The Confused Sexuality Policies of Orthodox Jews

The Jewish Standard in Teaneck has been embroiled in a vocal and public debate and dispute over the announcement of a gay wedding. The editor and publisher appear to the public to be confused and vacillating over the matter after a "firestorm" of criticism from Orthodox rabbis. It's not their fault. It's the fault of the Orthodox rabbis who appointed themselves guardians of public policies on sexuality in the Jewish community and then could not articulate a viable, logical policy. That could confuse anyone, and it does.

Just to illustrate how mixed up the self-crowned spokesmen are, the statement was repeated over and over that the announcement of a gay wedding "caused pain and consternation" in their Orthodox communities. What? Note that the actual wedding and the underlying issue it illustrates is not what troubled the "deep sensitivities within the traditional/ Orthodox community." It was the announcement in a local paper. Confused? We sure are and so were Jamie Janoff and Rebecca Boroson at the Jewish Standard. But it was not their fault.

The Orthodox community is profoundly mixed up about sex.

Yehuda Mirsky wrote a column in JPost that demonstrates some of the confusion among Orthodox Jews over public policies that relate to sexuality. He speaks about the two main policies that contribute to Orthodox confusion over sexuality, namely, segregation of the sexes and rules of modesty (called tzniut in Hebrew). He asks, "Where is the ‘tzniut’?" and opines, "True modesty should not attempt to erase women, whether in the recesses of Mea She’arim, or through their objectification in the aggressive world of advertising."

The author decries the segregation of sidewalks in Orthodox areas of Jerusalem (now illegal according to the courts) and he rails against secular society too:
...YET THERE can be no denying that it is tied to a corresponding extremism in secular society. The objectification of women in extreme haredi practices is more than matched by the objectification of women to which we are subjected day and night by the colossal apparatus of marketing and advertising. And that apparatus is taking over the public sphere in its own way, with massive billboards and inescapable ads which forcibly revamp the public sphere no less than do the mehitzot of Mea She’arim....
Confused? You should be. Forcing your women to walk on another sidewalk or to sit in the back of the bus is not the analogous in any way to putting up a billboard, no matter how much you deem that act to be tasteless.

Back to the trouble in Teaneck. I'm thinking, maybe the Orthodox are feeling their own confusion when they rant in public about a gay wedding announcement. After all, when you send boys to same-sex yeshivas and when you seat men and boys together and every day have them drape themselves in shawls for prayer; and when you hide women from view and have them neutralize their sexuality with long and loose clothing... maybe you are encouraging same sex attractions. Ya think? And maybe now you are feeling guilty. And maybe, at the very least, that makes you confused.

Giant billboards with pretty women do not offend me. They do not objectify women nor are they expressions of extreme secularism. They are not confusing at all. They are effective ads meant to attract attention to sell products.

Rabbis ought to consider carefully that their policies that too rigorously restrict the mingling of boys and girls, men and women, may lead to confused sexuality, which in turn can produce true "pain and consternation" and not the holiness or sanctity that they seek.


Daniel said...

hopefully they'll stop having interfaith wedding announcement.

Shades of Gray said...

"The Orthodox community is profoundly mixed up about sex."

I do not agree with this very-general statement.

However, I would love to see an open, fair-sided treatment of the general topic of "Sexuality and the Orthodox Community", that contains on the one hand, psychological depth and respect for the maturity of the reader, and on the other hand, is sensitive to different communities, both to the people, as well as to the Torah values they believe in.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

Sure, go ahead and discuss.

Shades of Gray said...


Some more specific observations:

1) I don't see anything wrong with the Orthodox Jewish public's objection to the Jewish Standard's advertisement of a gay marriage.

2) One Orthodox rabbi has recently written in the Jewish Press(see link) about what he sees as problems inherent in the new, extreme modesty standards that some have adopted, comparing it to a rubber-band:

"Eventually, it snaps, and we become a people that are defined by our eccentricities rather than our wisdom, by behavior that is weird rather than rational, and by our segregation from society rather than by our integration in it and elevation of it."


