In this installment of Current Jewish Questions, Rabbi Yuter reevaluates popular conception of “Chillul Hashem/Desecrating God’s Name” based on rabbinic sources.
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Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012
The topic of “tzniut” or “modesty” has recently become a prominent point of discussion in the Jewish community, mostly in response recent incidents of religious violence in Israel (some of which we covered in the previous class on Religious Coercion). Recent essays by Rabbi Dov Linzer in the New York Times, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for a Rabbinical Council of America blog, and an earlier one by Rabbi Marc Angel for The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals have all attempted to present a more “moderate” view from what is often conveyed by Orthodox Jewish society.
But the common theme in these essays, and indeed what dominates the discussion of Jewish modesty, is almost exclusively framing the issue in the context of women. In particular, modesty is most frequently defined in terms of how women ought to dress, how a woman is supposed to behave, and in some general instances the appropriate role of women in Jewish if not secular society. With this focus on women, it is not surprising that tzniut/modesty is almost exclusively construed as a sexual ethic.
In this shiur I challenge this assumption by approaching the topic of modesty not from the socially defined understanding of tzniut, but rather how and when the root “צנע” is used in the Talmud. While the term is certainly used in the context of female sexuality or displays of femininity (B. Ketuvot 3b, B. Berachot 8b, B. Shabbat 113b, B. Sotah 49b), the Rabbinic tradition also applies tzniut to men as it pertains to his relationship with his wife (B. Shabbat 53b) and his mode of dress (B. Menachot 43a). Furthermore, the ethic of tzniut is asserted in the contexts of going to the bathroom (B. Berachot 8b, 62a), eating (B. Berachot 8b), not displaying one’s wealth (B. Pesachim 113a), and even religious observance (M. Ma’aser Sheni 5:1, B. Sukkah 49b/B. Makkot 24a). (These and additional sources are in the attached source sheet with a modified Soncino translation.)
Given the contextual range of the root צנע, I suggest that tzniut in the Rabbinic tradition may best be described not as a sexual ethic at all (let alone a female one), but a general attitude of behavior of which sexual behavior is only one component. In other words, the true Jewish ethos of modesty does not exclusively pertain to sexuality, but rather reflects a universal ethic, one which is equally applicable to men and women in all facets of life.
In light of the recent religious violence in Israel, Rabbi Yuter begins his new Current Jewish Questions series with a discussion of religious coercion in Jewish law.
Rabbi Yuter’s Fundamentals of Judaism series returns with a discussion of ways in which rabbis can err, and their impact on rabbinic authority
With the topic of tznius/modesty buzzing around the Orthodox Jewish world I wanted to share a brief but personally significant story from my rabbinical school days. In 2001-2002 I was in my third year of semikhah and fortunate enough to study in Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Bayit Vegan. It is perhaps one of the most unappreciated perk of YU’s rabbinical school in that accepted students pay they way to Israel but get free room and board, allowing for greater focus for one’s studies.1 The dorms are not what you’d consider “new” with relatively thin walls, thinner doors and apartments stacked on top of each other,2 My year of the 30 or so students only 9 were single, while the rest were married rabbinical students, some with children.
One day after our regular Yoreh Deah class, the Rosh Yeshiva called us in to give us some mussar. There was a concern that husbands and wives from other couples were socializing excessively with each other. After all, the Torah teaches “Be Holy” (Lev. 19:2 which Ramban interprets as “הוו פרושים מן העריות ומן העבירה” – separate yourself from illicit behavior and sin, and so forth.
I will stress here that I am/was unaware of any incident which could be classified in any way as inappropriate. Most of the kollel couples knew each other before coming and the relatively cloistered environment would understandably lead to inter-socialization. And even the Rosh Yeshiva had mentioned that he wasn’t responding to anything in particular, but was just making a general observation and expressing a concern.
Strictly speaking, this concern is not entirely unjustified. M. Avot 1:5 states explicitly, “Do not talk excessively with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor” and B. Nedarim 20a explains that it is because this speech will lead to adultery.
Something else occurred to me at that time. The audience here consisted of rabbinical students who would at some point venture into communities as actual rabbis, which at some point would entail talking to women. One would hope that rabbis ought to be able to converse with female constituents without viewing them as sex objects, and if there were any doubt on this point then perhaps they ought not remain rabbinical students. If there was any concern of the moral integrity of the future rabbis of America, then perhaps we had bigger problems on our hands.
But it also occurred to me that it is precisely because of the nature of our profession that this mussar was appropriate. Most professional rabbis have countless interactions with congregants or students. If a rabbi is particularly outgoing or friendly, it is not inconceivable for a conversation to be interpreted in a way other than what was intended.3 In short, if interpersonal boundaries are important for Jews, they are much more so for professional rabbis.
I do not know if this was the message the Rosh Yeshiva actually intended, but it was an important lesson nonetheless.
- Academically it was a wonderfully productive year for me. I completed Yoreh Deah, 4th Year Halakhah Lema’aseh, and a triple Revel paper. ↩
- Yes, I know that’s how apartments work, just using an expression. ↩
- While rabbinic scandals do happen these are a negligible percentage compared to the rabbinate at large. ↩
Rabbi Yuter’s Confronting Chosenness class examines some rabbinic midrashim describing the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah.
At times it seems that the Orthodox rabbinate has little more to contribute to the world of Jewish ideas than proclamations declaring who is, or more precisely who is not, “Orthodox.” Consider a few recent examples. This past summer Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote a blog post (since removed) discussing his aversion to reciting the daily blessing shelo asani isha, thanking God for not having made him a woman. In response, Rabbi Dov Fischer castigated R. Kanefsky and the community he represents as, “propagating their views without being subjected to scrutiny and critique by those committed to a Mesorah-driven frumkeit” [emphasis added]. In other words, R. Kanefsky’s halakhic opinion is not part of the genuine “mesorah/tradition,” which R. Fischer apparently does possess. Another writer echoes R. Fischer sentiment more explicitly, “In my view this not only takes Rabbi Kanefsky out of the realm of Orthodoxy, it firmly puts him into the realm of Conservative Judaism.”
In this Very Special 50th Podcast, Rabbi Yuter’s Fundamentals of Judaism explores the basis for Rabbinic authority.
One reason why I started this blog way back when was to post answers to frequently asked questions, and this is a perfect example. I often get asked about kashering dishwashers and how to use them for meat and dairy dishes.
I will not go into a full treatment here of the multiple opinions, but I’ve found people seem genuinely shocked when I cite the opinion of the Shulhan Aruch, a usually acceptable source which in this case is relatively lenient compared to other opinions or conventional understanding.