An Open Letter to Rabbi Dov Linzer on Modesty and Jewish Law

Dear Rabbi Linzer,

I read with great interest your op-ed “Lechery, Immodesty, and the Talmud” in the New York Times last week. I commend you for taking such a strong stand on this important issue, especially in the wake of continued violence against women in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. However, I think there is a structural flaw at the core of your argument that I would like you to address.

It is, of course, easy to come out against the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh whose behavior crosses all lines of civility. The problem, however, does not lie solely in their egregious behavior or even with their rigid interpretation of Jewish law. In fact, the problem is embedded in the traditional interpretation of Jewish law based on the Talmud, the same corpus you suggest invalidates their position. You know better than most that the Talmud says many things and thus, in most cases, what anyone claims as the position of the Talmud is false by definition. I understand that your approach is heuristic, that you want to lay claim to a Talmudic position and not the Talmudic position.

While the Talmud, as you correctly assert, puts the responsibility of male desire toward women squarely on the shoulders of the males, it simultaneously constructs a legal and devotional framework that in many ways undermines that very assertion.

An example: the rabbis dictate that public prayer requires a physical separation between men and women (a mehitza). One might suggest the mehitza is simply to allow both men and women the private space to pray outside the gaze of the other. But that is not the case. Jewish law permits a mehitza that would enable the women to see the men—just not the other way around. The reason: to prevent the men from being distracted by women during prayer. The fact that today some Modern Orthodox synagogues have a mehitza where both men and women can see one another arguably subverts the reason for the barrier in the first place. At that point the barrier might be seen as symbolic, an empty marker distinguishing communal affiliation.

Traditional Jewish law mandates married women cover their hair, all women not sing in public, and not recite Kaddish in the presence of men—although some modern jurists have been lenient in the latter two. Part of the reason is surely modesty. Regarding hair covering, it is also mandated in order for men not to become attracted to married women and to desire a sexual encounter that would be a grievous transgression, much more so than a sexual encounter with an unmarried woman.

While the Talmud dictates that both men and women dress modestly, the legal tradition that follows in its wake makes dress requirements for women much more rigid. While examples of common practice may not always affirm, or question, a Talmudic claim, accepted custom does speak to the ways in which the ethos of Talmudic legislation filters down into lived religious communities. Thus, the fact that in many Orthodox summer camps, or kibbutzim, one can readily find young Orthodox men in shorts and T-shirts while young girls wear skirts and longer sleeves is not inconsequential.

And how often are religious boys told, “Don’t wear that, it’s not tznius (modest)!”? Not very often. While it is true that modesty is a significant spiritual goal for both men and women in Judaism, both in law and custom, the Talmudic sages and their spiritual progeny are stricter regarding women’s modesty as a way to minimize unleashing male desire. The reverse is simply not the case. Thus it is women who must sacrifice comfort for that desire—even though the Talmud argues, as you say, that male control of their desire rests on their shoulders.

One legitimate argument against the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh that categorically distinguishes them from the Modern Orthodox is that while Modern Orthodoxy may live according to a legal worldview structurally similar to ultra-Orthodoxy (in principle but often not in practice), Modern Orthodoxy does not mandate others to follow suit. But that is not the argument you made. You suggested that the ultra-Orthodox are fundamentally misunderstanding rabbinic teaching when you write that “controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women [is] squarely on the men.” I think there are many legal dictates legislated by the Talmudic sages that contradict that statement. I have mentioned only a few of them above.

Given those caveats, I applaud the courage of your conviction and hope that if you truly believe what you wrote about the Talmud, and I assume you do, you would work to take down the mehitza, abolish mandatory hair covering for married women and make it a normative legal principle that casual non-sexual physical contact between men and women is permitted, saying to the men, “The Talmud says: It’s your problem, Sir; not theirs.”

To instantiate your reading of the Talmud would require you to act decisively to abolish all the legal mandates that objectify women’s bodies and put the onus on the men to take full control of their libido and desire.

The ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh surely require severe reprimand. But they are not the only problem. You know, of course, that they support their position by reading closely and deeply the same Talmud and legal codes that you do. Their community embodies an extreme yet also consistent rendering of Judaism founded on the Talmud and the legal tradition it generated. It is true that their egregious behavior steps beyond any acceptable norm. But their more general interpretation of Jewish law does not.

Shouldn’t recent incidents serve to show that your anti-misogynist Orthodoxy, which I applaud as a non-Orthodox Jew, is actually in conflict with key authoritative texts of the tradition? Given your role as a leading voice in Modern Orthodoxy, I hope you take the initiative not only to point out the distorted religiosity and false piety of ultra-Orthodox behavior but to initiate a new form of traditional Jewish life that incorporates your vision by dismantling the very legal structures that serve as the foundation of the problem you seek to resolve.

With Blessings,

Shaul Magid

Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Modern Judaism
Indiana University/Bloomington

Rabbi, Fire Island Synagogue
Sea View, New York