Navigate to News section

A Safer Space for Women in Orthodox Judaism’s Rules for Sex

‘Do we really imagine that true respect for women can survive, let alone thrive, in a world where standard “entertainment” is saturated with their objectification and all too often actual abuse?’

Avi Shafran
October 17, 2018
Orthodox JewsShutterstock
Orthodox JewsShutterstock

The avalanche of rolling heads set off by the #MeToo earthquake proceeds apace. The tumbling orbs have borne the faces of Hollywood figures and political ones, captains of industry and kings of comedy, actors, conductors, authors, jurists, broadcasters, musicians, photographers, chefs and philanthropists. No butchers, bakers or candlestick makers so far. But heads are still coming down the hill.

With all the conviction of Captain Renault astonished at the very notion of gambling at Rick’s Café, some have scratched their heads in wonder at the apparition of widespread debasement of women by controlling men.

But, of course, men without scruples (sadly, all too many members of the gender) in positions allowing them to treat women as playthings have done precisely that since prehistory. The only mildly surprising element here is how that lamentable reality is no less a feature of our supposedly enlightened, progressive, post-patriarchal society, with its proud claim to value and respect women.

Well, now we know that the claim is balderdash. And the fault for that fact lies not only with perpetrators but with us all, men and women alike.

Do we really imagine that true respect for the integrity and honor of women can survive, let alone thrive, in a world where standard “entertainment” fare is saturated with the objectification (and all too often actual abuse) of that half of the population, where women’s skin is used to sell everything from cars and candy to beer and barbecue grills? Where female performers–claiming “liberation” no less–feel compelled to appear on stage in costumes that once would have had them arrested if worn in public? Are the divas offering the public their talents or their bodies?

And we expect their male fans, home from the concerts or looking up from their screens, to respect women? Are we serious?

Those of us who were reared in Orthodox Jewish homes and who hew to traditional Jewish standards, have always regarded “enlightened” society as anything but. Long considered prudish, we in the Orthodox community are now watching the secular mainstream reluctantly embrace lessons about the needs for sexual restraint that once made us the target of their mockery.

“Prudish,” interestingly, seems to derive from the Old French prud, whose adjectival form means “brave.” Now that’s a dated definition deserving of resurrection. It takes considerable courage to abide by the modesty standards of Jewish religious law, or halacha.

Halacha-observant Jews are enjoined to dress in ways that respect and do not flaunt our bodies. We may not so much as touch members of the other sex in a friendly manner, and are precluded by Jewish law from being secluded in a room together with a member of the other sex. Even entertaining sexual thoughts about others to whom one is not married is forbidden.

Bizarre as such “modesty” laws may seem by modern standards, and regardless of whether they are realistic norms for the broader society, they are not, as has often been charged, unnecessary and backward, but rather realistic and wise.

Yes, sexual abuse happens in the Orthodox world as well. But it is relatively rare, and all it takes to understand why is to read the accounts of abused women in the larger realm. Many begin innocently enough, with an invitation to a meal, then to discuss some business venture in a hotel room, followed, perhaps, with a friendly physical contact. In a world where no man and woman who aren’t married to each other may be in an isolated place, and where no touch (short of things like preventing a fall or treating an injury) is permitted, those “guardrails” keep many a masculine muscle car from speeding, much less careering off the road.

As it happens, it’s not just in practical actions, or inactions, that halacha maintains a countercultural stand. The very concept of sexuality in Judaism is qualitatively different from the contemporary world’s approach.

In these “progressive” days, sexuality is perceived pretty much exclusively as a source of pleasure, more consequential, to be sure, than an ocean cruise or a frappuccino, but essentially made of similar stuff. In Judaism, it is a sacred, momentous human power.

And, no less than electricity or nuclear power, it is, in Judaism’s eyes, both wondrously valuable and exceedingly dangerous. So it must be carefully controlled. Electrical wires are insulated and power plants have redundant safety systems. Judaism requires analogous measures for sexuality.

Whether such measures are realistic for our larger world in modern times is arguable. But as to a shift of attitude from seeing sexuality as mere amusement to a recognition of its sacred power, well, if the #MeToo movement serves to catalyze even a crawl in that direction, it will have served an infinitely higher purpose than just shaming the guilty.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.