Friday, January 20, 2012

New York Times Op-Ed

Dear Friends and Supporters,

The exciting news, as many of you may already know, is that my op-ed on modesty, Beit Shemesh and halakha is out in today's NY Times.  Here is the link:

Please post it and pass it on to anyone who may be interested.

For those who did not have a chance to read my recent blog posting  (and email from 3 weeks ago) that dealt with this topic with a more detailed analysis of the sources, you can see it here.  Thank you all for your encouraging feedback of my initial piece.  It helped inspire me to write this op-ed.

Let us hope that this generates intense debate and discussion, and possibly even some movement, particularly within our own community.

A Thought on the Parsha

Parshat Va'Eira - A Leader to the People or a Leader of the People?

There are two types of leaders.  There is the leader that comes to the people with a vision, who brings a message from on high down to those he would lead.  Such a leader’s goal is to gather followers by finding those who are persuaded by his message, his passion, his vision.   And then there is the leader who emerges from within the people, who has internalized their deepest concerns and passions, who can crystallize and articulate the inchoate longings of the people.  The goal of such a leader is to bring this message – their message – to those in power, to the larger society, in order to bring about true change.

Two types of leaders:  a leader from above and a leader from below.   Or, as the Gemara in Yoma (19a) phrases it in reference to the Kohanim:  messengers of God or messengers of the people.  Which one was Moshe?   Framed this way, the answer is obvious.  Moshe of course is the one who brings God's message down from on high, who brings the tablets from Mt. Sinai.    But his type of leadership was already concretized from its very inception.  

Moshe's career undoubtedly stemmed from his deep care for his people: "And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and he looked on their burdens..." (Shemot 2:11).  What a tremendous act!  To leave the security and comfort of Pharaoh’s house, to go out and do something about his suffering people, simply because he cared.  He was motivated out of a sense of kinship to directly see, understand, and feel their suffering.  But while Moshe was acting forthe people, his motivation was his own, and his actions were also his own.   Thus, on the next day, he is rejected by the people: "Who made you a prince and judge over us?" (2:14).   He cares for them, he acts on their behalf, but he has not taken the time to talk to them, to understand them.  How could it be otherwise?  Moshe is an outsider, coming from a position of privilege.   He may be the leader for the people, but without investing in them or identifying with them, he will not be a leader from the people, of the people.

We would be hard-pressed to find any instance where Moshe actually has a meaningful discourse with those he is leading.  When Moshe first encountered God in the burning bush, he was concerned with how his message would be received.  What if they ask what God's name is?  What if they say that God has not sent me?  What if "they will not believe me?" and what if "they will not listen to my voice?"(4:1).   In response, God revealed God’s name to Moshe and gave him signs to show the people.  Moshe has imagined an entire conversation taking place when he comes to the people.  But then what happened? "Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed…" (4:30-31).  There is no back-and-forth, no asking for God's name, no asking for proof.  It is just - here's what God said, here are the signs.   And they immediately believe.  

It seems that no one was in a position to get a real conversation going.  Moshe was not going to engage the people, and they were not going to engage him.   When Moshe delivered a message they were eager to hear, they followed him, but they did not embrace him, they did not connect with him.  Thus, although the people believed andheard, it was not Moshe in whom they were believing, it was not Moshe to whom they were listening.  "And the people believed and they heard that God had remembered his people…" (4:31).  Moshe is completely absent from this verse.  It was God and the message that they connected to, not Moshe.

Moshe had won the people’s backing without any difficult investment in the people, without truly understanding and addressing their fears and concerns, without creating relationships.    And such a backing is easily lost.  When Moshe and Aharon come to Pharaoh, the people are nowhere to be seen: "'Afterwards Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh…' (5:1).  And where were the elders?  They had dropped off one by one." (Rashi, quoting the Shemot Rabbah).   One can just imagine the scene.  Moshe says to Pharaoh: "We, together with the leaders of the people…"  "Together with whom?"  And then Moshe looks behind him, and there is no one there.   He had just become a leader without a people.  He was truly a "messenger of God," but he was certainly not a "messenger of the people."

And so opens our parasha.   The people have just vehemently complained and rejected Moshe, Moshe brings their message to God, and God sends him back to the people.  Once again, no success.  "And they did not listen to Moshe, because of their anguished spirit and the cruel slavery." (6:9).  He never really had their ear, and he certainly does not now.  So what is God's response?  Forget the people, just worry about Pharaoh: " Go, speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt, that he let the people of Israel go out of his land." (6:11).  

From this point on in the narrative, the Children of Israel disappear.  The only players in the entire story of the ten plagues leading up to the smiting of the first born and being driven out of Egypt are Moshe, Aharon, the magicians, and the Egyptian people.  Moshe represents God, not his people, and thus the people are nowhere to be seen.

