Out Loud

  • Violence Against Women Degrades Jewish Concept of Modesty

    17 January 2012

    The unconscionable physical and verbal violence against women in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere have degraded the religious concept of tzeniut (modestyby associating it with misogyny and oppression. Some Orthodox condemnations of that violence, by objecting to means while acknowledging shared ends, have added to that degradation.  RabbiKlapperMy purpose here is to directly reject the ends, in other words to offer a vigorously Orthodox and halakhic understanding of the purposes and parameters of tzeniut that opposes the goals and not just the means of those who seek to use tzeniut as a weapon to subordinate women or intimidate them out of the public square.    

    Here are four key points:

    1. Tzeniut is a broad Jewish value whose practical expression is opposition to unnecessary and meretricious self-exposure, whether of the body or of the soul.  It relates to all people, male and female alike, and all of life.  Reducing it to a code for women’s dress and actions reflects an unhealthy obsession, equivalent to reducing love to an expression of (exclusively male) lust.

    2. Tzeniut is intended to preserve and expand the domain of intimacy.  Intimacy is constructed by exclusivity of exposure, by sharing things about oneself that one does not share broadly.  People with inadequate emotional boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship though emotional sharing, and people with inadequate physical boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship through physical intimacy.

    3.  Tzeniut is intended to preserve the integrity of personal space – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  People who “spill” emotionally compel others to respond to them – to feel pity when they express suffering, anger when they express betrayal, and the like.  This legitimately feels like a violation.  The same is true of unwanted touch, or of unwanted visual erotic stimulation.

    4. Tzeniut is one value in the complex web of Jewish values, which must constantly negotiate its place in that web.  It can be trumped, or attenuated, when it comes into conflict with other Jewish values.  From the halakhic perspective, once tzeniut is correctly defined as unnecessary self-exposure, it becomes clear that it should not be applied mechanically, but rather on the basis of a sensitive and dynamic understanding of the necessary. 

    Indeed, we need to recognize that Halakhah does not directly obligate women to dress or behave modestly [1], however that is defined.  Such obligations emerge instead via the obligation v’lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – “you must not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus19:14). The Talmudic Rabbis understood this verse metaphorically as creating a covenant of mutual responsibility, with the specific consequences that Jews are responsible not to create circumstances that cause others to violate prohibitions, that preclude them from performing ritual obligations, or that distract them from the study of Torah.  Each of these consequences is readily conceptualizable as an obligation to respect the others’ space.    

    Now the "stumbling block" argument is always a potentially dangerous weapon.  Here is an illustration: The Talmud states that lifnei iver forbids fathers to give corporal punishment to grown children (Moed Qatan 17a), because this will cause the children to rebel and therefore violate their obligations to treat their parent with honor and reverence.  But what if children will rebel even when asked to perform minor household chores?  Worse, what if children learn this rule, and then give preemptive notice that they will disobey any parental command – does this effectively bar any exercise of parental authority?  If I tell my neighbor that if she ever cooks broccoli again, I will be driven to eat a cheeseburger – can I control her diet by claiming potential spiritual injury?

    The answer is of course not – Halakhah does not allow one person to take advantage of the covenant of mutual responsibility so as to prevent another from living a normal fulfilling human life.  By the same token, Jewish law does not allow men to use erotic lifnei iver to prevent women from living normal fulfilling lives.

    Now what constitutes a normal fulfilling life?  It should be clear that this is a sociologically dependent category.  In some societies it may be necessary to jog in public, but not in others; in some societies it may be necessary to sing in mixed company, but not in others; and so on.  It is likely that in each society, whatever is done habitually will have minimal erotic impact, and have minimal capacity to express intimacy.  None of these societies is intrinsically preferable according to Jewish law, so long as they are fully compatible with taking the obligations and values listed above with great seriousness.

