessing over these thoughts can act as a boomerang and make them even stronger.

2) Seeing/staring at/ogling a woman. Halakha does not prohibit seeing any part of a woman other than the genital area (see Shu"t Naharei Afarsimon, EH 19). The poskim distinguish between seeing and staring. This distinction is found all over the place in the Halakhic literature, but if you can't find it, then hit the books, get back to the beit midrash, and in the meantime, take a look at Yad Malachi (179) since that's the source that comes to me off the top of my head. Staring at part of a woman defined as "erva" is prohibited. Staring at parts of a woman not defined as erva is not prohibited, as long as there is no intent to derive pleasure. Ogling, that is, intentionally deriving pleasure from staring at a woman, is prohibited even if ogling the woman's small finger. Stop worrying about what you might see in the bus, at work, or elsewhere. I have NEVER seen a woman in public whose genital area is exposed. Don’t stare at a woman who is not dressed in accordance with normal social standards (see below). And never ogle. Get a grip. The distinction between staring, with no intent of deriving pleasure, versus ogling is to be found in the Rambam, Bi'ah 21:1 versus 21:21.

It is important to note that societal norms determine what parts of a woman's body are defined as erva. If you live in a society where social norms sanction mini-skirts, belly shirts and halter tops, then areas of the body exposed by such clothing are not defined as erva. Sound too modern? Take a look at Dirvei Hamudot (Brackhot 3:116 ) who writes that the upper arms of women are considered erva only in a society where women normally cover them. Well, maybe that only applies to a lady's upper arms? Guess again. Yaskil Avdi (vol. 4; EH:9 ) writes that in a society where social norms sanction exposed breasts they are not considered erva (click here and see the last paragraph and continue to the next page).

The degree to which a man is vulnerable to "immodest" dress is directly proportional to the degree of modesty to which he is accustomed. A man who lives in a haredi neighborhood and never leaves it is most vulnerable to dress codes less modest than those of his neighborhood. A man living in a haredi neighborhood who works in N. Tel Aviv (there must be at least one such person in the country) is less vulnerable. A man living in a mixed religious / secular neighborhood is yet less vulnerable. This should be obvious, but for those who want a Rabbinic source, see Shu"t Siach Nachum 92. So … a dati-leumi man living in a city (as opposed to an all religious settlement) is considerably less vulnerable to temptations than his haredi or settler colleagues.

Most important, this discussion should be quite unnecessary. Common sense is a really good rule of thumb here. Sound not so frum? Take a look at the Ritv"a at the end of Kiddushin and see that he says exactly that. True, he does say it is improper (though not prohibited) for anyone other than a saintly gent to take this approach, but see Shu"t Bnei Banim, vol 4, article 2 here where R. Henkin broadens this approach to include the average person as long as within the standards of modesty to which said person is accustomed.

Click here to see more of R. Yehuda Henkin's writings regarding how societal norms play a factor in the halakhot of modesty.

All this being said, why shouldn't we just adopt the most stringent positions in issues of modesty.

The answer is twofold:
1) the boomerang effect mentioned above in the name of R. Yisrael Salanter
2) the cost to society … stay tuned

I hope to write on the following issues in the near future:
1) darcha acharita – avoiding temptation
2) the societal price paid in mehadrin approaches
3) unity or uniformity … do those singing the song of achdut have any clue what they are saying?


  1. One man's caution is another man's obsession.

  2. Take a look at the Ritv"a at the end of Kiddushin and see that he says exactly that. True, he does say it is improper (though not prohibited) for anyone other than a saintly gent to take this approach, but see Shu"t Bnei Banim, vol 4, article 2 here where R. Henkin broadens this approach to include the average person as long as within the standards of modesty to which said person is accustomed.

    No problem. So if you're a tzaddik gomur, or you work or live in N. TA, and you really really don't notice these things (be honest with yourself), then mehadrin won't help you. But for the rest of the population...

  3. You have entirely missed the point. There is no problem in noticing. Don't stare at erva. Don't ogle. If you follow those two rules, you're good to go, without forcing women to the back of the bus.

  4. Many thanks to Chuck, for raising this many-layered issue bravely and thoroughly and for the great sources as well. I have much to say about it all, but will try to be concise.

    1 - I understand the need to avoid and prevent improper sexual action. But why does halacha (or is it hashkafa?) shorten the distance so sharply between thoughts, sensations, fleeting feelings and actual action? Maybe as a woman, I fail to fully understand the male mind/heart/body connection and all its related dynamics. Or maybe I am lacking psychological-biological knowledge. But isn't there anything between initial stimuli and acted-upon action? Where are self-control, free choice etc..? Don't we get more credit than that?

