This essay was written in the context of this op ed in the New York Times. This accompanying source sheet provides a closer look at the sources.
Tova Hartman, in her chapter “Modesty and the Religious Male Gaze,” in Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism, discusses the topic of the male gaze, and how the culture around tzniut reinforces this – accepts it as a given – and the status of women as sex objects. The only difference between this approach and that of Western culture is whether the response is for women (and men) to leverage it or to cover it up, but the “traditional” Jewish approach doesn’t critique the male gaze, per se, and demand the non-objectification of women. This is, indeed, the religious Jewish cultural reality, but it is not the halakhic one.
The sources in the Gemara (in particular Berakhot 24a: hair is ‘ervah, voice is ‘ervah, shok (thigh?) is ‘ervah, etc.) are directed to the man and his need/obligation not to look at women sexually (unless in the context of marriage or getting married). Admittedly, the Gemara’s directives are, as a rule, focused on men, and its concern here about sexual thoughts (see also AZ 20a-b and Avot d’Rebbe Natan, version B, chapter 2) is at least partly due to a concern of nocturnal emissions and a “wasting of seed,” that is, a concern about men. Whatever the reason, the halakhic obligation is how man should and should not look. It is all about the male gaze – “Do not look at women (who are not your wife, and whom you are not considering marrying) so that you do not have illicit sexual thoughts” is not very far from, and can be translated as “Do not look at women as sex objects.” Similarly, in Shulkhan Arukh, both in Orah Hayyim (75) and Even HaEzer (21), the obligation is directed at men, and at how they look at women.
There are some Gemarot that talk about women’s responsibility in this regard. The Gemara in Shabbat (62b), in particular, is a critique against women who would dress and walk in sexually provocative ways. This, it should be noted, is not the specific issue of how much of one’s body needs to be covered, what is or is not an ervah, etc. It is about being intentionally sexually provocative, seducing others to sin, and a general concern of tzniut in all ways (not just dress – even how one walks, etc.), that applies equally to men and to women. The other Gemara that talks more about norms of modest behavior/dress for women is the Gemara in Ketuvot (72b) regarding dat Yehudit for married women. What is notable about this Gemara – besides that it is about married, not unmarried women – is that again, it does not quantify body parts, etc., or focus on men’s sexual thoughts. It is rather Jewish societal norms of modest behavior. More to the point, if one looks at the mishna and what is included in dat Yehudit, it will become immediately apparent that the issue here is violating the appropriate intimacy and exclusivity between husband and wife, and the types of behavior that is required to protect this intimacy and trust. Truly, tzniut as the general concept of modesty – applies for men and women, and is much more than dress. What we do not have is women’s responsibility for men’s sexual gaze and sexual thoughts.
The one Gemara that seems to put the responsibility for men’s inability to control their sexual desires on women is the story of the daughter of R. Yossi from Yukrat in Taanit (24a). The Gemara relates that his daughter was very beautiful, and one day he caught a man peering at her from behind some bushes. The man said: “If I can’t marry her, at least I can derive pleasure from looking at her.” Rather than criticize the man, R. Yossi of Yukrat said to his daughter: “My daughter, you are causing anguish to God’s creatures. Return to your dust.” Now, when this Gemara is taught, one can easily derive the lesson that – aha! Men can’t control their urges, and their sexual thoughts are women’s responsibility. What is lost – significantly and profoundly! – is that the sugya opens with R. Yossi bar Avin saying that he used to be a student of R. Yossi from Yukrat, and he left him because he (R. Yossi of Yukrat) didn’t even have any compassion on his son and daughter. This story is the evidence to his lack of compassion on his daughter. In other words, it is his actions and perhaps the entire attitude that is being critiqued here, not endorsed.
The cultural shift that moved this from men’s obligation to women’s had a profound impact. We have abandoned the idea that men can control their sexual thoughts, their lusts or their male gaze. So our (implicit) estimation of men has been diminished. What type of a religious system gives up – or implicitly tells an individual to give up – on the possibility of religious growth, even in areas where there are strong counter desires? And by placing the responsibility on women, we have reinforced their status as sex objects, saddled them with the responsibility and guilt of men’s sexual desires and thoughts, and have told them to respond to this by covering themselves up – by de-sexualizing themselves, and as a result, we have problematized and made them highly conflicted about their own sexuality, a problem with significant repercussions in marriage and elsewhere.
This entire problem could be solved by a return to the halakhot and approaches to tzniut in the Gemara and translating this into our culture and education. Such an approach would teach men to not look at women as sex objects, would teach women that they are not responsible for men’s sexual thoughts, and unless they are dressing or acting in a particularly provocative manner, there is no lifnei iver (causing others to sin) or such concerns, because it is within men’s control whether and how to look at them. It would teach both men and women that tzniut is about more than dress, it is about comportment and behavior, it is about modesty before God and in relationship to all people – men and women – and that it applies equally to both men and women.
A final word about the quantification of tzniut concerns. The Gemara Berakhot talks about shok (thigh) being an ‘ervah, and the Gemara in Ketuvot about the problem of a married woman appearing with her zro’ot (upper arms) uncovered. This leads to the “halakha” that women (married or unmarried) must cover the legs to the knee (top of the knee, bottom of the knee, middle of the knee?) and their arms to the elbow. Besides the fact that the Gemara about shok (and the Shulkhan Arukh) is talking to men, not to women, another central critique is in order. The assumption of all discussions around these topics is that these are strict, objective categories. There is only one problem. The Mishna (Ohalot 1:8) and Rishonim (e.g., Tosafot, Menachot 37a, s.v. Kiboret) are clear that shok is not the thigh; it is the calf. The conclusion should thus be that women must wear ankle-length dresses and skirts. But of course, that has rarely been the practice. So what emerges is the claim that shok refers to the thigh, a claim completely untenable based on the evidence.
The true solution is that these statements are not absolutes, but change based on historical and societal contexts. Hence, in the time of the Gemara, even the lower leg was usually covered and for a man to gaze at a woman’s lower leg would be unacceptable. But when societal norms change, so did the parameters of what is normally covered and what cannot be male-gazed upon. Hence, in Shulkhan Arukh, OH (75) one will not find any mention of the shok. Rather, both regarding body parts (except for the actual genital areas), and regarding women’s hair, or (singing) voice, the concern is only with what is normally covered in modest society. [In the case of hair covering, the Gemara in Ketuvot attributes this norm to dat Moshe, a Biblical norm, so it is much more questionable whether it can be societally contingent.]
The upshot of all of this is that a true approach to tzniut, in addition to focusing on modesty in all ways for men and for women, and in addition to directing men to control their male gaze, would also reject the quantification of the concept of tzniut and the objectification of women’s body parts towards this end. It would talk to men and women about a general approach of dressing and acting modestly, and to attend to communal norms of modest dress and behavior. Now that would be truly refreshing. It could not only counteract all the negatives that the current approach has engendered, but also put us on the path – finally, and again – of embracing the true value of tzniut and fulfilling the verse in Micha (6:8) of “walking humbly with your God”.