Q. I work in a place where religious and the non-religious work together. I hear the non-religious women complain about the exclusion of women in religious circles. They claim the rabbis belittle women and don’t give them normal space to live in. They tell us how to look and dress in public. I have no clear response for them especially since I fail to understand all the noise about modesty. Besides listening ‘To all they instruct you’ I never received a clear understanding that explains all the rules and limits on clothing. Why can’t I wear what I want? If men have problems with this why not limit them? Why limit me?
A. G-d created the world in such a manner that a moving force in the world is the inclination of attraction to the opposite gender. The Talmud writes that once in history they tried to cancel this inclination and the world almost ceased to exist. (Sanhedrin 64a)
This system is important for the building of the world. In its foundation it was created to establish families and a strong deep and intimate relationship between husband and wife.
G-d, when creating the world placed strong desires in place for anything necessary to maintain the world like water and food. This draw guarantees man’s existence. Since it’s essential for survival it is so strongly stamped into the person to guarantee that he will sustain himself and the world.
The more important something is for existing, the stronger the drive is for it. For example someone lacking oxygen will suffer greatly to get it. There’s no one who can voluntarily decide not to breathe because the nature of breathing is so entrenched in us that we can’t fight it. The same with hunger or thirst when they reach life threatening levels they are feelings that take over a person’s whole being.
To sustain mankind a man must get married. Since it’s such a vital thing for survival, G-d placed a strong drive into men and women so that they would want to get married and have a strong and stable marriage.
The depths of the desire to marry are desires of the soul. G-d implanted in nature that the strongest bond in nature is that of a man and his wife. Man loves to love and to be loved. He does not want to be alone with himself. He longs for a relationship with his surroundings and wants to love, give and nurture in the society he lives in. Every relationship a person has with his surroundings is ultimately limited whereas the desire is to have a deep relationship in the deepest levels of his soul without boundaries. The only place this can take place is in the framework of married life. The deep soul ties a man has with his wife, of love and friendship are unparalleled anywhere else in the world. When G-d himself wants to illustrate His love for us, He uses the metaphor of love between a man and his wife.
But here is where the evil inclination steps in. The nature of the evil inclination is to take natural positive desires that gnaw at a person and blur the distinctions and boundaries between good and evil; to take the good drives implanted in man and use them for evil and harm. This is how the Maharal explains the “Tree of Knowledge”. Knowledge is connection. Good and evil got connected and mixed together so that every good deed is mixed with evil.
For example: In the heart of man there’s a healthy desire that helps him live called appetite for eating. But the evil inclination takes it and turns it into the desire for unchecked gluttony, pleasure seeking and animalistic behavior. Haughtiness is another example. The source of haughtiness is the natural exaltedness of man as the choice creation. But the evil inclination turns it into haughtiness over others and even against G-d. This is how all evil inclinations are structured. They are built on things that are good in proportion and the evil inclination tries to blow it out of proportion and turns it into evil.
The same is with our topic. The evil inclination takes a basic healthy desire in the heart of man to love and be loved and causes him to be swept up after it into relationships in the world out of his house that can never come to the true unity that builds the soul. Rather, those wrong relationships are animalistic behaviors that cause the loss of those good qualities that strengthen man. And since this desire is already strong in man it is easy for the evil inclination to turn it to the wrong purpose that destroys man and the divine image stamped in him.
A woman that dresses to emphasize her physical beauty thinks she is honoring herself by appearing attractive but she pays no heed to the fact that she arouses the thoughts of men who see her to think totally different thoughts about her which are far from dignifying. The desire that pushes a woman to appear attractive in public and to draw attention to herself is the desire to establish a soulful contact with her surroundings. She tries to arouse attention and inner love but she is really lowering her own dignity.
Western culture which is on one hand hedonistic and on the other hand permissive causes a woman to be displayed in a humiliating manner. This same culture adds to its sins by brainwashing women to believe that this conduct is the honor of a woman. On one hand society sends out the message not to limit the choices of how she displays herself and runs her life, and on the other hand society shamelessly intensifies this desire in any way possible. On one side there’s no limit on the outburst of desires (that makes women want to dress provocatively) and on the other side there is no limit to the incitement of passions (in men) caused by this type of provocative dress. The end result is that the honor of women is humiliated to the point of causing anyone sensible to tremble, and all the more so trying to base this dishonor on the elevated principles of the dignity of man and his freedom to choose.
The great wonder is that women who believe in feminism are prepared to cooperate with this ruined ‘culture’ that portrays women as dolls in a window display. If they would look at it objectively for one moment they would detect an insane inconsistency. How can they agree to arouse desires and at the same time debase their own human dignity? How can they fail to understand that today’s culture of fashion was made to serve many different inclinations at the expense of their dignity?
The time has come for someone to get up and tell women: “They’re pulling a fast one on you! There is an organized brainwashing taking place with a very clear purpose. Let’s end this circus!” Unfortunately anyone saying this is branded a fanatic.
This is what is going on in the Western world.
However the Torah gave clear guidance and limited us from being swept away by this inclination with 2 mitzvoth. A man’s Guarding his Eyes and a woman’s Modesty. A man is warned to control his eyes not to wander and see things he shouldn’t (it’s not an easy mitzvah at all and I wouldn’t advise to trade mitzvot) and the woman is commanded to watch over herself not to cause others to think about her in an unbecoming and animalistic way that lowers the dignity of both genders. Both genders have to hold tightly to their reigns not to be dragged into things that cause the sinking of man’s personality.
The mitzvah of Tzniut- modesty, the word that seminary graduates so don’t want to hear, means one thing: watch over yourselves. G-d implanted in us a power to build and with that same power we can destroy. We can use it for a true bond between a husband and his wife that has no parallel anywhere, or we can become animals through it and lower humanity to the lowest levels. The Torah warns us, “Use correctly what you have received. Protect the exaltedness of your soul and the divine image of man. Build, do not destroy.”
Sometimes people try to explain to women and girls the concept of modesty through discussing humility and internal completeness and other lofty concepts. But sometimes you must just say it the way it is clearly: Without the limits of modesty we are all in danger! Enough beating around the bush. Man is a creation that has strong internal drives and he must watch himself.
Guarding the eyes and modesty are necessary limits that protect our purity and thank G-d we are successful even in a permissive generation like ours. G-d looks down from on high and has nachas- satisfaction as the Talmud says: “One of 3 things G-d declares about (proudly) is a single man that doesn’t sin.” (Pesachim 113a)