Modesty: Part One

Modest /Immodest  Modest/Extravagant  Modest/Eccentric  Modest/Improper  Modest/Disgraceful…it’s extreme, but if you grow up in an orthodox community that last pairing makes just as much sense as the others because, if we are to really simplify it…the people who define what it means to be “modest” will not hesitate to define you as a shameful and unfitting (for the community). And that is the problem I have with “modesty” as something definitive and prescribed.

Modesty has been a topic of great importance in my life…I went to Yeshiva (religious jewish day-school) for high school and for most of college. In the orthodox jewish faith one of the most important aspects of being an observant woman is modesty. In the Mishnah (the written compilation of Jewish law that was transmitted verbally), in the Gemara (the documented discussion of the mishnah between the great, ancient masters) and in the various writings by highly esteemed Rabbis over the millenia the idea of a Jewish woman’s modesty is explored in great depth. There are guidelines, suggestions based on derivations from laws, and allusions made in scriptures. There are examples: behaviors modeled by the matriarchs and great women throughout the bible.

In high school in order to determine whether a shirt was appropriate we were told to place our fists along our throats and the point where the fist ends is where the shirt’s collar should be. Our skirts had to cover the knees. Sleeves were preferably to reach the elbow…short sleeves were permssible as long as they werent cap sleeves (afterall, my school was modern orthodox…there was some progressiveness).

The religious college I went to had similar requirements. My gemara teacher actually once kept me after class to ask me to start wearing longer skirts (my knees were showing). I had always been somewhat conservative when I was growing up in terms of my clothing.In secular school I was very critical of the girls who wore tight clothes to show off what was only budding at that time. I would have arguments with the “fast” kids in my classes, saying, “We are only 10 years old! Why don’t you act it? “…Miss Morality Police. So when I went to Yeshiva High school, the dress code made sense to me. I was not interested in the laws that forced us to dress in this way. I just felt that putting boundaries on how you dress was a positive restriction to place on teenagers. I felt it was important to shift the focus from the raging hormones to the actual purpose of being at school…learning.

But something started changing in my mind as I got older and I was exposed to more of the world, and most importantly, as I grew into this skin of womanhood. When the Rabbi in my college kept me after class to ask me to dress differently, I was mortified. In high school male teachers were not allowed to comment about female dress. They could report any issues to a female faculty member who would then address the issue with the girl. When the Rabbi spoke to me I was struck with profound sense of shame. This shame turned to guilt and also a feeling of being dirty…”who am I to dress inappropriately while studying these holy scriptures?”, I thought. Disgusting.

But I thought about it further…and I remembered something that happened to my friend. One morning she was changing in a bathroom. Someone walked into the bathroom, and by chance my friend’s Rabbi happened to be passing the door at just such an angle that he saw my friend. My friend plummeted into a deep shame and depression that lasted for days if not weeks. She was filled with self loathing. She endlessly castigated herself, “how could I have let this happen? why did this happen to me?” I was shocked at how severely she judged herself. Clearly, what happened was not in her hands. But she believed, “It must have happened to me because my thinking is in the wrong place, my consciousness has fallen.” She seemed to think that  somewhere inside of her she was depraved, and that as a wake-up call this massive embarrassment had to occur to set her on the right path. I guess we all believe what works for us, and yes, things do happen to convey a message to us. But the way I felt about myself when the Rabbi spoke to me about my skirt and the abuse my friend inflicted on herself…cannot be the types of feelings that give us greater self-love and self-respect.

And so I came to a conclusion

Modesty is a very subjective issue…

I’d say I have been accepting this truth only in the past few months. It’s a provocative declaration to make when you’ve lived a good portion of your life following specific guidelines of modesty. I think following guidelines are useful when you do not fully know yourself, your skin, your mind, your needs, your sexuality, your taste and your relation to the world around you. But following guidelines also brings us to a particular problem…once you reach a point where you have more self knowldge, or at least the capacity for it, do the guidelines let loose their grip on you so that you may explore the important questions of the self? Or, do the guidelines latch on to your mechanisms, overtaking them like a virus, preventing you from exploring what your true senses and true values are? Scary thought…

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the Splendid Earth

I am choosing to write about motherhood and the unique power of women to bring life into this world. I am placing significant value and importance to this power that many women have, but the emphasis I am placing on it is for the purposes of the argument I am making in this article: one of the fundamental tenets of patriarchal societies is that women are subordinates because childbearing renders them weak and vulnerable.

Childbearing, however, is NOT definitive of Womanhood. I absolutely believe that beyond social constructs, and beyond even biology and medicine, Womanhood has a mystical existence…fluid and yet distinct, beautiful, multifaceted and Whole. I hope  that those of us who may not be able to experience motherhood will not feel offended or disheartened.  My focus here is narrow and merely conceptual. I invite you to explore my thoughts and share your own.

With great love and respect for each of us, Whatever powers we possess are, in truth, vital and great, and I celebrate them with you.

