BY: Rabbi Michael Knopf
A confession: I am not a big Miley Cyrus fan. Sure, “The Climb” is a good song, and “Party in the USA” is pretty infectious, but as an adult male who doesn’t have cable and whose daughter is too young to be aware of the singer, I can live my life blissfully unexposed to Cyrus’ brand of teen pop. However, as a father and a rabbi, I cannot ignore the headlines Cyrus is currently making for her sexually explicit performance at the recent MTV Video Music Awards. (I am purposely not linking to the video so as not to encourage further viewing.)
It is, of course, easy to pick on Cyrus. The story is all over the media because of the dissonance between her erstwhile Disney persona and the persona – and body parts – she displayed at the MTV awards. Moreover, young girls want to be Miley Cyrus. Her albums top the charts. She generates billions in business.
But Cyrus’ performance is, in some ways, pretty standard issue for MTV and for what crosses our television, movie and computer screens on a daily basis. There is also a major “chicken and egg” question about whether Cyrus and others are driving popular culture or simply responding to it. The teens I meet today exhibit levels of undress and sexual promiscuity that might even make Cyrus blush.
Additionally, it must be noted that this phenomenon is not limited to girls. While boys are not necessarily as guilty of showing as much skin as young girls, they are equally if not more guilty of making their sexual activity quite public. Children are under more and more pressure to wear less and less clothing. Teens and even preteens believe that in order to be noticed and liked, they must accentuate and flaunt their sexuality. Indeed, the Cyrus scandal is but one example – albeit an egregious one – of a growing phenomenon: As a society, we increasingly have a problem “covering up.”
I want to make it clear that I am not a “prude” or a hater of sex. The Jewish tradition has a positive view of sex: it strengthens relationships between committed, loving couples, it produces children, and, not unimportantly, it is pleasurable. My concern is with a culture in which a young, talented artist feels the only way she will be seen, talked about or celebrated is by leaving everything on the stage. It isn’t just Miley Cyrus. It has now become mainstream for children to flaunt their sexuality in public. Cyrus just exposed the trend. Young people, especially girls, are increasingly using their bodies and their sexuality as commodities, social currency.
The prophet Micah offers a message that is a marked counterpoint from this ethic: “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Holy One requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The rabbis of the Talmud interpret “to walk modestly,” as a call for people to conduct their lives with tzniut, or sexual modesty.
The basis for this value is the central Jewish claim that all human beings are created in God’s image and that we are comprised of both body and soul. To treat ourselves as nothing more than sexually arousing images or objects to fulfill sexual desire implies that we are nothing more than bodies. And that diminishes our own worth. We are more than our sex appeal. And treating anyone in a way that degrades, disrespects or devalues him or her is, in effect, to degrade, disrespect and devalue God Himself.
Making public what we once considered intimate says a lot about how we see others and ourselves. Instead of knowing the infinite value each human being has, many of our young people are made to feel that they are worthless. They think the only way to get anyone to care about them is to wear as little as possible; the only way to be attractive is to flaunt their skin and sexual activities. This is an emotionally and physically perilous view. Celebrities like Cyrus and outlets like MTV, whether they mean to or not, have influence, especially with children, in our media-saturated culture. In our era, it is nearly impossible to shut MTV out of any kid’s life. Given that, shouldn't celebrities and media outlets have some responsibility to show kids how to honor themselves?
Of course, parents, teachers, clergy, and other adult authorities have even more responsibility. We must constantly tell our kids how precious they are. Teaching tzniut is a good way to start. It elevates human sanctity, reminding us that we are extremely precious images of God, and making the intimate more healthy and special.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple, a conservative synagogue in Penn Valley.