    2 - (Related to 1, but am trying to break it down into chewable units) Why is it all so negative? Does Judaism not allow one to experience any kind of aesthetic, or even emotional, pleasure from the existence of opposite-sex people? Why can one not experience, acknowledge, enjoy the beauty, or pleasure, of another person's being without it having to lead to any action or forbidden behavior? Again, is this just the difference between the way both genders operate, that I fail to really understand, or does Yahadut le'chatchilla want us to limit our possibilities of full (emotional, sensual) experience, lest it take us to other areas? And here I don't just mean marital disloyalty and unfaithfulness, or to transgressing clear halachic issurim, but more generally, in the realm of internal movement and experience.

    3 - Finally, and most painful, and I'm sure I speak for other women here. It is more than offending to be regarded as constantly threatening male-kind. We get a very clear feeling from the more Haredi mindset that in our very existence we are intimidating to men, that our very essence is a possible threat, which at any moment may lead the superior gender (I know I'm getting carried away here, but indulge me) astray and corrupt it. It feels horrible to be looked at this way. Why can't women be perceived as an equal half of mankind? Why can't we form relationships built on deep, genuine respect and understanding and create so much good in the world? I'd be the last to negate the existence and importance of the erotic and romantic components in the makeup of humans of both genders. They are crucial. But that's not all women are about.

    Sorry for the long megilla, but these issues are of great concern, and I believe, not just to me and this achsania seems very receptive to honest, straight examination.

  5. You have entirely missed the point. There is no problem in noticing. Don't stare at erva. Don't ogle. .

    I could have said it better.
    So if you're a tzaddik gomur, or you work or live in N. TA, and you really really aren't distracted by these things (be honest with yourself), then mehadrin won't help you. But for the rest of the population...

    Who can really say that he never has a yetzer hora to stare/ogle? While that's not ossur (to want), it still is something that one should be more comfortable not having to suppress.

    If you follow those two rules, you're good to go, without forcing women to the back of the bus

    Nobody is forced to ride mehadrin. And not all women prefer sitting amongst the men.

  6. You're right. If she doesn't like it, she can either take another bus, or davka get on the mehadrin bus, sit in the middle of the men and annoy as many people as she can.

  7. If Hamasig doesn't mind my interfering, even though I am a woman :), I don't think many women want to annoy people - in principle, or otherwise. They don't mean to parade themselves in ways that might stir whatever reactions. In writing what I did above, I definitely didn't mean outright provocation. That would be underhanded (pushing buttons that we all have, and which we don't want operated at somebody else's will). That's not the point. We just don't want to be thought of us ticking bombs out to cause harm. No woman (hardly) would sit among men on purpose.

  8. First, thank you to Chuck for addressing these issues.
    Second, as a woman, I'd like to add:

    1. that Rachely's point #3 speaks very strongly for/to me as well -- women would like to feel like we are seen as people, not be objectified merely as sexual objects.

    2. Worse yet, the consequence of objectifying women always seems to be imposing more restrictions on women, rather than on the men who have trouble controlling their yetzarim, or eyes or just want to be machmir on "themselves".
    It reminds me of Golda Meir's famous reaction to a cabinet minister's suggestion to impose a night-time curfew on women when a serial rapist was on the loose: "But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home."
    The practical consequence of this so-called "mehadrin" behavior is that women are literally sent to the back of the bus, and otherwise treated much like blacks were under the despicable Jim Crow laws. Are we to be
    locked up in our houses so that you can't see us at all? Isn't that the logical next step in this increasing "frumkeit"?

    3. As Chuck has pointed out clearly and accurately, a man's reaction to a woman (and vice versa) very much depends on the society in which he lives and works. A (female) friend of mine told me that a major reason she and her family moved out of a Charedi neighborhood was the discomfort she felt every time she did have
    to interact with a man -- e.g., the men who come to the door to collect tzedaka. Each time, she felt the man looking her over to see if she was dressed "properly" (sometimes commenting if she was not). And one couldn't have a short conversation with a male neighbor without feeling awkward, raising sexual tension where
    there would normally be none. Bottom line: the forced separation of the sexes just increases inappropriate thoughts when one, as will happen, does have to interact with the opposite sex.

    4. Finally, and in light of all of the above, I think the concepts of "Kavod Ha'briot" and "V'ahavta le'ra'e'acha kamocha" should be -- and are -- much more important halachic considerations than machmir interpretations of "darcha acharita". Especially if the burdens of those interpretations falls primarily upon others (women). Not to mention the Chilul Hashem that often results from the imposition of these stringencies on others -- even when Charedim are not physically attacking non-segregated Egged buses, as occured just yesterday in Meah Shearim.

