by Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum
Purim’s almost here, the one day of the year we’re supposed to be moderate in our moderation, even encouraged to abandon ourselves to excess. But this year the holiday falls within a season of such excess in the country’s shared civic life that some of us wonder if moderation – or more precisely, modesty – will soon be only a relic, an artifact, from a more innocent time. We’ve seen that references to private body parts and functions are no longer taboo in presidential debates. We’ve read about a reality star with her own brand of emoji symbols sending out a racy Instagram worldwide, and it’s the ensuing public debate that mirrors, in a way, the stories of Purim. Some celebs took to social media to rail against what they saw as a flagrant display of self-serving and attention seeking behavior while others defended the star’s confidence and demanded to know who has the right to judge a woman for what she chooses to wear or how much of her body she decides to expose. We can wonder what kinds of messages Vashti and Esther would have tweeted.
Purim seems to us – members of Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community – a perfect time to talk about modesty. Let us explain. Several years ago our Task Force decided to encourage conversations about healthy 21st century relationships. Since Jewish holidays are natural times for special meals and special talk we created a series of Holiday Guides, choosing holiday-related sources and commentary that highlight distinctive qualities common to healthy intimate relationships. For example, in the Purim Guide the issue of modesty comes up in the section devoted to an aspect of health that we call “striving for parity.”
By ‘parity’ we aren’t referring to the commodities market, chas ve’chalilah – heaven forbid. We use the word parity to mean a negotiable state of balance in which men and women have equal power or status, resulting in needs being met without struggle or competition.
In the Purim Guide we encourage use of the multi-faceted stories of both Vashti and Esther to ground conversations about what “healthy” can mean in our time and conclude that parity may only be possible where men take responsibility for seeing women as people, not as objects intended to satisfy male sexual needs. Rabbi Dov Linzer, in a New York Times op-ed, notes: “At heart, we’re talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the man’s sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the claim, ‘she was asking for it.’ …The Talmud acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women… But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. It is forbidden for a man to gaze sexually at a woman. …The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze – the way men look at women – that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.”
Rabbi Linzer concludes, “Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning ‘to walk humbly with your God.’ “
We like that. Modesty is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. And it makes us wonder about Vashti and Esther: in what ways did they both show tzniut [modesty] ? How did they each demand that King Achashverosh see her as a person? Rabbi Linzer’s comments also help us question our current situation: until there’s a cultural shift with more men taking responsibility for seeing women as people instead of objects, how can we teach young women to expect parity in relationships?
Rabbi Kirshbaum lives in Omer, Israel and is a member of JWI’s Clergy Taskforce on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community. To receive a copy of Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts, go to jwi.org.