Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Women in Public - Tznius or Not?

My brother OD and I recently concluded a long, drawn out discussion that I will spare you all from having to read. However, the main thrust of the discussion was a topic that I think is both interesting and important, and am curious as to what people think, feel, think, and - for those who have the background and knowledge for it - know from sources and discussion from throughout Jewish history and in Halacha (Jewish law) regarding the subject.

We were discussing a variety of subjects, from the Lehman meltdown to voting trends to AIG's takeover by the Federal Reserve to the Sarah Palin effect. While talking about Palin, and noting that he is a fan and thinks that she brings a lot to the ticket, he questioned whether it might not be tznius in general for a woman to be in such a high profile position. (In retrospect, I should have reminded him that she's only going to be the VP, and whoever hears about the VP!? But alas, I didn't do so.) This started the discussion, so:
Are women in public* positions a breach of the ideals of tznius?

* - high profile: whenever the term is used below that is what it means; not merely women out in public

My brother felt that they seem to be. He gave as a possible proof the discussion about the Moabites and why only males cannot marry into the Jewish nation, while females can. [In short:] Within that discussion, the Talmud cites the idea of kol kvuda bas melech pnima; a woman's glory is inside. The reason the Moabite women hadn't come out was because such a thing was immodest for them to - they stayed in the camp. Therefore, since they hadn't been cruel (as the men had) to the Jews, they were not banned from the Jewish people.

To him, the various female figures throughout Tanach are not proofs against the idea. For example, Sarah, while a major figure, also was someone who stayed in the tent. The figure he found to be most difficult was Deborah, who a shofetes, or judge, and even then, one can argue that it was a necessity that needed to be filled, rather different from someone choosing to seek out a major position.

I felt that the issue with women in public was not a hardline of "women in public is not tznius", but a much finer line of how a person acts when in the public eye. It is not a matter of being in public that is immodest, but one who seeks the public eye for no reason is by definition lacking some type of tznius, in that they are focusing attention on themselves for no apparent reason. For instance, a woman who is bringing attention to herself in the public domain while not doing anything in particular might be breaking the ideal of tznius, while a woman running for vice President who obviously attracts a lot of attention by definition might not be.

Both my brother and I noted that if I were correct, then there is no reason it should be different for men. Men are equally required to be modest in their dealings, in their presentation, in how they do things. Except, as my brother asked, what then does bas melech pnima mean? I argued that despite everything, there is still an extra level of modesty required by women because of their greater noticability; while both a man and a woman might do the same thing, there is certainly more attention paid to it when it is a woman doing it. This split, however, is not a great one, and I couldn't find any real backing for it. At this point, we each had our own leanings on the subject but found the other's position to have serious holes: I questioned the focus in Tanach on many women in high profile positions, while he questioned what then the idea of kol kvuda bas melech pnima means according to the Talmud.

Therefore, I am putting the question to the readership: Is there something about a woman in a high profile position that strikes you as being a little off? Immodest? Not immodest, but not very modest, either? Is the immodesty only in how a person acts and what a person makes of situations? What does bas melech pnima mean to you?

While I could end the post there, I should note that after we got off the phone, I did a quick search on the term bas melech pnima. Most of the time it was used had no applicability to this; many times it was extended in ways that boggle the mind (such as not naming a street after a woman).

Jonathan Rosenblum in an old Cross-Currents piece seemed to lean toward the explanation I had used:
Kol Kevuda Bas Melech Pnima, say Chazal. A great Torah figure once pointed out that the language of Kavod (glory) always implies some aspect of gilui (revelation). The glory of a bas Yisrael is her modesty with respect to the entire world.
This seems to jive with the idea that it is a woman's modesty in action that the Chazal are referring to, not an idea that women in public positions are immodest. R' Mordechai Willig, in a short discussion on Shavuos, discusses the actual line itself and also seems to link it more toward action than that idea:

Hashem confined His revelation to Moshe, speaking to him from within the tent (Ohel Moed), because modesty is beautiful.

The proof text, "and walk humbly with your God" (Micha 6:8), shows that Hashem, too, walks humbly and modestly. The honor of Torah itself, referred to as the bas melech, the child of Moshe the king, is inward -"Pnima". (Tehilim 45:14).

The beauty of modesty (tznius) is cited by Rashi (Shmot 34:3) in the context of Kabalas HaTorah itself. The first luchos (tablets), which were given publicly, with great noise and fanfare, were overcome by the evil eye, and destroyed. The permanence of the second luchos (tablets) which were given privately to Moshe, demonstrates that nothing is more beautiful than modesty.

Interestingly, he doesn't even use the pasuk about women at all, but rather about the Torah. However, the Talmud seems to clearly have felt that it can be applied to women or that it is about women; it seems that R' Willig is the one extending it here to learn something from it about modesty. Then again, his lesson assumes that the line is about modesty in general.

What was perhaps the most interesting find was an old Mail Jewish written by a close family friend of ours, R' Dr. Aryeh Frimer (also known for his writings on women in halacha). It's worthwhile to read the whole thing, where he lists numerous sources, but the money quote is near the beginning:
Many of the respondants to Shaul Wallach's discussion of a woman's place, correctly indicated that the concept "Kol kevudah" is a relative concept according to many many poskim. I will give a long list below, but allow me to merely quote the noted halakhicist Rav Shaul Yisraeli Shlitah who writes:

"It would also seem that the Boundaries of Kol Kevudah bat melekh penimah depend on local custom and only in communities where women never leave their homes is behavior to the contrary to be considered improper. However, in our generation religious women work in offices, hospitals, kindergartens and schools and yet no one objects."
Lest someone argue that there is a fine line between a job such as the ones mentioned above and a leadership position, he discusses in the middle sources about such positions:
These Poskim discuss the issue of kol kevudah head on. However, the issue comes up in a variety of other ways in our integrated society. Thus, to the above add the poskim who allow women to assume community leadership positions (elected or otherwise)
...and he proceeds to leave such a list. This seems to conclude that it is in fact a machlokes, with some poskim holding that it is perfectly fine while others draw a line at some lower point.

So again, I'm wondering what people think - is there something about a woman in a high profile position that is wrong because it shows a lack of modesty?