    Tzeniut is more easily implemented in a homogeneous society, where expectations of dress, behavior, and fulfillment are largely made by consensus.  It becomes much harder in a heterogeneous society, and harder still at the intersection of sharply distinct homogeneous cultures, where each side has difficulty even imagining why the other might see a particular behavior as an assault on psychological space, or conversely, as an infringement of normal human fulfillment.  

    But people of good will negotiate such situations while making every effort to find solutions that serve everyone’s interests.  By contrast, thugs beat up their opponents and try to make them leave or hide.  No one who properly understands tzeniut could believe that physical, psychological and emotional assault, i.e. violent intrusions on the space of others, are viable means of implementing the values behind it.  The thugs in Beit Shemesh should be condemned by all those who hold tzeniut dear, not because they are overzealous, but because their understanding of tzeniut is warped. 


    [1]  There is one possible exception: an obligation (probably for married women only) to cover (or braid or tie up) their hair. This requires a separate analysis. For a more extensive halakhic and textual treatment of the points raised in this article, please see the version found at www.torahleadership.org.

    Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and Rosh Beit Midrash of its Summer Beit Midrash program, a member of the Beit Din of Boston, and Instructor of Rabbinics and Bioethics at Gann Academy. He previously served as Orthodox Adviser and Director of Education at Harvard Hillel and as Talmud Curriculum Chair at Maimonides High School. Rabbi Klapper lectures in many public and academic forums and has published in numerous popular and scholarly journals. Many of his articles and audio shiurim can can be accessed at www.torahleadership.org.

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  • Social Justice in Jerusalem

    09 January 2012

    On Sunday, January 1st in Jerusalem, hundreds of men and women boarded segregated bus lines to protest the ultra-Orthodox exclusion of women. Gender discrimination and the exclusion of women from the public sphere is one of the many problems facing communities in the fractured society that makes up modern Israel.

    SusanStockelOn December 2, I participated in a similar protest. And although it was smaller, it was just as focused and fervent. My “Freedom Ride” requires a short back story.

    On Thanksgiving weekend a group of 17 intrepid travelers led by Rabbi Ken Chasen from Los Angeles’ Leo Baeck Temple arrived in Tel Aviv for a two week visit to Israel. The trip was not a typical touristy, toe-dipping excursion. Rather, it was an attempt by people who care deeply about Israel and its future to sort out information that was contradictory or not available to us in the media. We were privileged to hear about the social, political and security problems from experts throughout the country.

    Our travels from the Negev to Ramallah to the Golan Heights brought us into contact with amazing people who helped us define the issues, the risks, the odds and the possible outcomes facing this rocky democracy. Our trip was one-of-a-kind and definitely not a walk in the park, but that is another story.

    This story is about buses. Ten years ago the ultra- Orthodox community asked Egged - Israel’s public bus company- to provide gender-segregated buses in their neighborhoods. By early 2009, more that 55 such lines operated around Israel. Typically, women are required to enter through the back door of the bus and sit in the back “modestly dressed”.

    The Israeli Supreme court has ruled that these bus lines are illegal, but they still exist in the religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem and other cities. Gender discrimination in Israel is present in many forms and has resulted in a deep culture war being waged that effects the very character of the Jewish state

    I learned all of this when I met Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of [NIF grantee]the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), who gave us a taste of what it was like to TAKE ACTION. I always wished that I had been a freedom rider in the ’60’s and I wasn’t about to miss being one this time

    Our group was divided into 3 sections – each accompanied by several IRAC staff members. We boarded empty buses at the start of a route. I was first in line for my bus and, after sizing up the seating configuration, I took a window seat in the front section facing forward with an empty seat beside me.

    At each stop people would enter the bus – always seemingly surprised to see women sitting up front. The men in black hats refused to sit anywhere – they crowded up front next to the driver and frowned fiercely at us. Any time a women walked by I smiled and asked her if she would like to sit next to me. Most, either shocked or shy, walked quickly to the back of the bus but one young women smiled and sat down. I started a conversation by asking her if she lived in the neighborhood. She said that she did and then asked me why I was on the bus. “I’m here because these buses are segregated and that’s illegal and I want to help stop it.”

