I recently received an e-mail from a man who saw my “What to Wear on My Hair” video and wanted to know if my husband keeps his hair “special” and “saves it just for me.” Now I’m sure this guy was just trying to give me a hard time, but he actually raised an interesting point. Why don’t men seem to be held to the same standards of modesty as women in Jewish law? After a little bit of thought, I came to the following observation: In Judaism there are two kinds of prohibitions regarding modesty – showing and looking. Both men and women are limited in what they can show of their bodies and what they can see of other people’s bodies when it comes to the opposite sex. (Just for clarity, I’m not referring to a person’s nuclear family.) However, women generally tend to be more interested in showing off their bodies to men and less interested in looking at men’s bodies. Men, on the other hand, are far more interested in looking at women’s bodies than showing their own.
At a formal affair, your average woman will wear a dress with a plunging neckline, an open back, and a high slit, whereas a man will wear a suit that covers up everything from his necks to his toes. Also, in the heat of the summer, while you’ll find many women in short shorts and tank tops (and even some baring their midriffs), most men wouldn’t go outside wearing less than an elbow-length shirt and knee-length shorts. (We call this “The Skin Gap.”) Conversely, when it comes to looking at scantily clad (or naked) members of the opposite sex, men obviously do this in far greater numbers than women.
Now, in terms of hair covering in particular – although there are again exceptions- it’s the women who have always had long, flowing hair that they primp over and hope to get noticed for. With men however, it’s usually just wash, rinse and go. You could even shave most men bald without too much of a reaction, but just think how your average woman would respond to receiving a buzz cut!
I think that Jewish law picks up on these trends and therefore restricts men more heavily on what they can see (this mitzvah is called shmiras anayim) and women more heavily on what they can show. What you end up with, in such a system, is a woman who strives to save her body only for her husband’s eyes, because she knows that her husband is striving to save his eyes only for her body. And that seems pretty fair to me!
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Spot-on analysis – clear, simple answer. It seems an amazingly overlooked fact that man cannot look.
Actually, it’s a funny thing that no men have ever declared that Judaism is sexist against them – having started to become religious halfway through public high school, I can honestly say that the prohibition on looking is, shall we say, “difficult”.
If one argues that Judaism is biased against women, one could make the equally valid case that it is biased against men.
Actually, I think Judaism is simply biased against the yetzer hara (evil inclination)!
(Also, I’m reminded of the irony that many feminists will complain that only men get to wear tefillin and tzitzit, etc. – why are men favored with these extra mitzvot? Yet they’ll then complain, why are women singled out (unfairly) for covering the hair and taking challah – why are women burdened with these? I.e., when men have a mitzvah women don’t, it’s favoritism for the men. But when women have a mitzvah men don’t, it’s discrimination against the women.)
Just discovered your blog. I’m not Jewish, but Muslim, and thought this was a really interesting perspective on looking/covering and modesty for men and women.
I’m Muslim too and think that your explanation of modesty is amazingly simple and could apply to Islam as well, so kudos to you!
I realise that you’re trying to rationalise the patriarchal imbalance in traditional Jewish rules but I’m afraid to an impartial reader your rationalisation is not at all convincing. It’s based on another set of patriarchal stereotypes (woman don’t want to look at men, they’re passive subjects of men’s gaze) and also gets things completely backwards and involves circular reasoning.
If Jewish law was “picking up” on the way men and women behave are we expected to believe that if men start spending more time on hair styling (as I think it could be safely said is the case with the general male population) then they will then need to wear wigs as well? I’ve never heard of Jewish law following contemporary cultural trends and flexibly adapting to the way people now live. Most often it seems that people adapt their way of living to at least stay within the letter of Jewish law.
It also misses the point entirely of what equality is. If the law is about restricting showing and seeing then the simple way to ensure that is what happens is to apply both sides of the coin (restrictions on showing and seeing) to men and women equally. To argue, using inaccurate stereotypes, that it only needs to apply one way is to have abandoned the ideal of equality without even acknowledging it (as well as to use inaccurate data for the argument).
I haven’t even touched on the difference of opinion that we’d have over the source of those rules. All I’m saying is that the reasoning that they are “fair” or “equal” doesn’t hold water at all. Sorry. I am accepting of people choosing to live their lives however they best see fit where it doesn’t hurt other people and hold no prejudices against people on the grounds of race or religion but just think reasoning should be sound. If you still prefer to follow the rules you believe in that is perfectly fine but I think the inequality of them should be recognised rather than imagined away with insubstantive arguments.
