Modesty and Moral Intuition

by Andrew Shapiro Katz

Recently Rabbi Joshua Gutoff wrote a blog response to the article and blog post by Rabbi Dov Linzer about tznuit and the male gaze. Gutoff writes:

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?

Reading this paragraph got me thinking about what bothers me most in all of the back and forth about tzniut, “hadrat nashim” and the role of women within Judaism. From my perspective, the BEST of Orthodox Judaism on gender issues lags well behind the BEST of contemporary western culture. And I think there are many Orthodox Jews who in their heart of hearts feel the same way. But admitting this gets one’s “Orthodoxy credentials” challenged. And the sociology of halachically observant communities is so fragile that members who feel this way compromise what their moral intuition tells them is right and accept (and impose) indignities they would find completely unacceptable in general society. And all the time waiting for “creative and courageous” rabbis to find a way to square the tradition – at least on this particular issue – with the more ethical world around it without it leading to some major outcry or schism.

Is this some kind of modern Akeidat Yitzhak, that we are somehow being asked to demonstrate our faithfulness to halacha by acceding to its unethical demands?

Andrew Shapiro Katz is a Jewish educator, now living in Beersheva, Israel

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