Modern Orthodox Education aka How Men Can Control Their Sexual Urges

From Hirhurim: There is a fascinating special issue of Meorot (formerly The Edah Journal), guest edited by R. Nathaniel Helfgot and focusing on Modern Orthodox education (link). What follows are rough notes that are even less reliable than my normal summaries:
Symposium on Modern Orthodox Day School Education
R. Scot Berman — Discusses why there is a leadership shortage in Jewish education and why there is reason to think it will change. It is important that leaders model the Modern Orthodox values they are trying to instill in the students.
R. Todd Berman — To prepare students for the college experience, high schools need to stop focusing on issues of faith and spend more time on the social realities of life on campus. Students should also be taught to reach out to local rabbis and high school rabbis should visit campuses. And students should reach out to other students and support them religiously.
R. Shlomo Brody — Stop focusing on creating the ideal graduate and concentrate on allowing each student to progress appropriate to his background and circumstances. Emphasize Talmud and Tanakh over other subjects, given current limitations. We need to change the reality of limited religious observance among graduates and one place to start is in the summer camp experiences that often lack religious seriousness. More talk about boy-girl relations.

R. Zucker actually has a disclaimer that I have never seen before: "While the author does not identify with the basic ideology of this journal, he accepted the invitation to submit this article in this forum because he believes that the gravity of the situation about which he writes requires the attention of every segment of the day school community, and that solutions can come only from broad discussion and a sharing of information and ideas."

MICHAEL MAKOVI POSTS: I found Tamar Biala’s article to be very useful. She makes two general observations:
(1) The rabbis are overly authoritative and apodictic, making their rulings without citations of sources, and without acknowledgement of other views.
(2) There is an over-emphasis on the female body and its sexual power, and the male susceptability thereto, subverting the very intention of tzniut.

Both of these two are exactly paralled in Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin’s words in Understanding Tseni’ut (Urim, based on Tradition article "Contemporary Tseni’ut"): "In a sense, books like Oz ve-Hadar Levusha continue the process of standardization of halakha at the expense of local custom, which began with the Mishna Berura and has continued in earnest since the Second World War. Tseni’ut is particularly ill-suited for such standardization, and what is suitable for kiddush-cups and matsot may not be suitable for the amount of a woman’s hair showing, if any. There is a danger here of losing sight of the real basics of modesty—not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else."

Perhaps Biala’s rhetoric is a bit heavy-handed, but really, she says nothing Rabbi Henkin hasn’t already. And perhaps we ought to dan l’khaf zekhut and figure that since she is a women, she feels these issues far more intimately than Rabbi Henkin has. After all, she herself has been emotionally damaged by these problems. It doesn’t mean her rhetoric is correct, but it means we can forgive her for it and retain all the good in her words, of which there is a veritable bounty.

Cf. my Orthodox Women and Body Image.

I quote Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman: "The skirts thus intensify women’s self-consciousness about their bodies and their sense that their own sensuality and physicality is owned by others, in two worlds. It becomes a case in which women are constantly aware of the fact that every exposed inch of skin is subject to gaze — one of the “threatening” secular society and one of the religious men around her. Putting women behind a curtain of clothing does not remove the gaze but makes her suffer for it. … The language of women’s body needs to be reconfigured in Orthodoxy. Rather than making the dubious claim that layers of clothing protect women from the male gaze, let us educate men to stop gazing and start treat women with respect. Let us stop punishing women while excusing men’s mistreatment of women and other vices. Rather than saying, the wild dogs are out so let’s all hide, let’s say, train the dogs and then we will all be free."

I also quote Ilana Teitelbaum’s "What Not to Wear" Should Never Be More Than a TV Show: "To me, the above examples of my life experience have one thing in common: They are both counterproductive to the goal they purport to serve, which is to protect women’s dignity. (An oft-quoted, difficult-to-translate Jewish proverb that makes this point is "The princess’s honor is in her inner beauty.") The result of a rabbi’s obsessing over knee socks vs. tights or the sight of a married woman’s hair has the oddly paradoxical effect of sexualizing women in a way that tank tops never will. … Whereas when I wear Orthodox garb, I get cat-calls and insinuating comments from men who clearly believe I am an innocent ripe for corruption. Rather than deflecting attention, my long black skirt attracts male stares in the street because as Israeli men, they know What It Means. (Or in this case, think they do.)"

I comment, with words that I believe fit with Rabbi Henkin and Biala:
It would appear that the issue is when the men are not conditioned appropriately, in correspondence to the tzenua dress code of the women. That is, if women are told to cover their bodies because their bodies are sexual, but men are not told to diminish their leering and gazing and contemplating of the women’s bodies, then we have a disproportionate and unbalanced approach to tzniut. Women are only half of tzniut; the women should be told to cover themselves and behave however is appropriate, but the men must likewise be taught to reduce their sexual urges and lusts.

All this emphasis on tzniut, then, subverts the very intention of the laws of tzniut – which are, after all, meant to emphasize the humanity and worth of women by encouraging a deemphasis of physical beauty and sexuality. Instead, Orthodox Jews rather seem to emphasis the physicality and sexuality of women, painting them as nothing but sexual objects, and they likewise emphasize the sexually-drawn nature of men, depicting them as naught but sexually-desiring hounds. Both men and women are hyper-sexualized, which is of course precisely the opposite of the intention of the laws of tzniut. One should not be surprised if any day now, Freudian sexual neuroses, once known almost exclusively amongst dualistic Euro-Christians, become known amongst the Orthodox as well. (See Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits’s "A Jewish Sexual Ethics", printed in Crisis and Faith and in Essential Essays on Judaism, for how Freud’s notions regarding sexual neuroses depend on the background of a Christian-inspired dualistic ascetic/monastic culture.)

