Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

The modest woman who conceals her sexuality invites a man to reveal it, always teasing the possibility of more. And what is eroticism, if not the arousal of limitless possibility?

These are the penned words of none other than Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in an article (The International Jerusalem Post Feb.29-March 6, 2008) in which he is trying to argue that women should dress more modestly. I say “trying”, because in effect, Shmuley is basically turning those b’not yisrael of modest dress into nothing more than cheap temptresses. So as not to be accused of quoting out of context in the previous paragraph, he claims that modest women are the sexiest of them all because they look feminine and desirable and the fact that their bodies are covered piques the prurient interest in men.

Normally I wouldn’t be troubled by this kind of article because I don’t necessarily believe in “modest dress” unless circumstances and “good taste” dictate. For example, attending synagogue or religious services or visiting a particular community where the norms of the community dictate a particular type of dress. But Boteach is promoting a value that distorts and demeans women. The truth of the matter is that there really is no such thing as modest dress or sexy clothes. One could be dressed modestly “al pi chol hadeyot” and she can still look like one of Elliot Spitzer’s call girls. On the other hand, during the course of the day, I, as many of you, come in contact with numerous women, many of whom are dressed in what R’ Shmuley would consider immodest and seductive, with a little cleavage and exposed thigh. Many of them are as sexy as Mother Theresa.

It’s all in the attitude and the look in their eyes. It isn’t what she wears or how she wears it but how she relates to her environment and the people with whom she interacts. So, to put a particular premium on a dress code is nonsense. What is more revealing however is Boteach’s obsession with matters of sexuality. “It is time”, he writes “to praise the orthodox Jewish woman who with her sleeves, stockings and long flowing skirt, is not just a model of femininity but is super desirable too”. Why is it time? When was it ever the time to praise Jewish girls as super desirable? I thought they were only supposed to be desirable to their husbands, therefore the modest dress and the avoidance of “ervah”? Doesn’t that also turn them into objects that Boteach so derides and is demeaning? Boteach is guilty of the same sin as those whom he has castigated in the secular community. He unconsciously treats women as sex objects, views them as something to have; no different than that those whom he criticizes:
Here’s the truth of the matter: Modest women are the sexiest of all. They look feminine, desirable, and their covered bodies invite male curiosity….But the difference is that the man will stay focused on the covered women’s flesh well after her cleavage-bearing sister has nothing left to offer.

I find this to be very disturbing; an indictment against women and society whose dress code doesn’t meet Boteach’s standards. Accordingly, these women, who may be well read, well educated, versed in literature and the sciences have little to offer compared to the “bas torah” whose span of knowledge may be limited to that which the “roshei yeshivah” allow her to be exposed to, all because of a little cleavage! And when does modest dress become excessively modest to the point that it is no longer within the purview of Jewish mores? The women in Kiryat Hayovel and Bet Shemesh who chose to cover every inch of skin and veil themselves? Are they modest Jewish girls, or is there some kind of pathological disturbance at work? Who decides what is appropriate and what isn’t?

The so-called immodestly dressed women are at least honest in their desire to appear sexy to their willing enablers and admirers who objectify the flesh; while Boteach is in denial, hiding behind questionable archaic mores that by applying them have blurred his ability to distinguish between “looking” and “leering”.