Thanks for your comment, Random visitor, but you are pre-supposing somethings too: first, that these laws are based on a patriarchal imbalance. I believe in these laws because I believe that there is something unique about the Jewish people and our history and therefore our Torah and our system of laws, but I also believe that the rabbis who transmitted these laws were by in large righteous, holy people. I’m curious how much you know about the rabbis who codified Jewish law since you seem to hate them so much. From the texts that I’ve seen and the contemporary Orthodox rabbis that I’ve met, I believe that these were/are good people who are not trying to subjugate women, but rather who value women as much as value men.
The second thing that you’re pre-supposing is that men and women are naturally the same. That we are only different because society conditions us to be. While there are always exceptions to every rule, from what I’ve seen – having 2 sons and 2 daughters myself, as well as observing many different men and women – is that men and women are different from birth. Neither of us can prove if the differences come from nurture or nature, but I will tell you that I have told over this idea to NUMEROUS people of all backgrounds and religious observances and almost always I hear the same response. The women (especially – I’ve spoken to them more) love the idea of a husband saving his eyes only for his wife’s body b/c she’s saving her body only for his eyes. Why do people over and over again react so positively to this idea? I believe it’s b/c people know when they hear something true. I believe that this idea makes a woman feel cherished and that’s a large part of what she’s looking for from her husband.
Having a husband save himself for his wife is a lovely idea (and vise versa). Having him do it because he’s so repressed that he can’t look at another woman, interact with them or shake their hands, or let his eyes gaze upon them means nothing. My husband comes home and wants me and only me despite what’s out there. Despite the women he sees in business and socially. Despite the friendly kisses on the cheek hello from dear friends, despite the women he sits beside at our shul, despite anyone out there he wants me and only me. And despite my interactions, I want him and only him. THAT means something. Your way makes people obedient to their made up laws. It certainly wouldn’t make me feel “cherished” that my husband wanted me when it is all he can have. Just the opposite. I feel far more cherished in my life because despite gazing upon others, he wants just me. I totally and completely agree with Random Visitor. What an aplogist’s rationalization of patriarchal rules. No problem if you want to live by them, but stop making up rationalizations and call it what it is – sexism plain and simple.
Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. You’ve come here to tell me that it’s no problem if I want to live by these rules, but then you make sure to let me know that these are mere rationalizations of sexism – nothing more than “made up laws”. You note that a couple saving themselves for their spouse is a lovely idea – but what’s so lovely about it? Wouldn’t it be more special if a woman’s husband slept with a whole bunch of other women, but still came back to her because she was who he truly wanted? Wouldn’t it be special if a woman’s husband watched porn with other women’s bodies, but still came back to look at hers, because she was all he really wanted? I’m not telling anyone else to live and just for the record – we are not living this life because we are “repressed.” We are CHOOSING this life because it is meaningful to us. In the rest of the world, men ARE watching a WHOLE lot of porn. In the rest of the world, there are many men getting “extra” on the side.
You are free to live your life as you see fit, but I will tell you what this life – which I’ve chosen – means to me. My husband is a normal guy, and like normal guys has an interest in looking at other women. But because Jewish law (and respecting me) tells him so, he fights against the natural desire he’s born with, to look away and save his eyes just for me. So *I* don’t have the self-consciousness of wondering how my body measures up against all the younger women’s bodies he could have seen.
Again – live your life the way you see fit. But it’s not very open-minded or accepting of others to come to a site like this and tell people – who are clearly inspired an uplifted by the life they’ve chosen – how awful their life is.
The fact that there are husbands out there that control their natural desires and only gaze at their wives makes the women feel far more cherished than if he was giving eyes to every woman that passed by and then said “hey baby I love you”. Actions speak louder than words. The action of coming home and choosing your wife over the younger prettier girls is nice but it is also expected in a marriage. To go above and beyond for the woman that you love, and not even allow yourself to be aroused by anyone but her is the ultimate level of commitment. Just coming home after a long day of seeing beautiful women and being proud of yourself for not cheating is mind-blowing to me…its not much of an accomplishment- it is expected! Believe me the orthodox men know “whats out there” and they aren’t only choosing their wives, they are also choosing to cherish and respect their wives to a degree most men would find unfathomable and impossible.
Your response makes no sense, and I’m sorry you’re insecure about how your body would measure up against younger women’s bodies. I also find it very curious that you think normal men would be interested in looking at other women’s bodies but normal women aren’t interested in looking at other men’s bodies. (Must be the sexual repression and dysfunction well documented in orthodox communities who separate the sexes and have strict guidelines about sex and controlling their subjects’ bodies).
