The topics of hirhurim and tzniut, of illicit sexual thoughts and modesty, have deep implication. The Gemara (e.g., Avoda Zara 20b, Berakhot 24a) focuses on the man’s sexual thoughts as potentially resulting from seeing or looking lustfully at women, but does not address the issue of women’s sexual thoughts. To some degree this is consistent with the Gemara’s general androcentric approach, but in this case in particular it has the effect of objectifying women – of casting the man as a sexual being and the woman as a sex object to which he is responding. Interestingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein in a teshuva, Even Ha’Ezer 1:69, states that a prohibition against engaging in illicit sexual thoughts applies to women as well (although he notes that the Talmud felt that women would not be as impacted by visual stimuli as men). This position serves to create greater balance in our thinking of these issues, societally and halakhically.
In a similar vein, the entire issue of tzniut is often framed in the community and in our educational system as the woman’s responsibility. This is limiting and wrong in two ways. First, tzniut is a concept that is not, and should not be, limited to issue of eroticism and modesty of dress. It relates to a much broader ethos connected to humility and how one sees him or herself in relationship to others and in relationship to God. Ve’Hatzneya lekhet im Elokekekha, “And you should walk humbly (hatzneya) with God” (Micah 6:8), is not about how much of our body we are covering, but about how we comport ourselves in all ways. This is a concept that is often ignored in home and school education, and that needs to be taught, and taught equally to boys and girls.
In addition, when tzniut is defined in terms of modesty of dress, this is not a concept that in the Gemara addresses solely to women. On the one hand, the Mishna and Gemara in Ketuvot (72a) talks about dat yehudit, about standards of dress that are the norm for married women. The Mishna focuses primarily on hair covering, and the Gemara also mentions one aspect of not overly-exposing one’s body (72b). That is the sole Gemara addressed to women’s obligation. The more oft-quoted Gemara , in Berakhot (24a), states that various parts of a woman’s body (and hair, and speaking voice) are considered erva, nakedness. However, that Gemara addresses itself to men: men should not be looking at such erva when they are saying Shema. They also may not look sexually at women (other than their wives). These two Gemarot, if directly implemented, would mean a certain broadly defined standard of dress for (married) women (Gemara Ketuvot) and an obligation on men not to look lustfully at women who are not their wives (Gemara Berakhot). What happens, however, broadly at the communal level and also in some later teshuvot, is that the obligation of the Gemara in Berakhot gets transported from men to women. No longer is it about the inappropriateness of the male gaze, but about how women must dress to prevent men from sinning. This is seen in a teshuva of Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechave Da’at 3:67) which states that the problem with women wearing immodest clothing is that it is lifnei iver, that it causes a stumbling block for the men. And this happens in our educational system where girls are taught about tzniut and how they must dress, and boys are never educated about their responsibility towards how they look at and think about girls. Rav Yehudah Henkin has written about this problem in his article “Hirhur and Community Norms” in his book, Equality Lost, and Tova Hartman has written a powerful article on this topic entitled “Modesty and the Male Gaze,” in her book, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism. What she argues is that by putting the responsibility completely on the women, this approach continues to objectify them and continues to see them and have them see themselves, through the male gaze, while at the same time telling them to hide from this gaze by covering themselves up.
This is not a healthy approach for girls or for boys (or men and women for that matter). Yes, we must continue to teach our girls the importance of tzniut and of dressing modestly and not provocatively. But we must – following the Gemara in Berakhot and the general emphasis of the Gemarot on this issue – educate our boys towards their responsibilities. We must teach them about the male sexual gaze, and that this is something that halakha condemns. We must teach them that they should not treat girls as sexual objects, that they should relate to them as subjects and as equals. And we should teach both boys and girls that they should comport themselves in all areas with tzniut, a tzniut that goes to their personality, not just their dress, and to learn to walk humbly with God.