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?


  1. I apologize in advance if anything above is misrepresented, particularly the views of my brother; I took an hour and a half long discussion and condensed it to three paragraphs.

  2. R Willig, in a shiur posted that can be downloaded from entitled "Women Rabbis #2", says that women should not have any position of leadership or authority based on a psak of the Rambam.
    He also relates a story in which Rav Soloveitchik concedes that it was a halachikly problematic for Golda Meir to be Prime Minister because she was a woman.
    As far as other public roles, such as public speaking, he says it depends on minhag hamakom.

  3. ae - Thank you! Interesting on the Rambam - one of the sources I read implied that the Rambam was fine with leadership positions for women, however, it didn't quote anything or give a source.

    Does anyone have any record of R' Soloveitchik saying that? Or others discussing it?

  4. Definition of the discussion:

    Are we talking "right/wrong", "allowed/not allowed", "good/bad idea"...

  5. G - Truthfully each one.

    First, allowed/not allowed.

    Second, the others. Is it "right" or "wrong" or somewhere in between? Even if it is right, is it a good idea? A bad one? Depends on the person/circumstance?

  6. In that case...CAN OPEN, WORMS EVERYWHERE!

  7. Dear fellas:

    You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning such as this. If you cannot afford an attorney I would suggest keeping your mouth shut.

  8. Are you seriously advocating a continuation of where the current feminist movement has put Western Civilization and Judaism in particular?

    I think you are simply having a difficult time coalescing your western sensibilities with traditional Jewish practice.

  9. Sorry Ezzie but it really is a male-centric view that there is more noticeability to women in public then there is to men. Men may not notice other men particularly, but women do. You might want to read the following if you think it's only my opinion.

  10. G - LOL x2

    Oscar - In all seriousness... Huh!? What does the feminist movement have to do with anything? Where has it put Western Civ. and Judaism in particular, exactly? What western sensibilities?

    ProfK - WADR, in all my experiences from school to work it has been women who have noted and commented the most on other women in positions of power or who were noticeable. It is not male-centric, but rather it has been both sexes who place a greater magnification on whatever noticeable women do while males are given far less of that focus.

    That girls might find a teacher attractive is no different than boys doing the same. I don't think that that disproves that there's more of a focus on women; an attractive male teacher will get comments from women but not men, while an attractive female teacher will get comments from both.

  11. I think it's okay as long as she wears a burqa.

  12. JA - You've always been an extreme Charedi at heart. :)

  13. Women belong either in the kitchen or in my bedroom.

  14. Uh.... For the sake of couresy I will leave my comment which follows as such:

    It is an important topic that I have given much thoought. I have no clue. I think it depends.

    Very satisfying and insightful, I know.

  15. appreciate this relevant to my research.

  16. I have a lot to say but not enough time to coherently put it into a comment. I'm better at talking than writing, anyway.

  17. The basic nugget I took from the story of Deborah was that it is only permissible for a woman to assume a powerful role when the men in her midst are unable or unwilling to do the job. I'm no where near a Torah scholar though, so take my interpretation with a huge grain of salt.

    Above interpretation aside, if it is immodest for a woman to be a VP, then why would it be modest for her to be a CEO? It seems to me that there is no bright line about the appropriate role for women outside of the home unless you are of the opinion that women's only role is to be a wife, mother and homemaker.

  18. Mindy - Join the club.

    Baruch - Enjoy :)

    SaraK - I actually thought you might when I wrote it. Give it a shot. :)

    Fern - That's why my brother thought might be the case.

    Presumably, leadership positions are more problematic (if they are problematic) than other positions because of the attention that is focused on a person in such a position.

  19. (sorry - to clarify, a CEO would be a problem as well)

  20. As G was saying "CAN OPEN, WORMS EVERYWHERE! . . . Anything you say can and will be used against you."

    Actually, it won't be used against *you, specifically,* it'll be used against the Orthodox perspective on women, in general. I'll simply point out that this way of thinking concerning women contributes greatly to keeping borderliners like me from becoming baalot t'shuvah.

    Everything we women do is immodest. Our leadership is immodest. Our clothing is immodest. Our singing voices are immodest. Does the Orthodox community ever say this sort of thing about *men?!* I think it's very telling that the Talmud devotes an entire tractate (?) to Nashim, Women, as if we were just another subject--or object--for men to discuss, and not sister human beings.

    To be blunt, this kind of discussion makes my blood boil. I'm sufficiently older than you to have grown up during the era of the Civil Rights movement. Will Orthodox men act like the racist police of that era and beat up women who dare to refuse to sit in the back of the bus? Will they spray bleach in the eyes of teenaged girls who dare to wear loose pants and short-sleeved shirts in the "wrong" neighborhood? Oh, sorry, I forgot--the modesty mobs have already done both. My nieces in Jerusalem could be the next victims.

    I'm not a michshol, I'm a person, and I won't be part of any movement that won't treat me as one.

