Maybe Modesty Is Exactly What Society Needs

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By Rabbi Moshe Brennan

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it seems that people react in one of two ways. Some want all men to know that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated and that they will shred the veil of secrecy that has allowed this sort of behavior to go unpunished. Others are telling women, some of whom have been harassed themselves, that dressing and acting modestly will help decrease the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.

As a rabbi, I tend to ask what the Torah says about the societal issues of today. Regarding sexual assault, the Torah is very clear: If a woman is being sexually abused, her abuser is guilty and, in many cases, deserving of the death penalty. It does not state that the abuser is off the hook if his victim is not dressed appropriately; similarly it gives no credence to any other sort of victim blaming. As Jews, we do not blame victims; blaming a victim is the very definition of adding insult to injury.

However, modesty is one of the bedrocks of our religion. As early as the first day of creation, Adam and Eve are caught hiding because they were embarrassed of their nakedness; they would not show themselves until the Almighty made clothes for them.

Our tradition teaches that the Jews merited our miraculous freedom from Egypt for several reasons, one of which was that our forebears did not change their modest mode of dress.

And when the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam wants to curse the Jewish people, but blesses them instead, the Torah records his blessing: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob.” Classical commentaries explain that the merit for the blessing came from the fact that when the Jews set up camp, they made sure that their tents’ openings did not open toward each other so as not to allow people to inadvertently see into their neighbors’ tents.

Chasidic thought illuminates the principle of modesty with a teaching on the rabbinic phrase, “The eye sees and the heart gets excited.” Our feelings, in other words, follow what we see, and of course for the most part, we choose and are very much responsible for what we see. But if there is nothing to see, because our environment and everyone in it is modest, doesn’t that help?

I have pondered the idea that the more religious an individual is, the more he or she seems to separate from the opposite sex. Shouldn’t the result be the opposite? Don’t the more religious and holy among us have more control over their base instincts? Shouldn’t they be restricted less?

Perhaps, instead, being holier means, for the most part, that you’re not better than anyone else. You merely know your own limitations and therefore strive to not place yourself in situations that might lead to compromising your principles.

The realm of Jewish law, of halacha, contains a concept whereby a man or woman should not have physical contact with an unrelated individual of the opposite gender. I understand that many find this idea — known as shomer negia — to be extreme, but I wonder if with all of the sexual abuse out there being exposed and brought to the fore by the #MeToo campaign, this ancient Jewish practice makes more sense today than ever before.

The fact is, in the eyes of the Torah, both approaches are true. We are all 100 percent responsible for our actions, and blaming victims is simply disgusting and shameful beyond description. However, dressing and acting modestly — a standard that applies as equally to men as to women — is a great Torah value. Would dressing and acting modestly in all our ways, on a communal and national level, have any effect on the rates of sexual abuse and harassment? I suggest we at least try to find out.

Rabbi Moshe Brennan directs Chabad of Penn Wynne. He and 12 other Chabad educators in the Philadelphia region will begin a six-session Jewish Learning Institute class on “Great Debates in Jewish History” next week.