Torah Sociology: Keeping the mitzva of modesty

The mitzvah of modesty is too important to be a list of do’s and don’ts. And the dilemmas are widespread.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The mitzvah of modesty is too important to be a list of do’s and don’ts
(My Rosh Hashanah prayers brought me to share these thoughts with my readers.)

An important rabbi whom I admire answers questions concerning the mitzvah of modesty (halakha concerning the proper social relationships between men and women) in brief e-mails of one sentence, published in a popular Shabbat publication. 

I feel very uncomfortable with this curt, technical  manner of providing rabbinic guidance on the very complex issue of what constitutes proper, halakhic, inter gender social relationships in our quickly changing social world.

In contrast, this article proposes that our rabbis and educators should provide counseling on dilemmas of modesty by working with the seeker to find the existential common denominator between the halakhic guidelines and the seeker’s life situation and personality.

Our rabbis and educators should increase the attention that we give to the challenging dilemmas that all religious Jews experience in trying to truly live the Torah laws concerning social modesty in our very gender mixed, post modern society. Our synagogues and educational institutions (including yeshivot of all ages) should provide innovative ways to seriously address the issue.

What constitutes meaningful guidance on dilemmas of modesty?

To be realistic and meaningful the guidance cannot simply consist of pulling out of books a long list of do’s and don’ts. Meaningful guidance cannot be prescribed from above in general terms. Meaningful guidance that will be taken seriously, and actively incorporated into the lives and the souls of the seekers, must be given on an individual (or very small group) basis. It must take into account both the general guidelines of the halacha, and the specific life situation and circumstances of the seeker.(individual, family or congregation). In questions of modesty, “one shoe size cannot fit all feet”.
When I talk about dilemmas of modesty, I am NOT talking about issues of pornography or aberrant intimate relationships. Rather, I am discussing in Torah terms what is proper halakhic behavior when a religious Jew (one who has happily taken upon himself the authority of the halakhic ) works side by in the work place, or educational setting, with people of the opposite gender. I am also referring to the dilemmas of a religious person who wants to partake of the healthier aspects of a primarily secular culture such as   movies, theatre, museums, literature, music and touring.

The urgent need for rabbinic initiative and leadership in this area

Our national religious rabbis have given consultation, and written a range of  halakhic responses, on these issues. But usually they have done so in response to the individual initiative of a seeker. This is insufficient.   The vast majority of members of the national religious community do not feel comfortable asking these questions, and thus do not turn for rabbinic guidance.  Even worse, many in our community do not believe, or are not aware, that social relationships with the other gender in the public domain are a legitimate halakhic question. They frequently believe that they can answer their questions relying solely on their own common sense.

I believe that common sense is an insufficient guide in the matters of inters gender social relationships. I believe (to quote Rav Soloveitchik, among others) that G-d is very much present in my social relationships. I want rabbinic guidance so that I can help G-d himself feel comfortable when he is accompanying me in my social relationships.     

Our rabbinic and educational leadership should organize, on their initiative, from above, small, non-threatening frameworks for discussion and guidance on issues of modesty in the public domain.

This article is not for, or against, stricter, or more liberal, guidance in these issues. This article, however, is forcefully arguing that halakhic guidance on issues of modesty will be taken seriously by our community when it is advice that is expressed in terms that are personally meaningful, and relevant, to the life situation of the seeker.  The guidance must thus be individual, and not just a list of do’s and don’ts.

My ‘modesty’ dilemmas and my relationship with G-d
We all have many dilemmas of ‘modesty’ in various dimensions of our lives. I would like to share with my readers four examples of certain of my dilemmas. In my professional career as a social worker, I encountered dilemmas of ‘yichud’ (being alone in  closed room with a woman who is not my wife) when I paid home visits, as a provider of supportive, psychological services, to lonely widows whose sons died in army service. I also encountered dilemmas of ‘yichud  when I met with female social work students in my role as their field work  supervisor.

For many years I was the only male social worker on an otherwise all female, hospital  social social work staff, and thus I encountered questions concerning the proper ‘modesty’ boundaries between necessary professional staff work and camaraderie and mere socialization; Can I eat lunch in the hospital lunch room with other female staff members, when socialization can further professional communication and cooperation, particularly given the very stressful  human situations of life and death that hospital social workers are forced to deal with?

Relating to G-d while taking responsibility for social development in a sovereign Jewish state 

Today, my most pressing questions regarding modesty concern partaking of the healthiest parts of secular culture such as going to carefully selected , quality movies with my wife, or visiting an art museum, or reading quality fiction literature which deal with important existential issues (and are selected not to include implicit intimacy, or an ideological perverse view of life’s meaning?)

On a cognitive level I have received prescriptive, rabbinical answers to these dilemmas. Seventy per cent of the national religious public would find it hard to understand why I feel there is even a question in the first place, and why I did not just use my common sense. 

But now I am at stage in my life where my real question is not simply the prescriptive do or don’t answer, but the deeper theological question, “How, and Why, is G-d with me when I live the above life experiences?”  I very much want to discuss these questions with a Torah scholar who has a much deeper grasp of the wisdom of Chazal than I  do. I believe there are a lot of other people who are like me and want to more fully understand exactly how G-d’ is present when we leave the house, beit midrash and beit Knesset and become very involved in the secular, (as yet unredeemed) society that surrounds us. This is how I would define our current challenge of the mitzvah of modesty.  Ignoring or withdrawing from our surrounding society is not a coping option for national religious Jews who believe that G-d purposefully did a open miracle and gave us the responsibility of applying His Torah to all domains of a sovereign Jewish state. 