3) What might perhaps solve many problems would be a more open approach towards sexual education, such as more parents making use of Sarah Diament's recent book, which has approbations from respected rabbis in the Yeshivah University world, as well as from Rabbi Dr. AJ Twerski.

In support of both the already positives of the Orthodox Jewish approach(es) to sexuality, as well as any need for improvement in healthy attitudes towards sexuality, the following is the conclusion of a study done by experienced and trained researchers(Dr. Michelle Friedman, et. al, "Observant Married Jewish Women and Sexual Life: An Empirical Study"):

"... Our work, however, highlights the need to encourage healthy sexual attitudes and communication skills in the observant Jewish community. This is a broad educational goal to be shared by parents and institutions such as schools and camps. Whatever their differences, lay and religious leaders across the denominations would serve their communities well by focusing on abuse awareness, prevention, and treatment, as well as positive attitudes toward human sexuality. "

Tzvee Zahavy said...

good and fine. we need books and education, but teaching what values? it's the confusion about the correct content that troubles me, as i said above

Shades of Gray said...

"we need books and education, but teaching what values?"

Sexuality is a broad topic, and I agree that within Orthodoxy, there can be somewhat different approaches for different communities, so perhaps it's hard to speak of a single approach and value (regarding marital intimacy, for example, R. Dov Linzer discussed different philosophical approaches in a recent YCT Yom Iyun, available online; one might also argue that different approaches towards sexual education reflect different values about the topic).

However, your post focuses on broad, different issues which are not necessarily related. The new, extreme, modesty standards in Israel, whether one thinks they are justified or not, are unrelated to Teaneck.

Also, the issue of any SSA in same-gender yeshivas is unrelated to the negative reaction to publicizing Jewish gay marriages; if there would be an objection towards publicing intermarriage, non-kosher resturants, etc., I wouldn't either read into it any "confusion", and I see the objection as understandable and valid(this week's Jewish Week editorial by Gary Rosenblatt also agrees that the Jewish Standard mishandled the situation).

I agree that the issue of Jewish gay symposium in YU and the subsequent Statement of Principles which were discussed in the media natrually brings up the issue of SSA in gender-separated yeshivos, as well the more general subjects of sexual repression and halachic observance, or even more broadly, mental-health and Judaism(which incidentally, YU is having a symposium about).

However, while the topics may be related, I wouldn't go so far as to say that any supposed communal confusion over SSA in same-gender yeshivos, is behind any Orthodox objection to the Jewish Standard's advertisement.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

i appreciate your thoughtful comments. perhaps i can clarify both what i see as the connection and the confusion. orthodox leaders have a clear obligation to instruct their followers on how to comport themselves in their observances and in their relations with others. and they may tell their people whatever they wish. i don't think they are sending clear messages to their own members.

when they come to the community paper, the jewish standard or they go out to the public street in jerusalem and start to instruct people who are not orthodox on how to act - that is where the second level of confusion starts. it is reasonable for the public or the journalists to ask, why are these orthodox rabbis telling us what to do? we are not their members or followers. and then when these rabbis say to jews who are not orthodox that you must do what we say because you have hurt us - that is where the third level of confusion begins. the simple answer is - no you have no right to tell us what to do - and that is what the court told the haredim in jerusalem. and that is what ultimately and unfortunately the jewish news media will tell the orthodox. we are not your members, go away. the orthodox confusion is at work on many levels. or am i wrong?

evanstonjew said...

I thought your post was quite valuable. I do have some quibbles. I don’t think the Orthodox community is profoundly mixed up about sex. While I am not privy to their sex lives, there is really no reason to believe that it has any special features or perversions. Segregation of the sexes, the rules of modesty and the erasure of women from much of public life is part and parcel of the patriarchal domination of women. It isn’t directly related to the sexual activities of the population, being mostly about male power and need for domination. I agree with you that tzniyus isn’t a simple case of objectification.
The effect and maybe the point of the erasure of women is to create a homosocial society where bonds of friendship and connection between men play a large part in religious life. I would go a step further and suggest that in some instances homoerotic feelings are involved. Homoeroticism, despite the provocative connotations of the word, is a far cry from homosexuality, which first and foremost involve same sex sexual activity. There is no evidence that I know of that shows non co-ed yeshivas contribute to homosexuality.

