Jonah Hill’s Texts Were Problematic & From A Jewish Perspective, So Is His Take On Modesty

Jonah Hill is in hot water again. We discussed him at length several months ago when his dumpster fire movie You People came out. Over the weekend, his ex-girlfriend, Sarah Brady, a surfer, started sharing troubling texts he sent her while they were dating last year. She accused Hill of “emotional abuse” in a collection of Instagram stories.

“This is a warning to all girls,” Brady, posted in one story. “If your partner is talking to you like this, make an exit plan. Call me if you need an ear.”

Hill’s requests to Brady were controlling and coercive, laying out all that she was responsible to him for, without him being sensitive to her needs and desires. This is problematic on many levels, and we have previously discussed the damage emotional abuse can cause.

On top everything else he handled incorrectly, Hill, who is a completely secular Jew, expressed a desire for his girlfriend to not post seductive pictures of herself online. I’d like to use this moment to unpack the misnomer of modesty being a responsibility only falling on women, from a Jewish perspective.

Judaism values modesty. While modesty includes behavior as well as covering, there are two kinds of prohibitions regarding modesty when it comes to the body  – showing and looking. Far too often, modesty as seen as only a responsibility falling on the woman to cover up, with no consideration about what is expected of the man.

In Jewish law, both men and women are limited in what they can show of their bodies and what they can see of other people’s bodies regarding the opposite sex. (Just for clarity, I’m not referring to a person’s nuclear family.) Parts of a woman’s body that are supposed to be covered are called “ervah” (which means private) and include: the upper arms, upper legs, chest and everything in between. These are the same exact parts a man is prohibited from seeing.

Women generally tend to be more interested in showing off their bodies to men than men are in showing off their bodies to women. At a formal affair, the 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 coined this phenomenon  “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.

Because Hill said so many problematic and controlling things in his communications, the one idea that he expressed that could have had merit – that his girlfriend showing her body to other men made him upset – was rightly lumped into all the other coercive language and dismissed. And make no mistake about it, modesty can certainly be used as a weapon to control women.

So let’s move away from Hill and discuss a healthy relationship instead. First off, a healthy relationship means that neither side compels or controls the other. When it comes to modesty as well as all mitzvos, these observances must be chosen by the individual and never forced upon them by someone else.

All that being said, I believe that it is a natural feeling that many men have, to not want other men ogling their beloved. The secular world shoots down this feeling immediately and automatically lumps it together with toxic masculinity, but I think that’s a mistake.

At the same time, there’s a natural feeling a lot of women have – they don’t want their guy to look at other women’s bodies. So too, society tells these women to stop being controlling or prudish or insecure. But why is it OK to invalidate women’s feelings? Studies have actually proven how damaging a male with wandering eyes can be to his partner.

A few years ago, Destin Stewart, a clinical psychology intern at the University of Florida decided to investigate the effect that men watching porn has on relationships after some of her female clients explained how it was negatively affecting them. She had 308 college women, ages 18 to 29 years old, answer online questionnaires about their current partner’s porn use as well as their relationship quality, sexual satisfaction, and self-esteem. Women who reported that their boyfriends or husbands looked at more pornography were less likely to be happy in their relationships than women who said their partners didn’t look at pornography very often. Women who were bothered by their partner’s porn use tended to have lower self-esteem and be less satisfied with both their relationship and their sex life.

Look but don’t touch is the argument that is used in the secular world to absolve a guy from doing anything hurtful when he watches explicit scenes in TV shows, movies, and porn. But the Torah disagrees with this approach. The Talmud even has a term for it: “zanu anayim” – “adulterating of the eyes” or “the eyes partaking in illicit sexual acts.” As a woman, I find this part of Jewish law to be so feminist and protective of my happiness, because it recognizes and validates a woman’s feeling of hurt when her guy looks at another woman in a sexual way.

Not only is a man forbidden to look at these forbidden body parts (this mitzvah is called shmiras anayim), the Talmud tells of a story of a man who becomes aroused by a woman who is not his wife (after he sees her upper arms exposed). He goes home to his wife and has sex with her. When his wife learns that another woman was the cause of her husband’s arousal, she is furious.

It is pretty remarkable that a fifteen hundred year old document is cognizant of how a woman feels when her husband looks at and is turned on by another woman – even if he comes back to his wife! It forbids men from doing this, while our secular, “progressive” society gives men a free pass. The Torah’s ideal is that he should only have eyes for her. That she should be his one and only, even though he feels naturally driven to look at others. By pushing himself to make his best effort to guard his eyes, a man has the ability to make his wife feel deeply loved and cherished.

Jewish law picks up on the psychology of your average man and woman and therefore restricts men more heavily on what they can see 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 is a partnership worth celebrating!

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