  9. Rachely, my remarks were no addressed to you. They were as a response to a comment by Chuck. I hope I have not offended you. I believe very few women would do such a thing. In fact, from personal experience on mehadrin buses, I have never seen it.
    Having said that, a woman who acts in a modest non-provocative or non eye catching manner, according to local standard, in manner and dress, has NOTHING at all to distressed about. Nothing.

  10. Tamar - Right on! I agree with every single word. Thanks for articulating so well.

    Hamasig - I know you were responding to Chuck. I just wanted to add my angle of it. No problem whatsoever. Thanks for your consideration.

  11. I realize this blog is on to other issues, but since this is just the place for this, please let me scream out here -

    This past Friday's issue of Meyda Barama (commercial newsletter/publication)featured ads for Purim costume suppliers in our area. The faces of the girls wearing the costumes were (1)blocked in one ad (as is done in criminal contexts) and (2) covered by masks (in another). I know this has been done in previous years too, but I am no longer tolerant.

    1. What are little girls supposed to feel when they see this? That they deserve to be hidden from sight, that there something is wrong with them?
    2. Why cater to sick people for whom pictures of little girls.. I don't even want to continue.
    3. Why rob these girls of childlike innocence? Why introduce any kind of distortion into their self-image?
    4. What message does it give their brothers or anybody else?

  12. Thanks Rachely. There are those that would perhaps say that the Halakha doesn't and shouldn't take into consideration human feelings when there is some prohibition involved. (I hope to address that issue soon.) That's how, I suppose, a past issue of a dati leumi shabbat sheet would answer when they took out a woman's picture from a certain advertisement (I couldn't believe my eyes ... a DATI LEUMI shabbat sheet). But this ... young girls ... is positively sick.

    Perhaps we should ask our local Rabbanim to prohibit reading Meyda BeRama for ... I'm serious. Or ... I would be prepared to lead a public protest in front of the publisher's home.

  13. Thank you, Chuck. I'm curious what prohibition could possibly be involved here. It'll be interesting to read what you write about it.
    As for the protest, I'll be right behind you, with hopefully many more sane people.

  14. Rachely, you're right! There would be no prohibition whatsoever ... except for maybe a man ogling the picture. My brain wasn't fully functional so early in the morning.

    Which brings me to one of the many societal costs of such "mehadrin" approaches. It messes up the way even moderate folks think. If the "mehadrin" approaches become sufficiently widespread, the masses start thinking there really is something wrong with the non-"mehadrin" position ... especially early in the morning.

    Which reminds me. A friend of mine was once on a non-mehadrin bus, but on a line where folks are nevertheless makpid to not sit mixed on the same seat. A "mehadrin" gentleman was sitting at the window side of the seat, sleeping. A lady came and sat next to him, and, as she got up to leave at her stop, the gent awakened and realized he had been sitting next to a woman ... which put him into a panic.

    He turned around to my friend and accosted him for not having awakened him, claiming ... "that was giluy arayot!"

    When "mehadrin" becomes widespread, the masses often have no idea that it's not the din ... much less one of the big three.

  15. Rachely's post earlier on in this thread (about the line between thoughts and actions) raises an interesting issue.

    A lot of people like to think that one of the major distinctions between Christianity and Judaism is that Christianity is really a thought/belief-based religion while Judaism is really an action-based religion.

    While it may be true that God asks Jews to perform (and refrain from performing) many actions, the truth is that halachic literature is filled with statements regarding what a Jew should think and believe. This includes:

    - What a Jew should not think about
    - What a Jew should think about at different times (including what one should think about during sex)
    - What a Jew should believe in (actually, based on the Rambam's formulations, it would probably be more accurate to say "what a Jew *has to* believe in")

  16. Neither the word nor concept of belief appears in the Rambam's foundations.

    In fact, the concept of belief is almost entirely missing from the Rambam's writings.

  17. To "They can't" - you're right. That is a distinction that's commonly held, and I always thought one of the beauties of Judaism. You are accountable for your deeds, but have much more space in thoughts and feelings. If I remember correctly, with regard to Emunot v'De'ot there is some leeway. But that is a very non-specific statement. What is the exact definition? (though I assume there are probably different shitot).
    I guess it's being the product of Western, 60-70's thinking, that makes us believe that all our thoughts and feelings are legitimate. Obviously, for various reasons, they cannot all be expressed or fulfilled, but at least they have a right to exist. It has to do with the entire "let it all hang out"/maximum self-fulfillment/everything-we-experience-is- meaningful/ worldview we grew up in (even in religious homes).
    Rather depressing that it 'aint so.

  18. I was referring specifically to the שלושה עשר עיקרים (yud gimmel ikarim) - is there a way to understand these other than as a list of required beliefs ?