Modesty

I happened to see a short segment on Asian Muslim women creating fanciful hijabs. I started to think about Jewish modesty, which requires married women to cover their hair and all females to dress modestly — skirts well below the knees and arms and shoulders covered.

Many liberal women, Jewish and non-Jewish, view this and related practices as expressions of a patriarchal culture. I’ve never seen it that way.

One of the things that is immediately apparent in reading Hebrew scripture is that the first chapters of Genesis present an ideal world, a world which doesn’t even require taking life in order to survive. All of creation is vegan. With a catastrophic human decision in that environment, death enters the world, and every creature is possible prey. The rest of the text works out a plan, with several revisions along the way, for how to live in the real world. With regard to food, the minute meat-eating enters the world, proscriptions enter along with it, showing how to navigate on some basis other than impulse and opportunism.

I’ve formulated several different opinions about modesty along my own path through Judaism, but this morning, this occurred to me: what if female dress simply recognizes a reality and mandates a way to negotiate it, through practices that protect men from their impulses and women from abuse? What if these mandates are simply a bow to evolutionary and biological realities? This view of it is consistent with my understanding of the basic orientation of Hebrew scripture.

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