“Normal” men and women who are committed to one another hopefully treat one another with respect, don’t make one another feel insecure about their bodies, make one another feel desired, cherished, wanted and loved. But just because my husband looks up at another woman, sees another woman’s natural hair, shoulders, knees or stomach, that doesn’t mean he’s sleeping with them, watching porn or doing anything disrespectful by “normal” peoples’ standards. When I see an attractive man in a bathing suit on vacation or playing sports in a tank top and shorts I can think him attractive and even look at his body without being the least bit disrespectful to my husband. Your answer, and your repressed lifestyle that has conditioned you to think you need to have your hair covered in order to not tempt other men to try and sleep with you, is, I maintain, a ridiculous rationalization of blatant sexism. In this day and age, both men and women are sexual creatures and guess what, they also have self-control. I’m glad you are happy that your husband has nothing to compare you to. I’m quite thrilled my husband wants only me even though he might see someone else’s hair and elbows today.
Thanks for your comment, Rebecca, but I’m not overly insecure. I’m a size four after having four kids, so I thankfully have FAR less body image issues than your average woman. And yet – I still have a body that has been through four pregnancies and is almost 35 years old. So even with feeling pretty good about the way I look, I *still* know that there is a difference between my body and an 18 year old’s.
I haven’t done any research, but I am certain that the percentage of women who feel self-conscious about how their bodies measure up to other women’s as opposed to the percentage of men who worry about the same – there are CLEARLY more women who are concerned about this. In terms of women enjoying looking at other men’s bodies – first off, I never said a woman couldn’t enjoy another man’s body, but again – CLEARLY more men are watching pornography than women are. I’ll give you another example which illustrates how most men and women fantasize about the opposite sex (and of course there are exceptions). If you made a fantasy up with a member of the opposite sex and a red sports car how would it look for the average guy? The woman would be naked and sprawled at the hood of the car (oiled up). Would most women want to see a man like that?? God no! We’d want our guy tastefully dressed, driving the car and picking us up on a date.
As a side point – the Orthodox communities that have sexual dysfunction are not MY communities. Anywhere that that’s happening, it’s the Torah being bastardized. The women in my community have once a month honeymoons on their mikvah nights and count down (with their husbands) the days until they reunite. And do you know what the men in our communities learn before marriage? That they must satisfy their wives as part of the marriage contract. Also, your tone is SO extremely offensive. I have not been “conditioned” – I spent half my life totally secular and now live a very balanced life very much in the world. My understanding of Torah Judaism is that it is VERY pro-sex – just in a certain time and place.
And finally – no one is saying that seeing another woman’s hair or elbows will make a man want to leave his wife. (Hair is not covered because it has the same status as a naked body and elbows are not covered b/c they themselves are considered sexy). And for the record, when men gaze at women who are not their wives, we both know the *other* parts they are looking at….
And, by the way, the issue of this blog was why women need to be covered and not men. In my opinion neither should be covered. The fact that it’s just women (implying men are the only ones who want to look) THAT is blatant sexism and you have drunk the kool-aid to pretend it’s anything but.
Thanks for your comment, Rebecca, but the purpose of the blog wasn’t simply to talk about why “women should be covered.” I’m not here to tell people what to do. I’m someone who has chosen to live this life because I find it incredibly meaningful and there was something important I wanted to clarify – just because men and women have different responsibilities according to Jewish law doesn’t mean they’re not equally challenging. As I wrote, men in general, show off less of their bodies. Women, in general, spend less time ogling mens’ bodies. I don’t think it’s sexist at all if each side is being made to go against its natural tendency. But even if it *were* sexist – what is your purpose in coming here to argue? I’m not telling anyone else how to live. I’m simply explaining why I choose to live this way…
It’s “sexist” only if an expectation of behavior – of any kind – is levied against women but not men, or vice versa. Sexism is a two way street, after all. And since both men and women know that there are certain expectations that apply to them, I just can’t see how the “sexism” enters into this.
It’s not like men are scot-free and can do whatever they want…not even close…
I’m just sayin’!
At least you admit it’s sexist. That’s my point. No need to argue. Just admit it’s sexist and you believe in it anyway. To call it not sexist (i.e., differentiating on basis of gender) is disingenuous. Thank you for at least admitting this law (as are SO many others in orthodox judaism) is sexist. At least that is an honest place to start a conversation (which I thought this blog was meant to do). You personally seem to agree with the sexism (differentiations based on gender) in orthodox judaism. I find the “laws” immoral and sexist to pigeon hole people into roles based only on their gender. I know lots of women who watch porn and ogle men more than lots of other men I know. Point is to me that people are individuals and can decide for themselves their roles. Next time start a post like this with…”this law is sexist but I personally live by it and aagree with it because [insert your rationalization here]”. If you want to have a real conversation, have a real one. Thanks.
Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. If you’ll please re-read my comment, you’ll notice that I didn’t say it was “sexist,” I said “even if it *was* sexist.” Sexist implies discriminatory. I am against discrimination. While these laws take gender into consideration – like for instance the idea that girls (in general) do better with single-sex educational settings – I believe these laws are actually pro-women.
You are free to disagree, but as a woman who lived in the secular world for half her life and chose to become Orthodox, seeing how porn usage by men (and boys) is on the up in the secular world, I (and many other women) find these laws to be so empowering. Hope that clarifies things.
I thought what you wrote was very insightful and helpful. I am Catholic, but I used to work with young Muslims and worked for a Conservative Jewish woman who kept the modesty laws, and I find that the modest covering of a woman is so beautiful. It reminds me also of our more traditional nuns and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is always portrayed with a veil and long dress. I really appreciated your bringing out the “not looking” and the “not showing” as two complementary aspects of modesty, related to the differences in the sexes. I also appreciate your civil responses to some angry commenters. I posted your essay on my fb page, I liked it so much. Such needed light in the darkness of our present, widespread ignorance and confusion about our dignity as male and female and the need to curb our evil/sinful inclinations. Thank you so much! To Our Creator be the glory.
The issue is the inequality of the gesture. Men are required to limit their ‘looking’, women are required to limit what they ‘show ‘. For men this is largely self policing, for women it is visible and can be policed by anyone. This is a bit like saying ‘I expect you to keep my money safe in a secure deposit box, but I will look after yours with an honesty box.
Thanks for your comment, Jo, but first off, healthy Orthodox societies don’t “police” other people’s behaviors. Everyone does their own thing. Unfortunately, in unhealthy ones there are people who get into each other’s business. But to clarify, men who are in these communities have plenty of public things they won’t do like go to certain movies, crowded beaches – pretty much any place there will be known scantily clad women. Women, can go to a place no one knows them and walk around half-naked, so both sides have restrictions and both sides can get around them if they truly want to.
Allison, I am so proud of you and your responses. I am a wife of a Rabbi and the way I see it is simple. The Orthodox Jewish way of Life is a blueprint for following the Torah laws. Would you build a beautiful Mansion, invest your life’s savings and not take an architect to create a blueprint so that you know exactly how to do things right to make it a success?
Our modesty and Torah laws are meant to be a our blueprint and create boundaries in life. Imagine the media people out there that were recently exposed in scandal . Had they followed the Torah’s laws of Modesty with Yichud they probably wouldn’t get to the place they are now.
Let’s all instead stop and analyse why all of this is happening.
It is quite obvious that religion did not play a role in any of these men’s lives. When religion plays a role things are different. A Torah abiding Jew knows to follow the Jewish laws of Ethics. A man and a woman that are not married to each other abide by the laws of Yichud. They are spelled out to you and lines are not crossed if you are truly religious. Yichud is very serious about a man and a woman being in a room together with a closed door. If you learn the Talmud you abide by its scriptures.
Yes, you can slip up, maybe once but the religion inside of you will bring you back. If you constantly live a life without religion you need to fill it with something else. That something else becomes dangerous and takes you off the edge…..
The subject of modesty in how one dresses is also applicable to some Christian sects as well, including the Amish and more conservative Mennonites. For these groups, scripture counsels women to wear head coverings while praying (1 Corinthians 11:5) and not to cut their hair (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). Men are admonished not to shave or cut their beards (Leviticus 19:27). The rejection of extravagant clothing is further established in 1 Timothy 2:9-10.
I converted over 50 years ago. I still can’t believe that I am part of the Jewish family. The man I fell in love with was not Jewish. He had renounced Christianity by the time we met and was searching. When he told me he loved me it broke my heart. I explained I would only marry within my faith. My love for Hashem was deeper than my love for him. He said “I’ll convert for you”. I said we had to part. Five years later he called and asked to see me if I wasn’t married. He arrived on my doorstep with roses and an engagement ring wearing tzitzit, kippa and beard. He told me he had been searching for Hashem he just didn’t know it until he met me. The modesty rules chinched it for him. He fell in love with a religion that cared for every aspect our lives and has well thought out reasons for every law. At my age, over 70, I have many physical problems. One problem affects my modesty. My skin doesn’t tolerate heat and moisture. Too much clothing results in severe rashes. I cannot cover up as required. For me this is sad. I miss the modesty.