Friday, January 20, 2012

tznius and its discontents

Imagine this story in the Talmud: A woman of great physical beauty waits outside the house of study on Friday evenings, so that she would be what men would see before they went home to spend Shabbat evening with their wives. How would she be treated by the text? Possibly as a demon, undoubtedly as a temptress.

I thought of this as I saw how excited so many friends of mine were about Rabbi Dov Linzer's recent writings on tznius, both his op-ed and his longer, more technical piece. I wish I, too, could be that excited, but I can’t avoid seeing them as apologetics that ignore a number of important issues:

* Rabbinic discourse about tznius is still about the problematic of how women’s bodies are seen by men. The Talmud tells of R. Yochanan displaying his physical beauty to women on their way home from mikvah (Berakhot 20a); what would be "provocative" (at best) for a woman is left unchallenged when it is done by a man.

* The rabbinic tradition is scandalized by women having public roles. That women on occasion did have public roles (increasingly so throughout history) is not because of the Talmud, but in spite of it.

* There is no distinction made between attractive and provocative.

* There is no way provided to appreciate someone’s beauty (even sexual beauty) without objectifying that person.

* Tznius is restricted to sex. Rather than come up with an approach to modesty in general (including, perhaps displays of wealth or status or learning) which might have been an original contribution to contemporary ethical thought and a useful critique of modern culture – including Jewish culture – we’re still left with an anxiety about sexual desire.

* Finally: at best it tells people who are committed to Talmudic culture, “Don’t worry, the Talmud is not as bad as those guys make it seem.” But at the end of the day, he doesn’t tell us anything about ethics we didn’t already know, and neither (in his reading) does the Talmud. But if he hadn’t found the texts he had, or if he hadn’t read them in the way he did, would it then be ok to blame male desire on women, to lock them up or cover them in veils? Of course not. But if the best we can get from the Talmud is a confirmation of the values we already have, why bother?

This pains me enormously. I write this as someone who is committed to Talmud study both personally and professionally; in fact, I’m writing this instead of working on a dissertation on Talmud education and the moral imagination. And I’m aware that Rabbi Linzer is more learned, wise, pious and courageous than I will ever be. Still, I can’t help feeling that something important is missing here. Perhaps it’s something missing in me. Perhaps not.


Laura Gold said...

Hey Josh,
I'm not generally given to reading blogs, much less commenting on them, but having seen the link on FB I was inclined to read it because I knew that something about Rabbi Dov Linzer's piece had bothered me, though I couldn't articulate exactly what it was. Thanks for figuring it out for me. I do imagine that the piece may serve a useful purpose in the Orthodox world, though then again, with the modern Orthodox and sane ultra-Orthodox, he's preaching to the choir, and with the crazies, it's not going to have any impact.
Thanks again and Shabbat shalom, Laura

Mira said...

Interesting post. Given that you like to find positive meanings in biblical and talmudic stories, you must find some value in interpreting the text for our times, though. Is there a primary difference between reinterpreting tznius and, say, reinterpreting the binding of Issac? Isn't reinterpretation the idea behind the rabbinic discussions in the talmud itself?

Rachel Aranoff said...

You make many good points! I am sorry to begin by disagreeing with you but it is not clear to me that Rabbi Linzer is more learned, wise, pious and courageous than you will ever be. The NY Times article and your response don't support you on that one. Some of my other responses to your bullets: 1. To me, objectification is inherent in appreciating people's qualities. In our communities we deem it righteous to admire people for their God- given and humanly-honed intellectual skills yet vapid to admire someone for their God-given and humanly-honed beauty. Physical strength fits somewhere in the middle. I think these biases are partly because of sexism and partly that as rabbinic Jews we have a long history of intellectual snobbery 2. I don't want to add any more restrictions to modesty codes, kashrut codes etc. the values you espouse are wonderful but I want fewer halachot, not more. 3. I love how you described the way traditional Jews use our literature to support the values we already have. The difference between Orthodox and liberal Jews is that many of us liberal Jews proudly admit we do that.

Commenter Abbi said...

Your chief complaint seems to be that the Talmud doesn't conform to your postmodern, post-feminist 2011 sensibilities. While that is very sad indeed, don't you think that's an intellectually dishonest complaint bordering on the ridiculous?

Yes, it would be nice if rabbinic discourse in the Talmud was just like the discourse they have at Pardes and Machon Hadar- but how exactly would that have been possible without some enormously technologically advanced time travel?

As someone studying Talmud professionally, I'm quite surprised that you've fallen into this historical context trap. Nearly every one of your complaints chastises the Talmud for conforming to historically appropriate behavior. Do you also bemoan the fact that the first president of the US was a man and not a woman? How terrible that the Founding Fathers were scandalized by women in public roles to the extent that they wouldn't let women vote!

This seems to boil down to: looking at Talmudic discourse within its historical context= apologetics. Ignoring historical context= asking hard, daring, challenging questions. Disappointing, to say the least.

the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

I love that you use the phrase "I can't help feeling" correctly.

Joshua Gutoff said...

@Mira - Great question, thanks. I think I try to maintain the distinction between "here's my reading of X" and "here's what the text says about X", which I think is lost in R. Linzer's reading. Also, I'm thinking more and more about wanting to go beyond the creative readings and see what can authentically surprise me about the text "itself".

Joshua Gutoff said...

@ Rachel - Thanks for your comments. I'm not as convinced that recognizing someone's particular qualities is always objectification; I think the trouble comes when all you see are those qualities.
Also - I didn't mean to suggest that there should be further halachot governing other aspects of modesty; I think one of the problems of halachick Judaism is that serious values discourse gets subsumed by practice discourse.

Joshua Gutoff said...

@ Abbi -
I'm at a loss here, because I'm not sure what point you think I'm making. As I say explicitly, and as everyone else(including, for what it's worth, a Talmud professor) has understood, my argument is not with the Talmud, but with R. Linzer's reading of it and even more with the amount of enthusiasm it's garnered. I don't know what "post-modern sensibilities" you think I have, but I've no problem with recognizing that the Talmud is a human work containing a wide variety of opinions by human, historically-situated authors. But a context-sensitive reading must still be a sensitive reading - it must recognize what is actually there; to understand difficulties as historically conditioned doesn't mean you get to ignore them.
And while I've never studied at Hadar, and it's been over three decades since I was at Pardes, my guess is that R. Linzer's approach to Talmud is far more like what is done at either of those institutions than anything I would do.

Jenny said...

Rabbi Gutoff,
Thank you so much for this refreshing and cathartic piece. I'm very much with you, as a Talmud professor and as a Jew.

Joshua Gutoff said...

@Jenny - Thanks very much. Sorry to see you haven't written anything on your blog recently.

Jenny said...

Wow, you read my blog? I stopped when I starting being busy getting married and then having a baby. But maybe I'm getting inspired to start in again... Thanks.

Joshua Gutoff said...

@Jenny - I confess I hadn't read it before, but I wanted to see whom I was in dialogue with, so when I clicked your name, that's what came up. Some very nice stuff. Mazel tov on the marriage and baby, too.

Jenny said...

Would you mind elaborating on what you mean by the alternative to "if the best we can get from the Talmud is a confirmation of the values we already have, why bother?" Meaning, what would you hope the Talmud would do for us morally? (I have ideas about this, but since you seem to be writing a dissertation on this, I'd be interested to know how you'd put it succinctly.)

Joshua Gutoff said...

@Jenny - I'll be happy to, but this is getting clumsy. Would you mind?