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. Academically it was a wonderfully productive year for me. I completed Yoreh Deah, 4th Year Halakhah Lema’aseh, and a triple Revel paper.] The dorms are not what you’d consider “new” with relatively thin walls, thinner doors and apartments stacked on top of each other,[2.Yes, I know that’s how apartments work, just using an expression.] 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. While rabbinic scandals do happen these are a negligible percentage compared to the rabbinate at large.] 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.