  21. Why only focus on Devorah? You say eyshes chayil Friday night? Want to tell me where in it you see a frum woman locked up in her home with no public role to play? The eyshes chayil takes care of home and family, takes care of her household help (that's maids in the plural--gentlemen take note)makes sure her husband is properly honored as he sits among the elders,AND she is a busy successful business woman who goes out into the world and one who speaks words of wisdom. "Zam'mah sadeh vatikachehu,""Sadin astah vatimkor vachagor natnah lak'na'ani," "Piha patchah v'chochma."

    Whether you take Eyshes Chayil to be allegorical or not, it clearly shows what type of activities women were involved in and using Jewish women as the vehicle through which to describe these spiritual manifestations, it is a tribute to them and shows them as energetic, righteous, and capable. Nothing shy and retiring about an eyshes chayil--she rolls up her sleeves and gets the job done, whether public or private.

  22. I second ProfK. When did Jewish law turn the Eishet Chayil/Woman of Valor/Good Wife (pick your translation) into a shrinking violet afraid and/or forbidden to open her mouth in public? (I've read the words of a mother of a Chareidi baal t'shuvah whose own son prohibited her from participating in a Torah discussion at his own Shabbat table because the women of his community are not allowed to speak while men are discussing Torah.) Check out the actual text of Eishet Chayil (Mishlei/Proverbs 31:10-31). "She considers a field and buys it." "She makes linen cloth and sells it; She supplies the merchants with belts." Can a real-estate agent and small-business owner be shy? "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue." No one tells the Eishet Chayil that only men are permitted to discuss Torah. What did the rabbis do to us?

  23. see here for a post by Mar Gavriel on DovBear, linking to a recorded shiur by R' Hershel Schachter where he says that even according to the Rambam, if a woman is the more qualified candidate, you're supposed to pick her.

  24. PS- just a thought. Don't want to get lambasted for it particularly as I would probably be on both sides of the fence:

    In Eishes Chayil the woman is described as, "Sadin Asssiah Va'Timkor/ V'Chagor Nussna L'Kna'ani." "Sheets she made and sold' and belts she gave to the Canaanite."

    I do not recall which meforash said this but I'm pretty sure it's in the standard commentaries that the the Eishes Chayil "gave" the belts to the Canaanite because she commissioned him to sell them or her, being that belts are (or were at the time, at least) a male commodity.

    This doesn't really detract from previous commenter's points, it only points out that a woman must conduct herself appropriately when dealing with men.

    With regard to what Shira Salamone was saying concerning women being a michshol to a man- I think we might be able to reposition this question Ezzie posted a litle bit and say that the basic issue that we might be better off arguing against is: Say the woman is entirely appropriate in her public leadership position; ie- no low cut blouses or overt use of her femininity (and a woman who has reached a level of respectable leadership would probably be someone who does not work with these tools). Is she responsible for possible male unsavory reactions? I honestly hate to bring in something somewhat crass in here, but this ties in perfectly. Don't watch it if you're very pure and delicate.

  25. Ezzie, now that I've calmed down enough to be a bit more rational, I've read your post again, and I must say that we may well agree more than was my original impression. As you wrote, "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." I've already apologized to you on my own blog, so I'm taking this opportunity to apologize on yours--sorry about the major rant.

    What disturbed me was simply that the question was even asked. I don't think one would generally ask whether it's modest for a *man* to be in a high-profile position.

    That said, I disagree with Mindy2, on principle--assuming that a woman dresses in a modest manner and doesn't use her sexuality to advance in her career, I *don't* think she's " . . . responsible for possible male unsavory reactions" I've blogged about this ad nauseum: Why do we expect women, but not men, to control themselves? Who died and left us in charge? All I'm saying is that I don't believe that there's any any acceptable excuse for an adult male not to act as an adult.

  26. Shira, I didn't say she was responsible.

    I *asked* if she was responsible.

    I am still completely uninformed in this matter. I have no opinion but I ca contribute a little.

    Ach everyone just call me Mindy! :)

  27. Shira - As noted to Shira on her own post, I think she misread much of the post at first in terms of what the point was and what the question at hand was. Moreover, men are no different in almost any point as noted in the post.

    ProfK - You probably can't learn much from Eishes Chayil which is almost assuredly allegorical; it has many contradicting sentiments. Then again, perhaps you can learn a woman can be any of those things.

    Mindy - I think that's part of the Q. :)

  28. its amazing to me that noone ever considered another explanation to "Kol Kevuda Bas Melech Pnima". But then I remind myself that males expounded this verse, thereby automatically assuming that it was directed to woment; that womens should remain in the home and out of site, lest they G-d forbid distract a man and cause him to have negative thoughts. Perhaps, in fact, this is actually meant as a reminder to MEN that atlthough women have "distracting" exteriors, their true beauty lies within. A thought most males in society today should consider.