Modesty and the Talmud

Dov Linzer has written an interesting article on women, modesty, and how the Talmud deals with men’s “improper sexual thoughts.”

The article was published in The New York Times. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Is it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women’s bodies? From recent events in Israel, it would certainly seem that it is not.

Last month, an innocent, modestly dressed 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, living in Beit Shemesh, described being spat on and vilified by religious extremists — all men — who believed that she did not dress modestly enough while walking past them to the religious school she attends. And more and more, public buses in Israel are enforcing gender segregation imposed by ultra-Orthodox riders in and near their neighborhoods. Woe to the girl or woman who refuses to move to the back of the bus.

This is part of a larger battle being waged in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society over women’s place in society, over their very right to have a visible presence and to participate in the public sphere.

What is behind these deeply disturbing events? We are told that they arise from a religious concern about modesty, that women must be covered and sequestered so that men do not have improper sexual thoughts. It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men’s sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women’s bodies.

This is not a problem unique to Judaism. But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, offers a perhaps surprising answer:

As you noticed, I left out the Talmud’s surprising answer to the issue of men’s “improper sexual thoughts.”  To find out the answer, a surprising answer, I encourage you to visit The New York Times online.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

 

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