Isn’t it incredible? A cluster of cells become implanted in a woman‘s  body. She is then able to nourish, protected and transform this cluster of cells, giving it the time and space to grow and ultimately enter this world an entire human being! What a magnificent power! Women certainly feel what a feat this is…their bodies change and redirect resources to support the life (lives) she is carrying…we see this phenomenon all around us. But unless we are directly witnessing it, do we stop and appreciate for a moment the profundity of what is happening? In ancient pagan religions there were many deities that represented the earth, fertility, abundance, and fruitfulness. All of these deities were depicted in the form of women :)

Mother earth, right? Think of planting a seed. The seed cannot grow into its full potential without being ROOTED in soil. In Kabbalah (though certainly not exclusively in Kabbalah), the energy of females is referred to as “malchut”, which can be translated literally as “kingdom”, but also can be defined symbolically as the ground, the earth. And this makes sense given the different attributes of women.

But there is another aspect to being the “earth” or the “soil”: an element of passivity. Earth and soil are naturally “grounded”, (note the pun). Earth is essentially stationary and, (except in the case when it has been angered and rises in defiance causing destruction and chaos in the form of earthquakes – an idea I’d like to explore a little later), earth is passive and receptive. Passivity suggests vulnerability, and perhaps, even a sense of powerlessness; interestingly, women are the “weaker” and “vulnerable” sex.

I’d like to reconcile this dichotomy that lies within the physical existence of a woman. What great power she actually holds! Sterility in males tends to be a more devastating issue. Compared to the options available for a woman who is facing sterility, many men who are sterile will face the reality that their genetic material will simply not be passed on to a future generation. While this can happen to a woman, even a woman who does not have eggs could technically carry and nourish an embryo to birth. And yet, note, how this very ability, the ability to contribute to and then carry a child to term, is also the very attribute of women that has been used as a shackle to tie them down and declare them the inferior citizens of the world. Wouldn’t you say it’s ironic? People in patriarchal societies have taken this unique ability and with it labeled women as passive, vulnerable, weak…and ultimately subordinate to men, who don’t bear this “affliction”.

The earth can appear submissive. If we litter it, if we saturate it with toxins, if we neglect it, it seems like it will just absorb all that we do. One of the greatest, if not The Greatest ecological disaster, the BP oil spill…people are “working” to find a solution, but meanwhile the damage is being done, the earth is taking the beating. Women can seem weak in much the same way. Rape, abuse, sex trafficing, female genital mutilation, honor killings, virginity tests…these are all signs of a general belief in our world that women are passive and will be recepients of whatever is given.

What people forget is that there are consequences to this abuse. Soils will not be fruitful if they are eroded, crops will not be healthy if the roots are being fed toxins…the earth may seem passive but it has memory and what you give it is what you get. Earthquakes, tsunamis, all kinds of natural disasters, pandemics, mutations, defects…and lately most of these types of occurences can be traced to abuse of the planet…a lack of respect for the planet.

Two recent articles sparked my thoughts on women and childbearing. The first was a Sunday Times article on three women who weighed the option of in-vitro fertilization and subsequent single motherhood, to the extent that they acquired sperm for that purpose (from donor 8282). But just as they were about to take the plunge, each of these women “magically” met and had children with men (marriage is in there somewhere).

The second article was the cover story of the May 3rd edition of Time Magazine, The 50th Anniversary of THE PILL. The article outlined the history of contraceptives leading up to the pill and its journey through our society up to its present day status, medically, legally, morally and socially. I loved this article because it was successful at portraying the interplay and co-dependence of “the pill” and the various social progressions in the realm of feminism in this timeframe (1950-today). Many people attribute the women’s liberation movement to this tiny little pill. I don’t know that I can fully embrace that…it rings to me like an oversimplification. And yet, the pill was a tiny sized miracle: Women could finally make choices, act deliberately, and most importantly, act with a greater sense of certainty when it came to their sexuality and its relationship to reproduction.

But with power (the power to make choices) comes responsiblity, and almost immediately, the necessity for accountability and defense for your decision. Before, it had been only The Men and God who had executive rights over a woman’s body. What a revolution, what a shock to the system to overturn that norm…to figuratively slap them on their wrists and say, “no, no…I am the source, I make the decisions.”

My objective today is not to evaluate the Pill, it’s consequences or pros and cons. Rather, I’d like to celebrate a movement and a tool that, to whatever extent it may be, granted many women the power which, in truth was always their’s…was their birthright. We can muse about the different reasons why partiarchal ideologies and societies found it convenient to convince women they were powerless vessels…it’s so easy to buy into flawed thinking and to lose sight of reality. When we look at pregnancy and motherhood as something which defines women as weaker and vulnerable we have subscribed to patriarchal renditions of life and creation. Motherhood is not only a glorious power, but it is part of what makes women powerful, indispensible and splendid beings.

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