Sisterhood Blog

What Rabbi Eliyahu's Comments Say About Men

By Rebecca Honig Friedman

  • Print
  • Share Share

Debra’s point in the previous post that Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu’s statements regarding modesty says “far more about the way the rabbi views men than it does women” warrants further discussion.

The view of men that I think Debra is suggesting Eliyahu’s statement implies – that they are likely to be aroused by the slightest gesture in a woman, i.e. that there is no controlling their libidos – is one that, in my covering of Jewish women’s issues over the last few years, has struck me as prevalent among Orthodox rabbis, driving much of their thinking about laws of modesty. Though these decisions often appear sexist toward women, they often stem from an attempt to protect the fragility of male sexual purity – and, thus, to some extent, to protect women from those fallen men.

The intentions of women, then, matter little, compared with the impression they might unknowingly make on men. That is why hand gestures made by a woman in the course of a purely innocent speech could be interpreted as dangerous to men, and why this decision on the part of an Orthodox rabbi was so innovative.

This kind of thinking, on the part of a modern Orthodox rabbi, was made painfully explicit in this story — painful to the women in his community more than to me as an observer. Without getting into the details, this rabbi hesitated to have women making announcements of a non-ritual nature from the bima after services because men might get aroused and violate the sanctity of the sanctuary. He insisted that when it comes to getting turned on, men and women are different — men see a woman and think of sex, but women see a man and don’t necessarily.

Now to me this rabbi’s notion of women’s purity seemed rather naive, and his refusal to hold men to a higher standard of decorum than that of their base instincts seemed wrong. But, as a recent article in Newsweek pointed out, cultural norms have a lot to do with shaping our sexual instincts. Which makes me think that, to some extent, maybe these rabbis are right.

In the world of R’ Eliyahu, where men and women have little contact with each other outside of marriage precisely to prevent their being sexually aroused and distracted from the pursuit of Torah, the slightest interaction, the slightest expression of personality, might indeed be titillating. And in a world where girls and single women are sheltered from the sexual images that proliferate in our culture, and have not been taught that they have as much right to sex as men do — and where the men in their lives all look pretty much the same from a distance — women probably don’t think about sex as often as men do.

But these are self-perpetuating views. Tell men they need to steer clear of women and tell women they need to hide anything about themselves that could be potentially exciting to men, lest, horror of horrors, some one might get aroused. And when men do glimpse an elbow, or hear a lovely soprano raised in song, the more likely they are to actually be aroused.

And while there’s something kind of poetic about having the sensitivity to be so moved by something so subtle, the way such thinking encourages both men and women to view themselves and each other is, in my modern, feminist view, decidedly undesirable.


Rebecca Honig Friedman writes about Jewish women’s issues on the Jewess blog at www.Jewess.Canonist.com and is a producer for The Jewish Channel.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: arousal, sex, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, women

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.