How should our rabbis/educators provide guidance on dilemmas of modesty?

The mitzvah of modesty is somewhat unique mitzvah. It is almost the ultimate example of a mitzvah that is simultaneously ‘between man and G-d’ and also ‘between man and man’. Ha Rav Soloveitchik writes in the Lonely Man of Faith that our ongoing relationship with G-d is , by definition, a triangular covenantal relationship. We build a relationship with G-d by entering simultaneously into an eternal, mutually binding and obligating relation with both G-d and his Torah AND with our fellow man in the settings of marriage, familyhood and primary community.

This means that every question of modesty must be understood as a living dialogue between the ‘man and G-d’ dimension, and the ‘man and man dimension’, of our spiritual lives.

The two basic principles of ‘modesty’ counseling

On the basis of the above understandings, as a sociologist/psychologist I recommend that our rabbinic-educator advisors approach the personal questions of modesty that their students bring them according to the following two principles.

One, the main purpose of their counseling should be to provide counseling that aims to help the seeker strengthen and develop his relationship with G-d.  Advice whose result weakens our relationship with G-d is, by definition,  poor advice.  Based on this analysis, the main task of the rabbinic adviser is to find the common existential denominator between the halakhic wisdom in this area, and the personality and life situation of the seeker.
Second, advice should be phrased in a manner that does not encourage guilt feelings. Guilt feelings are always poisonous to the development of any relationship.  Just as our marital relationships, or parent- teenager relationships, cannot flourish when guilt feelings are present, neither can our relationship with G-d when guilt is present. Within the halakhic  laws of modesty there is a generous area of discretion which can allow a rabbinic counselor to find a common denominator between the technical  halakha and the living situation of the seeker.

In cases where the seeker is crossing a red line of halakhic prohibition, and at this stage in his life is not yet capable of significantly changing his behavior, the rabbinic counselor should do two things. One, help the seeker cognitively understand, and accept in his heart, the value based, spiritual messages of the halakhic position. This can be done without generating guilt. Second, the counselor can help the seeker map out a road of graduated behavioral change, so that the seeker can eventually get to a position on the halakhically acceptable side of the red line. In this way ‘mitzvah will generate mitvah, and simcha (happiness) will generate mitzvah’

Real behavioral and cognitive change is gradual, step-by-step change

Fifty years ago I was an assimilated, middle class Jew who spent three years studying to be a Reform Rabbi. Today I, my wife and extended family have a close relationship with G-d and his Torah. The only way I could have made this journey was because G-d led by the hand down the slow, gradual   road of ‘mitzvah bequeaths mitzvah, simchah bequeath simchah’.During this journey G-d never asked or required me to do anything from a sense of guilt. G-d just required that I keep on walking towards him. I believe that this model of an existential, guilt free, walking towards G-d is also the most helpful way to counsel people with dilemmas concerning modesty.

When beginning my journey, I got tremendous spiritual support from the personal story of Franz Rosenzwieg, the Jewish, German philosopher who also began a personal journey of step by step adopting a life of Torah. Frequently his friends tried to mock his effort to include the Torah in his life. They would mockingly ask if he did this difficult mitzvah or not.  He would always respond with answer “Not yet”, and never with the negative answer “No”. There is 180 degree of existential difference between these two answers.

If when educationally counseling on dilemmas of modesty, we can help the seeker get to the position (relationship stage) of saying “Not Yet”, I am sure G-d will be quite pleased. 

Summary: Coping with the anti-modesty onslaught of our surrounding secular society

Every religious Jew, every day, has to cope with a furious onslaught of the libertine, hyper sensual aspects of secular society.

Haredi society, correctly recognizing this reality, has adopted a strategy which gives the battle for maintaining modesty a central role in today’s ultra –orthodox theology (I role which I believe has no historical precedent; a role which I believe inhibits, and does not promote, a living, positive relationship with G-d) . It has also adopted a strategy of insularity which prevents haredi Jews from actively participating in the building of a sovereign Jewish state, and benefiting from the healthier aspects of secular culture.

Our national religious community feels religiously dictated to participate in the building of a modern Jewish state. In the process, we have, quite unconsciously, decided to ignore the challenge with coping with spiritual consequences of actively participating in a libertine, sensual secular society. I do not consider that the strategy of simply prescribing a list of do’s and don’ts to be an adequate method of coping with the serious spiritual challenges of participating in secular society. Answering dilemmas of modesty with a list of do’ and don’ts is not a strategy of engagement, but rather a strategy of avoidance.

Our rabbinic and educational leaders must begin to proactively engage our students and members around the issues of modesty in small, non threatening groups, and on an individual basis.

On the basis of my personal journey, and as a teacher and as a practitioner of psychology and social work, I suggest that the main goal of rabbinic/educational counseling on issues of modesty should not be a list of do’s and don’ts. The main purpose would be to listen to, and work with the seeker, in order to define the existential common denominator between the halakhic principles and the life situation and personality of the seeker. When necessary, the counseling should help the seeker set for himself a step by step, graduated path for actualizing his goal to include more modesty in his ongoing relationship with G-d. 

I truly believe that for many, many national religious Jews dilemmas of modesty lie right below the surface of our religious lives. They are definitely there, and definitely not addressed. They ‘slumber’ in a troublesome ‘sleep’.