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.