    “But this is our neighborhood” she said. I told her that the bus was a public bus and the people in the neighborhood were required to obey the law.

    “We want it this way” she said, “I’m going to leave now.” I thanked her for talking to me and asked that she think about our conversation and the need for women to have the power of choice.

    We left the bus shortly after that dialogue. I was anxious to hear about what my fellow riders had experienced.

    As I think about that morning I remember something that Thomas Friedman wrote: “A theocracy can only be a democracy for the majority that conforms to extreme religious restrictions”

    That is not what we want for Israel.

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  • Hillary Clinton is not the problem

    12 December 2011

    Instead of bridling at Western criticism over the anti-democratic wave that’s rising in Israel, we should take it as an indirect compliment – and as sound advice. It is precisely because Israel has a reputation as a vibrant democracy that our friends abroad are dismayed; the Israel they know doesn’t do this sort of thing.

    RachelLiel200Israeli soldiers aren’t supposed to walk out of ceremonies – with the encouragement of their spiritual leaders – when women dare to sing; that sort of thing happens in Iran. Israeli women aren’t supposed to be ordered to sit in the back of the bus; that sort of thing went out in the 1950s with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.

    These were points made last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a closed session of the Saban Forum in Washington. She added that Israel shouldn’t be passing laws aimed at drying up the funds of peace and human rights organizations, because that is another thing democracies don’t do.

    “Who is Hillary Clinton to preach to us?” shot back some of the Knesset members behind these Knesset bills. “She’s exaggerating.”

    The fact is, however, that Clinton isn’t saying anything that Israelis from every sector of society haven’t been saying with increasing heat and volume in recent weeks. The U.S. secretary of state is taking her cue from Israeli politicians in the opposition and government, from the Israeli media, from an array of Israeli public figures, and from the growing “buzz” among the Israeli public over the shocking, reactionary phenomena we’re witnessing, a buzz that has carried beyond Israel’s borders.

    We must always keep in mind that these words of reproach from abroad are not coming from our enemies, but from our friends. Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, reportedly told the Prime Minister’s Office that the new bill to heavily tax foreign donations to local NGOs would affect U.S.-funded groups that teach English, promote Jewish-Arab coexistence, and seek to empower Bedouin women. German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told Jerusalem officials that the bill would play into the hands of European elements hostile to Israel.

    Can’t the promoters of this law – as well as other legislation aimed at silencing unpopular voices – understand that such candid counsel is offered in a spirit of friendship? Will they also dismiss the warnings from American Jews like Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who wrote that laws stifling free expression, judicial independence and minority rights hurt Israel “internally” and “externally,” and mean that “the very democratic character of the state is being eroded”?

    Will they also wave off the advice of Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who, in an article dedicated to the widening exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere, wrote: “American taxpayers, and American Jews in particular, will not tolerate Jerusalem as Riyadh-lite”?

    Again, though, these voices from afar are taking their lead from voices right here – and these local voices haven’t come only from the “left,” they’ve come from the very heart of the Israeli establishment. As early as the beginning of May, the professional staff of the Foreign Ministry issued a position paper against a previous version of the anti-NGO law, declaring that “adoption of this bill is expected to do severe damage to Israel’s international interests.” Such a law would damage Israel’s image and essence as a democracy, and would bring Israel in for sharp criticism from Europe and the U.S., the ministry staff warned.

    The politicians behind the sort of chilling legislation we’ve seen of late didn’t listen to the Foreign Ministry professionals then, and they haven’t listened to the opposition to these laws that has erupted during the current Knesset session. Now the exact same arguments are being raised by Jews and friends of Israel overseas – and still the reactionaries blame the messenger.

    Well, the messengers are everywhere now, and they’re all saying the same thing. So Hillary Clinton is not the problem, and neither is Dan Shapiro, Abraham Foxman, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin or Dorit Beinish. The problem, rather, is the assault on democracy that has been launched against this country by local enforcers who think of themselves as patriots and pious Jews.

