The Jewish laws of feminine modesty were the topic of a lot of conversations at the all-girls Orthodox yeshiva high school I attended in Brooklyn. We were required to wear uniforms to school—long, dark pleated skirts and long-sleeved white blouses—and were expected to dress according to similar standards outside of school hours. These rules touched nearly every aspect of our lives, and we were taught about them many times over the course of our education to reinforce them. We talked about them a lot, with our teachers and amongst ourselves.
For instance: Why did we have to wear skirts that always covered our knees? Why did our shirts have to cover our elbows and collarbones? Why couldn’t our male family members come to watch our volleyball games, even though we played in baggy sweatpants and T-shirts? If the rule was that our knees needed to be covered, then what was wrong with jeans?
Over and over, we heard some version of the following: Men were obligated to study Torah from the moment they woke up until they went to sleep, which women were not. This led to an unenviably long school day for them. Our dress restrictions were designed to keep us from distracting them. Oh, and the pants thing was because they were considered “male clothing.” This was as much about enforcing gender norms and boundaries as it was about proper dress and modesty.
Once, a teacher used an Old Testament aphorism in her explanation: In front of a blind person, you don’t put a stumbling block.
The men, in this formulation, were blind and we, the women, with our distracting collarbones and knees, were the stumbling block. Women didn’t even get to be human beings in this metaphor. We became objects standing in the path of the stars of the story, our Torah-seeking men, keeping them from their important work.
I can’t recall if I ever objected openly to this in class, although I remember silently grousing in my seat. (I also recall a ton of napping in those classes.) But there were others who did push back against our teachers’ assertions by asking the obvious questions—why don’t the boys simply work harder to control their thoughts? Why should we have to change the way we dress because they couldn’t be bothered to exercise more self-control? If this is their problem, why were we bearing the burden of solving it? Because this was a discussion of Jewish law, the conversations inevitably turned towards possible loopholes. My personal favorite: What if a woman wore only knee pads, elbow pads, and a neck brace?
I don’t know what exactly my fellow classmates were visualizing but I saw myself wearing the knee and elbow pads I’d bought for rollerblading, a standard medical issue neck brace, and some wrist guards for extra modesty points. (Look at me, I’m even covering my wrists!) Other than that, I was completely naked. But I was adhering to the letter of the law, and that’s what mattered.
We generally had these sorts of discussions with female teachers, but I recall the topic being broached with a rabbi at least once. (In the Orthodox world, all rabbis are male.) It was part of a bigger discussion about why women weren’t allowed to enter the men’s section of the synagogue during specific prayers. Naturally, we were told it had to do with our potential to distract men from their divine focus. But, we noted, we’re dressed modestly in the synagogue as we were in most other public places so why couldn’t the men stay focused on their spiritual task with us around? The rabbi smiled wryly and informed us that we had no idea what was going on inside the mind of boys.
I don’t recall him using the word “sex” in his response. I doubt he did. In a school environment where a trip to the ritual bath during senior year of high school constituted the majority of our sex ed curriculum and assigning E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel Ragtime for summer reading drew complaints about inappropriateness from parents and students, I don’t think a rabbi would’ve been so bold as to tell us that the men in our lives only saw sex when they gazed upon us. A whole series of awkward questions open up from there, starting with what the rabbi himself saw when he sat in front of 20-odd adolescent females to teach his courses.
So it follows that I don’t think he or any other religious studies teacher mentioned rape or sexual harassment to us in any of these discussions. The religious strictures that our community had in place were intended to prevent any fraternizing between genders—no dating, no coed camps, no going to the kosher pizza place on Avenue M on Friday afternoon, because the boys were also there. (The boys did really have unreasonably long school days, but were let out early on Fridays for the Sabbath.) I’m sure community leaders liked to imagine that these restrictions were so effective when it came to preventing abuse that the words “rape” or “sexual assault” didn’t even need to be said aloud. I’m also quite sure that if a young woman did get assaulted, they’d see her violation of “boundary rules” as the proximate cause. There was no need to do anything more to address rape and sexual violence, because they were already doing enough; if the girls would simply follow the rules that they had put in place to keep them safe, they would be safe. If they didn’t, well ... why didn’t they follow the rules?
Which brings us to Mayim Bialik. In response to the ongoing revelations about sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry, the New York Times published an op-ed by Bialik, the former child actor/neuroscience PhD-haver/The Big Bang Theory star, about her experiences as a “feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s world.” Bialik argues that her (self-proclaimed) homely-for-Hollywood looks and insistence on dressing modestly had offered her a modicum of protection against the industry’s endemic sexual assault and other casting couch ugliness. The column was, it now seems safe to say, not well received.