Moshe brings a message not from the people, but to the people, and it is one he is imposing on them.  It is actually very similar to his message to Pharaoh: This is what God says, this is what will happen, this is what you must do.  And the Torah, when it sums up the mission of Moshe and Aharon, implicitly equates their relationship to the people with their relationship to Pharaoh:  "And [God] gave them a charge to the people of Israel, and to Pharaoh king of Egypt..." (6:13).   Moshe is a messenger of God.  A messenger of God to the people and a messenger of God to Pharaoh.

It is thus not surprising to find that when the time of redemption comes, the people must be forcibly dragged out of Egypt.  Just as Moshe's mission had to be forced on Pharaoh, it had to be forced on the people.  They had to be driven out, and so it was: "For they were driven out of Egypt, and they could not tarry…" (12:39).    God took us out with a mighty hand, a mighty hand that was needed not only to compel Pharaoh, but to compel the people as well.  "For with a mighty hand he shall let them go and with a mighty hand he shall drive them out." (5:23). 

This type of leadership is necessary at times.  Sometimes the people do not know what is best for them.  Sometimes they are too enslaved in body, too enslaved in soul, to have the vision and strength needed to bring about change, to set themselves free.  Perhaps it was only Moshe who could have been their leader at this time.   Perhaps it could only be someone who came from a position of privilege, with the freedom of body and spirit, who could have the clear vision, who could understand what true freedom is.  And perhaps only someone who had not had ingrained in him the qualities of subservience and submission, could have the courage and the fortitude to withstand setbacks and failures.    The people could not have had a leader from their midst.  To take the people out of Egypt needed a leadership from above, a leadership of a "mighty hand."  They needed Moshe as their leader.

This leadership, however, will not be able to take them into the land.  That needs a leader from the people and of the people.   After having been freed and having received the Torah, the people would need a leader who, first and foremost, was a messenger of the people.  Although Moshe was to be the one to actualize the first four stages of redemption: "vi'hotzeiti vi'hitzalti vi'ga'alti vi'lakachti, and I will take out… and I will save… and I will redeem... and I will take them to me as a people" (6:6-7), he was not to be the one to realize the fifth and final stage of redemption, "vi'heiveiti, and I will bring them into the Land…" (6:8). For this, a leader to the people would not suffice.  For this, there would need to be a leader from the people and of the people.

A forcible leadership may be necessary in the short run, but it will not last, and it is not what a free people need.   A leadership that respects the people, that invests in each individual, that embodies the people's concerns, fears, passions, and ultimately their vision for themselves is the leadership that which was needed to bring the people into the land.  And it is the leadership that is needed today.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Torah From Our Beit Midrash-Tzniut

December 30, 2011

Last week, I mentioned that I had given a shiur at the yeshiva on aspects of tzniut and on how the cultural interpretation of that concept - in theory and practice - was at odds with its halakhic definition, and was damaging to both men's perception of women and to women's perception of themselves and their own sexuality.   I was asked by a number of people to elaborate on these issues, and what follows is a summary of the shiur that I gave last week.

Tova Hartman, in her chapter "Modesty and the Religious Male Gaze," from her book Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism,  discusses the topic of the male gaze, and how the culture around tzniut reinforces this - accepts it as a given - and the status of women as sex objects.  The only difference between this approach and that of Western culture is whether the response is for women (and men) to leverage it or cover it up, but the "traditional" Jewish approach doesn't critique the male gaze, per se, and demand the non-objectification of women.  This is, indeed, the religious Jewish cultural reality, but it is not the halakhic one. 

The sources in the Gemara (in particular Berakhot 24a: hair is 'ervah, voice is 'ervah, shok (thigh?) is 'ervah, etc.) are directed to the man and his need/obligation not to look at women sexually (unless in the context of marriage or getting married).  Admittedly, the Gemara's directives are, as a rule, focused on men, and its concern here is about sexual thoughts (see also AZ 20a-b and Avot d'Rebbe Natan, version B, chapter 2).  - more an issue for men, according to the Gemara, than for women.  Nevertheless, the halakhic obligation is how man should and should not look.  It is all about the male gaze - "Do not look at women (who are not your wife, and whom you are not considering marrying) so that you do not have illicit sexual thoughts" is not very far from, and can be translated as "Do not look at women as sex objects."  Similarly, in Shulkhan Arukh, both in Orah Hayyim (75) and Even HaEzer (21), the obligation is directed at men, and at how they look at women.

There are some Gemarot that talk about women's responsibility in this regard.  The Gemara in Shabbat (62b), in particular, is a strong critique against women who would dress and walk in sexually provocative ways.  This, it should be noted, is not the specific issue of how much of one's body needs to be covered, what is or is not an ervah, etc.  It is about being intentionally sexually provocative, seducing others to sin,  and a general concern of tzniut in all ways (not just dress - even how one walks, etc.), that applies equally to men and to women.  The other Gemara that talks more about norms of modest behavior/dress for women is the Gemara in Ketuvot (72b) regarding dat Yehudit for married women.  What is notable about this Gemara - besides that it is about married, not unmarried women - is that again, it does not quantify body parts, etc., or focus on men's sexual thoughts.  It is rather Jewish societal norms of modest behavior.  More to the point, if one looks at the mishna and what is included in dat Yehudit, it will become immediately apparent that the issue here is violating the appropriate intimacy and exclusivity between husband and wife, and the types of behavior that is required to protect this intimacy and trust.  Truly, tzniut as the general concept of modesty - applies for men and women, and is much more than dress.  What we do not have is women's responsibility for men's sexual gaze and sexual thoughts.