Shades of Gray said...

"the simple answer is - no you have no right to tell us what to do - and that is what the court told the haredim in jerusalem. and that is what ultimately and unfortunately the jewish news media will tell the orthodox"

Garry Rosenblatt in the Jewish Week("Tolerance, Tradition Collide In Same-Sex Union Row",
linked below) frames the issue as one of resolving sensitivities of different communities rather than one of Orthodox coercion. I see it the same as the UJA serving kosher at their public functions; they are publicly respecting tradition rather than persecuting gays, or those who enjoy treif food.


In general, Haredim vs. secular in Israel is different than the situation here; there are less confrontations and polarizations in America; unlike in a Jewish State, people don't fight over army issues or municpality allocations. It might be easier to have good will in the USA as opposed to Israel, although I would never give up on the Israeli sitaution either.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

thank you for your important quibbles. i'm trying to puzzle out what is going on at home and abroad, specifically what is behind the idea that rabbis have that they can and must go out in the street (or to the newspaper) and assert exactly what you describe nicely - the values of their private world - on the general public -- telling the editors what to publish, telling the street traffic where to walk. i project that this is a profound confusion of their authority and roles magnified by guilt and doubt over what they have created within the walls of their synagogues and yeshivas - almost what used to be called a nervous breakdown.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

shadesof: you are correct - the two contexts are quite different. the similarity is that in both cases the orthodox got the idea that they can tell people what to do in the public, not just in the synagogue or yeshiva. why in these cases do they make that bad judgment, overstepping the limits of their domains? that's the item that i want to parse here and now.

Yehudah Mirsky said...

Dear Tzvee- thanks for noticing and commenting on my Jerusalem Post piece. You are certainly right that as a matter of law there is, or should be, a very big difference between posting a billboard (which is a form of free speech) and sex-segregation in buses, sidewalks, etc. The point I was trying to make, though perhaps not clearly enough, is that the extreme gender practices being adopted by some elements of the Haredi world are, as a sociological matter, dialectically related to the hypersexualization of Israeli society and marketing- indeed Israeli society is far less inhibited on these matters than is the US, where some residual elements of the Puritan ethic still hold sway. (The Haredi practices are reactive, of course. But I sometimes suspect that there may be common roots to the current Haredi and secular fixations on the body as such.) I was also trying to articulate an ethic of tzniut that would be critical of both extremes, again, not as a matter of law, but of sensibility and educational outlook. (Some of these ideas were elaborated on by my wife, Tamar Biala, in an essay in Meorot Journal several months ago.)
Thanks again

Tzvee Zahavy said...

Yehuda, I am glad that you commented and clarified your views. I at first was hesitant to criticize you opinion because I could tell you were seeking a middle ground. That is admirable and above reproach. I was looking for an example of confusion over matters relating sexuality and it seemed that you statement fit the bill. I'm not expert enough to judge which society is less puritanical and anyhow that's not my concern. I do think that we orthodox have evinced a lot of confusion over sexuality, which you arguments demonstrated, even though they were so well intentioned. Keeping men and women physically separated does not equate with an ethic in my view. Nor do long sleeves on women's clothing. These are externalities, superficial, quick and dirty means to make it look as if an ethic has been instlilled. Beneath the surface there is much confusion, not clarity, ethical or otherwise. The issue is so clearly surfaced in the gay wedding announcement dispute here in Teaneck. The argument that the Orthodox joined was over the notice in the paper, i.e. how it looks, not over the underlying lifestyle. We can infer many things for sure from what you and others try to say about these matters. But my main concern is that we have to cut through so much confusion to get to the points, it is exhasperating.