A couple of months ago a story out of Israel caught my attention. It concerned an incident that, while extreme, illustrates the tensions between groups with very strong religious beliefs and the larger, much less religious society that does not embrace these views. As we know, such discussions are now taking place in the US as part of the 2012 Presidential Campaign. But I prefer to comment on the situation in Israel because it concerns my own religion - Judaism. In something as personal as religion, you should be sensitive about directly commenting on religions other than your own.
An 8 year old girl, the daughter of observant but modern Orthodox Jews, was harassed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men as she walked on her way to school. The men felt that her modest dress did not adhere to their more rigorous dress code for girls and women. They spit on the girl, insulted her and called her a prostitute.
“The country was outraged,” said the article. “For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girl’s walk to school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country, against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the exclusion of women.”
The Haredi hecklers objected to the little girl’s exposed arms. More generally, they resented that the boys and girls walking through streets in their neighborhoods were on their way to a nearby co-ed school, which violates their religious beliefs that unrelated males and females should not mix.
“The battle has broadened and grown increasingly visible in recent weeks and months. Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly “kosher” buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back.”
A few weeks after the Israeli incident, I read an excellent NY Times Op-Ed, - Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud, - by Dov Linzer, an American, Modern Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Linzer starts the article by asking the question. “Is it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women’s bodies?” And, commenting on the recent incidents in Israel, he later adds:
“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: It places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.”
“ . . . The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.”
“The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze - the way men look at women - that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don’t see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men’s - and only men’s - control.”
“ . . . Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It’s your problem, sir; not hers.”
I really liked Rabbi Linzer’s OpEd. It reaffirms my pride in the teachings of Judaism, and its ethical philosophy as represented by the Talmud. Its teaching influence all Jews, even those of us who, while not religious, consider ourselves very much part of the Jewish culture.
I believe we all need a moral compass when thinking about matters of right-and-wrong. My moral compass for making such decisions is not the Talmud, - which unfortunately I am not as familiar with as I would like to be, - but the much simpler Golden Rule, also known as the Ethic of Reciprocity.
While the Golden Rule comes in many forms, its essence is: Treat others as you want to be treated. Pretty much every religion has its own version. I first heard about the Golden Rule when learning about Rabbi Hillel, a famous Jewish religious leader who lived right around the same time and place as Jesus. He is most famous for his teaching, What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary; go and learn. The Gospel of Matthew tells us about Jesus’ well-known dictum Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as you love yourself was viewed by Jesus as one of the two Great Commandments.
While its origins are religious in nature, I personally think of the Golden Rule more in moral or ethical terms, to be applied whether you are religious or not. It asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow human beings, reflect on the impact of our actions and words on them, and act accordingly. And, because just about all religions embrace some form of the Golden Rule, it is a very good moral compass for highly diverse, pluralistic societies like the US.
In the last several weeks, our 2012 political campaign has taken an unfortunate turn toward culture war issues, including issues dealing with religious beliefs. And, as often happens in such cases, the discussions now includes politicians talking about women’s bodies. If I may borrow Rabbi Livner’s opening question: “Is it possible for such seemingly religious but political discussion to be about anything other than men controlling women’s bodies?”
There are few sorrier spectacles than seeing mostly male politicians looking to politicize women’s bodies, whether they are just doing so to stir up their ideological base, or because of personal religious beliefs. As the Talmud reminds us, women’s bodies do often have a strong impact on men. But, as the Talmud advises, men, especially politicians I would add, would be wise to control such feelings beyond their personal romantic relations. Else, as Rabbi Livner succinctly summarizes the Talmudic admonition: Sir, you have a problem . . .