Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Modesty and orthodox Judaism


You’ve probably seen orthodox Jewish women walking around with their heads covered, or seen Arabian women in burkhas, or read in the Bible about women keeping their heads covered at services. A great deal of effort goes into modesty of women in the Near East (both now and then).

Today we generally assume that this is to avoid men’s lustful thoughts…but that’s not actually it. (For one thing, it is entirely ineffective in this: rape doesn’t happen less in such countries than in other countries.) We misunderstand parts of Scripture when we fail to know what modesty is really all about.

I read an interesting article a few months back about this, from an orthodox Jewish woman’s perspective…unfortunately I lost the bookmark when the computer crashed and can’t relocate it. Thankfully I still have my notes.

Modesty is not about protecting others from lust—it is about creating a space of sacredness. Recall from here that in the Bible, a place can be either “holy/sacred” or “common/profane.” Something which is common or profane is simply of the world—it is not set apart for any particular purpose. By contrast, something which is holy or sacred is set apart for a specific godly purpose.

For example, if you were having lunch with President Obama at a burger joint, you might not have any problem with calling him “Barack” and having a beer and being critical of him to his face. Why? But if you were sitting in the audience during his State of the Union address and you jumped up, beer in hand, and starting criticizing “Barack” publicly, you would be shouted down and removed by security.

Why? Because sharing a meal at a burger joint is a “common/profane” space, whereas the State of the Union address is a “holy/sacred” area, set apart for a specific, high-gravitas situation.

This is the basis of modesty. Women are to dress modestly not because of what it will inspire in others, but because it devalues them if they do not.

You see, a woman who dresses and behaves modestly has a body which is set apart, holy, sacred—reserved for a special intimacy with a particular person (her husband). Now different cultures have different norms for this: in Jewish orthodoxy, the head remains covered because a woman’s hair is considered a sacred thing set apart and reserved for only her husband to enjoy. It isn’t that her hair is bad or evil or lust-inducing…it is that it is valuable and special and glorious, and not to be thrown about as though it were of no value.

When a woman (or man) flaunts their sexuality, this is not a sign of empowerment, but rather a devaluing of that sexuality. To be immodest changes sex from something special and sacred to be reserved and enjoyed intimately; instead it becomes a commodity, to be sold or traded in return for three dates or a reasonable level of commitment or temporary pleasure.

So women, be modest: not for the sake of men, nor even for your own purity. Rather, be modest because your body is something amazing, it is (God forgive me for quoting Mayer here) a wonderland to be explored by your future (or present) spouse. It is something special and sacred and amazing and intimate…so do not throw it around like so much worthless trash.

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