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.