If the men are not educated properly, then the result is that women’s bodies are made into a hypersexual object, which is of course precisely the opposite of what tzniut is intended to accomplish. The men are inculcated with that concept that women’s bodies are objects to be hidden, but they are never taught, as they should be taught, to see their bodies as anything but sexual objects. As a friend of mine has noted, when you try hard to avoid thinking about something, usually, that thing is all you can think about; if you teach young men to avoid women like the plague, for they are a sexual object, guess what the men will see women as? Sexual objects! But is this not precisely what tzniut is intended to combat?

If women’s dress codes is to accomplish anything, then men must be taught properly to not see women as sexual objects, and not to have overmuch sexual lust. If this is done, then when women themselves endeavor to not present themselves as sexual objects, with appropriate clothing and the like, then men and women will meet together in the middle, and the burden will be borne by both sides equally. But when women exclusively bear that burden, it actually would seem to exacerbate sexuality, rather than reduce it.

According to Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, following Tosafot, Maharshal, Levush, and Arukh ha-Shulhan, it is indeed possible for men to control their sexual drives. The case is several Talmudic sugyot discussing rabbis who had very close relationships with women, saying that to them, the women were like geese. Rabbi Hai Gaon and Sefer ha-Hinukh say no one today can say this, while Ritva says only individuals can say it of themselves ad-hoc. But the previously listed authorities (Tosafot, et. al.) say that "kulei alma" relies on the "geese" thesis to permit close relationships between men and women. They say that when men because acclimated to the presence of women, they become inured to the sexuality. Granted, men will still have a strong sexual drive, but it will be under control, and then men will be capable of seeing the women as human beings with whom dialogue is possible. See Rabbi Henkin’s essay in Equality Lost.

I’d add that Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, discussing kol isha, notes that Rambam prohibits kol isha, like etzba ketana, only where there is intention to sexually benefit. Rambam’s own language is that to l’histakel at her etzba ketana or to listen to her singing kedei l’hanot is prohibited. Rabbi Weinberg concludes that therefore, if there is no hana’a, then kol isha is not prohibited in that case. The Ashkenazi authorities in general permitted speaking to women, and prohibited only singing under kol b’isha, because, the Ashkenazim said, there is no hirhur or hana’a in mere speaking. By contrast, Rabbenu Hananel and many other Gaonim and Rishonim held quite reasonably that kol b’isha (literally, "the voice of a woman") includes both speaking and singing of women, without a distinction. So the entire permission to even hear a woman’s speaking voice assumes the male sex drive can be conditioned.

YID POSTS: Rabbi Scott Berman
Rabbi Todd Berman.

Merely with names like this, you have already lost the interst of most orthodox Jews. "Scott"? And "Todd"? For a RABBI??

It’s amazing how some MO Jews dont get this. Many of them also let their clean-shaven rebbeim walk around wearing jeans. They tell you these things, like names, are mere chitzoniyos. WRONG. A community expects moer from tis teachers than it does from ballei battim. I know so many people who agree with so much of MO, including its program of good education and zionism, but dont send their kids there because of this fundamental flaw. (They have disagreements over the mingling of the sexes too, but that’s for another time.)

JLAN POSTS: What I find interesting is not merely that most of them are affiliated with MO educational institutions, but that their views often say exactly what the institutions they are part of (and often steer) believe.

Take for example R’ Harcsztark’s comment (he’s the principal of SAR High School):

"We need curricula that reflect interdisciplinary, this-worldly engagement with Torah texts and to develop a cultural norm of hasmadah."

Now, compare it to this, taken from the mission statement: "Immersing all of its members in a culture of learning and service as participants in the grand conversation between Torah and the world."

Mrs. Kahan’s statement, similarly, reflects Mayanot quite well, while it might not reflect SAR to the same extent.

R’ Flatto (who is associated with Ramaz) seems to be addressing the Ramaz community- necessity to simplify and teach MO ideals (since Ramaz likely has a higher number of non-observant students than the rest of the schools on here).

Obviously people are going to focus on what they know and what they believe. But I’m not sure that there’s any growth through these various articles- Mayanot isn’t going to suddenly pick up Ramaz’s ideals and issues, or vice versa.

What makes a frummer name (say, "Nosson" rather than Natan) better? What, for that matter, makes jeans assur or even bad (or, for that matter, black hats good)?

One of the issues that several the articles tackle in a roundabout way is the problem of "what is Modern Orthodoxy and why should it be followed?" This is an issue that is not tackled nearly enough in MO circles- the question of not merely "why is Modern Orthodoxy acceptable?" but instead "why is Modern Orthodoxy ideal"? Every time that Modern Orthodoxy bows to Hareidi Judaism, even implicitly, as being more authentic, it damages itself. If Modern Orthodoxy is to thrive it must defend itself both from the left and the right, arguing not merely why to follow halacha and how to follow it but also why it is a superior form of Judaism to learn biology and history and Shakespeare and Kant and Kirkegaard than it is to avoid such things. And indeed, why being named Scott or Todd or Natan and/or why wearing a kipah srugah is at the very least equal to being named Shloimie or Toidd or Nosson and/or wearing a black hat.

MBK POSTS: Most Orthodox Jews wouldnt look inside this journal in a million years, even if the names of the rabbis were Shmuel and Yankel, because it is published by YCT (I personally probably would not have had R Gil not posted this). And how about the fact that the Gemara quotes Rav Pappa, Rav Huna, Rav Acha and all kinds of other Babylonian names. Somehow I think those Orthodox Jews that you are referring to do look in the Gemara.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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