Tweet after tweet and take after take took Bialik to task for the various types of victim blaming that her column contained. On Monday, Bialik went on Facebook Live from the Times to defend her column. It didn’t help. On Wednesday, she finally issued an unequivocal apology. While she insisted that she doesn’t believe that women who fail to adhere to her sense of modesty and propriety deserve to be harassed and assaulted, she didn’t really address any of the points she made about what she believes can be achieved—and what she believes can be averted—through modesty of dress.
The way Bialik speaks about modesty seems to me to be rooted in the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle that she has adopted as an adult. I doubt that the rules of feminine dress were presented to her as they were to me; she was several years older, for one, when she started observing modesty rules. Bialik’s experience is unique, but I am confident that it did not involve being taught in her youth that her very existence, unless modified, elicited sinful thoughts in men.
It’s likelier that she was presented with the flipside of that argument—that covering herself signaled that she was someone to be respected for her intellect, and not simply for her body. It’s a nice idea, provided you don’t interrogate the flipside too closely. That being the idea that, if you’re not covered sufficiently, then you don’t necessarily demand or deserve respect. Or, to put it in yeshiva terms: When you dress immodestly, you’re a stumbling block to yourself. You’re a woman who gets in her own way.
I’m all for women (and men) dressing in clothing that makes them feel comfortable and confident. While I always bristled against the restrictions I grew up with and slowly discarded the rules in college and afterward, many women I went to high school with dress the same way they did when they were younger, although I hope that we’ve all given up platform Skechers sneakers at this point. They, and female members of my immediate and extended family, probably feel pretty good about it. I don’t see their sartorial choices as anti-feminist, but I don’t see them as particularly feminist either. And I also don’t view my jeans and sneakers as proof of some sort of progressiveness on my part. These are just the things that I buy and wear.
Feminism is not about our individual clothing decisions. It’s about building power, and changing the institutional structures that oppress women. And Bialik’s insistence on modesty, though it might be personally meaningful to her, does not build the sort of power that can pull institutional levers and result in systemic changes that will stop the Harvey Weinsteins of the world before they assault and harass women for nearly three decades. The women in the Orthodox community who follow the rules and dress modestly are not granted power and leadership positions like their male counterparts are as a result. Where liberal Orthodox communities try to grant women powerful positions, the mainstream institutions of the Orthodox community have resisted these attempts at every turn.
Leadership is public; ideas about Jewish feminine modesty are rooted in notions of privacy and the home, which is something that Bialik, despite being a public figure, seems to embrace. As she wrote, “I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”
As many women noted in response to Bialik’s oped, regardless of what decisions they have made about their sexuality—whether to display it or keep it private —powerful men overruled their “decisions” and harassed them anyway. Making a specific sartorial choice in such a lopsided environment doesn’t equal agency. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations is a valid decision; the point is that not everyone gets to make such a choice. The point is that the “sexual self” that Bialik has decided to keep private is something to which men—monsters like Weinstein—feel entitled.
This isn’t just stilted language and stunted perspective, although there is some of that—“private” and “internal” are important buzzwords in Orthodox conceptions of Jewish feminine modesty. One of the less negative verses I was taught to reinforce modest clothing choices—which wasn’t quite a choice for me during my early years—was this from Psalms: “The honor of the king’s daughter is within.” We women were the daughters of royalty, and as such we were to dress with dignity befitting our stature. This meant, according to how it was presented to us, that we had to be covered up.
It was only later that this revealed itself as something other than a compliment. The king’s daughter might be an important figure, but was she powerful? She might be revered, but was she respected? What does a king’s daughter do, exactly?
If you believe that feminism is transformative, that its goal is to dismantle the patriarchy, then Bialik’s feminism is the weakest iteration imaginable. What is most frustrating about her piece is not a particular misconception—though there are plenty of those—but the perspective from which she wrote it; she seems to accept the world as it is, and to believe that the only thing that needs to be adjusted is her attitude about it. She accepts “the reality” that women are viewed by men solely as sexual creatures unless there is some sort of intervention—longer sleeves, loose skirt, don’t smile at his jokes, keep those collarbones out of view, don’t go to the hotel room, don’t be a “perfect 10.” She sees the resolution as small, individual choices, not collective action or collective change. She aims only to put the stumbling block in just the right place.