The one Gemara that puts the responsibility for men's inability to control their sexual desires, although the women are acting innocently, is the story of the daughter of R. Yossi from Yukrat in Taanit (24a).   The Gemara relates that his daughter was very beautiful, and one day he caught a man peering at her from behind some bushes.  The man said: "If I can't marry her, at least I can derive pleasure from looking at her."  Rather than criticize the man, R. Yossi of Yukrat said to his daughter: "My daughter, you are causing anguish to God's creatures. Return to your dust."  Now, when this Gemara is taught, one can easily derive the lesson that - aha! Men can't control their urges, and their sexual thoughts are women's responsibility.   What is lost - significantly and profoundly! - is that the sugya opens with R. Yossi bar Avin saying that he used to be a student of R. Yossi from Yukrat, and he left him because he (R. Yossi of Yukrat) didn't even have any compassion on his son and daughter.  This story is the evidence to his lack of compassion on his daughter.  In other words, it is his actions and perhaps the entire attitude that is being critiqued here, not endorsed.

The cultural shift that moved this from men's obligation to women's had a profound impact.   We have abandoned the idea that men can control their sexual thoughts, their lusts or their male gaze.  So our (implicit) estimation of men has been diminished.  What type of a religious system gives up - or implicitly tells an individual to give up - on the possibility of religious growth, even in areas where there are strong counter desires?  And  by placing the responsibility on women, we have reinforced their status as sex objects, saddled them with the responsibility and guilt of men's sexual desires and thoughts, and have told them to respond to this by covering themselves up - by de-sexualizing themselves, and as a result, we have problematized and made them highly conflicted about their own sexuality, a problem with significant repercussions in marriage and elsewhere.  

This entire problem could be solved by a return to the halakhot and approaches to tzniut in the Gemara and translating this into our culture and education.   Such an approach would teach men to not look at women as sex objects, would teach women that they are not responsible for men's sexual thoughts, and unless they are dressing or acting in a particularly provocative manner, there is no lifnei iver (causing others to sin) or such concerns, because it is within men's control whether and how to look at them.  It would teach both men and women that tzniut is about more than dress, it is about comportment and behavior, it is about modesty before God and in relationship to all people - men and women - and that it applies equally to both men and women.

A final word about the quantification of tzniut concerns.  The Gemara Berakhot talks about shok (thigh) being an 'ervah, and the Gemara in Ketuvot about the problem of a married woman appearing with her zro'ot (upper arms) uncovered.  This leads to the "halakha" that women (married or unmarried) must cover the legs to the knee (top of the knee, bottom of the knee, middle of the knee?) and their arms to the elbow.  Besides the fact that the Gemara about shok (and the Shulkhan Arukh) is talking to men, not to women, another central critique is in order.    The assumption of all discussions around these topics is that these are strict, objective categories.  There is only one problem.  The Mishna (Ohalot 1:8) and Rishonim (e.g., Tosafot, Menachot 37a, s.v. Kiboret) are clear that shoke shok is not the thigh.  It is the calf.  So, the conclusion should be that women must wear ankle-length dresses and skirts.  But of course, that has rarely been the practice.  So the claim is made that these refer to the thigh, a claim completely untenable based on the evidence. 

The true solution is that these statements are not absolutes, but change based on historical and societal contexts.  Hence, in the time of the Gemara, even the lower leg was usually covered and for a man to gaze at a woman's lower leg would be unacceptable.  But when societal norms change, so did the parameters of what is normally covered and what cannot be male-gazed upon.  Hence, in Shulkhan Arukh, OH (75) one will not find any mention of the shok.  Rather, both regarding body parts (except for the actual genital areas), and regarding women's hair, or (singing) voice, the concern is only with what is normally covered in modest society.  [In the case of hair covering, the Gemara in Ketuvot attributes this norm to dat Moshe, a Biblical norm, so it is much more questionable whether it can be societally contingent.]

The upshot of all of this is that a true approach to tzniut, in addition to focusing on modesty  in all ways for men and for women, and in addition to directing men to control their male gaze, would also reject the quantification of the concept of tzniut and the objectification of women's body parts towards this end.  It would talk to men and women about a general approach of dressing and acting modestly, and to attend to communal norms of modest dress and behavior.  Now that would be truly refreshing.  It could not only counteract all the negatives that the current approach has engendered, but also put us on the path - finally, and again - of embracing the true value of tzniut and fulfilling the verse in Micha (6:8) of "walking humbly with your God".