    Rachel Liel is the New Israel Fund’s Executive Director in Israel.  Prior to her recent appointment, Rachel served as Director of SHATIL, the New Israel Fund Initiative for Social Change, which provides training and consultancy services for the NGO sector in Israel.  She joined SHATIL in 1998 as part of a long and distinguished career in public service, having served as Deputy Director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services in the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, and as a Policy Analyst in the Department of Social Policy Planning of the Prime Minister's Office. She holds a Master’s degrees in Sociology/Anthropology and in Social Work.

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  • Women and Girls in Danger

    20 December 2011

    For years I have been pondering how to explain to my Israeli friends my attitude that advertisements in the Israeli media are offensive and dangerous to the status of women in Israeli society. These women are always portrayed as sexy and submissive - exposing their bodies in many different poses as if they are asking for sex right here and now. As a feminist and a mother of girls, I have difficulty walking the streets in Israel when billboards and pop up internet ads are full of sexy women trying to sell everything from computers to women’s hygiene products to underwear – it is simply repulsive and overwhelming. I know Israel is not the only place that objectifies women in its media, but saying it does not make the situation less problematic.

    NitsaOnce, my seven years old daughter asked me: “Ima, (mom) why are all these women and girls in the pictures angry? Why they aren’t they happy or smiling? They have this weird expression on their faces.” Amazed by her pure and young observing eye, I giggled and hugged her. I wasn’t able to explain her that they are not angry; they are just trying to look sexy in front of the cameraman who asks them to give him their best sexy look. And these very young models - sometime barely teenage girls - understand that this is what society wants from them - to be sexy and skinny. How is it that my daughter can sense something here is wrong and other adults fail to see that there is even a problem.

    Yes, I admit I have a problem with the advertisements and their degrading attitude toward women and their bodies. And I have to mention that I don’t have a problem so much with ads that are marketed to specific market audiences in discrete places, like the back of newspapers or specific magazines or adult movies. These commercials are targeting markets in a free country for a specific consumers, men or women. The problem begins when these ads appears everywhere for everybody to see, even if they don’t want to. They are unavoidable. These ads are displayed on public buses, huge billboards when you enter the city or even when you read the news on the Internet. That is tasteless aggressive marketing that is no longer just commercial in its nature but has social consequences as well.

    These ads have managed to desensitize the public to the images of half naked women. Women always have to be sexy and inviting sex, even if the ad is trying to portray these women as professionals using a laptop! Be sexy, skinny that is what really counts in life, that is where the real success exists for you, is the message -- in someone’s bed ready to satisfy his sexual needs.

    And the amazing thing is, most Israeli women are so conditioned to see these images that they don’t get what is so wrong with them. So I‘m thinking to myself, Israeli parents who raise these young and intelligent girls are investing love, time and lots of money in a society that tells them sex is more important than anything else. More then career, health, happiness or family, sex is it. Is this message OK to overlook?! What is the point of all the education and all the investment, and the fight for women rights and equality?

    So when I learned that in Jerusalem, where there are many different religious populations that are knowingly sensitive to these kinds of images and find them offensive, that images of women were starting to disappear, it didn’t come as a surprise . But having no offensive images of women on the billboard is one thing - having no images of women at all is completely another! That has nothing to do with respecting women - that has to do with no respect to women at all! That shows no sensitivity to religious women. That shows aggressive domination and wrongful power over a population segment that is unlikely to have the tools to protest against it. De-facto decisions such as these leaves all the power to the men in these societies and is akin to women’s rights in Afghanistan and under Taliban rule. So why should we be surprised that there’s a new trend among Jewish ultra-Orthodox women and girls to cover their full faces in public. Doesn’t that fits all too well in with the message they get from their patriarchal societies?

    Jerusalem, the capital of modern Israel, had an opportunity to say, we respect the different populations in our city and we would like to show our respect to their costumes. But we are a modern democracy that believes in equality. Therefore, women’s images in this city will be respected and honored. Any cheap images of women half-naked will not appear on buses or big street signs. With such a message it would be hard to argue. But instead, Jerusalem is sending another dangerous message that conveys that women have no place in the city leadership, decisions making or power. Women have no place on the public agenda. Women better stay home in their domestic traditional role: the womb, the housekeeper and being the male commodity.

    Israel, a state that is working very hard to advance with the rest of the developed world, is failing to pay attention to the dangerous message that some decision-makers are sending to its youth girls and boys. No matter how hard a girl works in her life or in school, she has no place in this successful society the best she can aim for in a successful career is her boss’s bed. No public office, no economic success and no face! Tell me who in western society with the right mind would raise a girl in such a hostile environment.

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  • Voting for human rights, with our feet!

    08 December 2011

    By Hagai El-Ad, Executive Director of flagship NIF grantee the Association for Civil Rights in Israel

    This Friday, Tel Aviv will witness the country's third annual Human Rights March. Thousands of people from different backgrounds will come together for the most diverse event of the year, united through one universal message: all human rights for all human beings.

    In an uplifting initiative, Haifa too will witness such a march – for the first time ever. Activists seasoned in the summer's social justice protests, joining hands with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and many others, will take to the streets of what is not only one of Israel's best examples for a shared society, but also happens to be my hometown, in a joint march for equality, rights, and justice.

    Clearly – more Israelis are standing up for human rights. That is good news in a country where fewer members of Knesset are doing so.

    In recent weeks, the assault on democracy in the Knesset reached new lows. It is a broad assault – targeting the High Court of Justice, civil society organizations, freedom of speech, and the rights of Israel's largest minority – the Arab citizens in this country. In a deeper sense, much of this legislation is either inspired by the occupation or meant to enable its prolonging. Sometimes the bills presented by MKs seem like a parody of their dogmatic initiatives, such as the bill requiring a loyalty oath in order to get a driver's license (I didn't make this one up). Sometimes it is simply plain embarrassing, such as when MK Akunis recently stated, on camera, that "[Senator Joe] McCarthy was right about everything." (I didn't make this one up either).

    Self-inflicted parody aside, the danger to democracy thus created is very serious – coming from a stable coalition government that has already succeeded in advancing some of these bills into law, that is running all the key committees in the Knesset, and that seems relentless in its pursuit to change the rules of the game, even mid-game, in order to get what it wants. Constitutional principles? These are the days of the tyranny of the majority here. Democratic values? "It is democratic because we have the majority now," so goes the answer.

    Fortunately, such answers have not resulted in the public giving up on continuing to fight for a different future here. After a summer of massive public demonstrations for social justice, the Knesset indeed seems to not only ignore all that, but also to be back to its anti-democratic agenda. But we have a different outlook.

    We believe that Israel shouldn't be competing internationally to be the most socioeconomically unequal nation, or the one with the highest poverty rates. Recent OECD figures put Israel together with the U.S. amongst the worst such societies of the developed nations, with gaps in Israel growing faster than in almost any other OECD country. We believe that housing, education, and health are human rights – not commodities. We will continue fighting for these rights.

    We believe that all Israelis are equal – fully equal. That the systematic discrimination inflicted on the Arab citizens of Israel is as shameful as it is illegal. That the rising expressions of racism in this country can easily be traced back to statements made by the Foreign Minister, and to the proper actions not being taken by the Prime Minister. That when some of us are less equal than others – none of us are equal. We will continue fighting for full equality.

    We believe that the realization of human rights is incompatible with a prolonged military occupation. We will continue fighting not for a "better" occupation, but for nothing less than its end.

    We believe that freedom of speech is for all of us, certainly not only for those expressing what the government enjoys hearing. We believe that discrimination and segregation in public spaces against women in Israel has reached levels that render us aghast – but that even a single such instance is already too much. We believe in human rights.

    So if you are in Israel, come to the annual Human Rights March. If you have friends or family here, tell them to come to stand up for our rights with the many others that are similar to you and the many more that are different. When we stand up together for all our rights, we not only demand a more just future: we create it.

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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014