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The Pseudo-Science of Tznius

I’ve done some writing and editing for Vivien Resofsky, an Australian Jewish social worker who champions evidence-based prevention and treatment of child sexual assault.

Vivien has sensitized me to a problem in Jewish society wherein pseudoscientific answers are brought to bear on serious criminal and social problems that require a scientific approach.

One of these pseudoscientific answers is tznius, or modesty.

As a human being I believe that modesty is an important value in life.

I agree that it is important to teach both men and women the value of modesty, and its broader meaning: Despite what superficial or badly educated people think, it is not supposed to be about “slut-shaming.” Modesty is about putting God first, and your own ego never.

The problem however is that modesty has been used by rabbis as a lens through which Jewish people should understand and respond to the prevalence of sexual assault in today’s society.

Writing for the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Eliyahu Safran just published “Modesty In The Age of Abuse,” in which he explains this week’s parsha and its relevance to current events.

His focus is on Genesis 32:12, Yaakov’s prayer to God with regard to Esav. Yaakov repeats the word “miyad” — “from the hands of” — twice.

“Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau.”

The Torah does not repeat words without a reason. The meaning of the repetition, says Rabbi Safran, is that Yaakov is praying to God for salvation from two dangers: Esav’s military force, and Esav’s outstretched hand.

For it is when Esav extends the arm of “brotherly love” that Jews are vulnerable to assimilating and losing our distinct religious identity and traditions.

Following on that, says Safran, Jews must guard their eyes from the sexual temptations of the world of Esav.

So far, so good although I would argue that this type of thinking is why non-Jews hate Jews sometimes; they perceive us as deeply unfriendly and disrespectful.

I don’t think Rabbi Safran is trying to say that Jews should reject the values we share with non-Jews, but that is how the message often comes out from the Orthodox community — throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In any case, Safran then goes on to link sexual promiscuity with sexual assault, stating that “abusive relationships” are a manifestation of human beings’ yetzer hara (evil inclination):

“Perhaps no terrain, no area, no aspect of life is more fraught, more uncertain or has greater potential for moral error than our sexual behavior. Correspondingly, no other area of our lives has such affinity with the yetzer hara….Which brings us to this unique moment in history. We have politicians who transgress into abusive relationships. We have the most powerful men in Hollywood, in business, in media, even in religion behaving in ways that make righteous people cringe.”

In Rabbi Safran’s “formula,” which represents the type of thinking I learned in yeshiva as a child, lack of modesty turns to lack of restraint turns to abuse. But from a scientific point of view, this thinking is incorrect.

In fact, sexual predators do not suffer from a lack of tznius. They are simply sick people. Their motivation is not sexual fulfillment, but rather some other satisfaction that non-predators find it hard to understand: power, domination, and a repetition compulsion from when they themselves were abused.

On the plus side, Rabbi Safran warns not to blame the victim for assaults, as was plentifully done among Orthodox Jews in the past. (“What were you wearing?”)

“It is not the fault of the person who is assaulted when she is assaulted, no matter what she is wearing. One need only ask the girls and women abused in frum homes or in girls’ religious schools to know this to be true.”

He also warns us not to rely entirely on the concept of yichud (avoiding being alone with the opposite sex) because even though the idea makes sense, the underlying belief was that women are at fault if they somehow fail to keep a distance: 

“The real problem with using the religious concept of yichud as a means of protecting ourselves from sexual predation is that yichud was created by men on the assumption that women are a temptation to sin — not that they are vulnerable to attack.”

The real problem with Rabbi Safran’s column is that his solution does not go far enough: Victims are still “stuck” relying on passivity, on a model based on prayer without the balancing hand of worldly law enforcement:

“So where does this leave us? Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav.”

This is so even as Rabbi Safran even admits that the Orthodox community has failed its most vulnerable:

“The sum total of these transgressions cry out that we have failed our sisters and our daughters; failed at honoring them, failed at protecting them.”

If Rabbi Shafran wants to save the vulnerable, here is what his column should say:

  • Schools and synagogues and Jewish community centers need to do better background checks.
  • People who are accused of sexual assault need to be reported to the police right away.
  • The community needs to change its mental model from worrying mostly about the reputation of the accused to worrying mostly about the plight of the victim.
  • There should be closer partnerships between Jewish rabbinic authorities and the police. 
  • Abusers are most likely to be known to the victim and domestic abuse training needs to go beyond signs in the bathroom of the shul.
  • There should be safe houses in the community plentiful enough for victims to escape to shelter safely.

On and on and on and on it goes.

Rabbi Shafran has a powerful voice in the world of Torah observance. He, and leaders like him, should act on what they know about the sorry state of abuse prevention and criminal prosecution when it comes to sexual assault, particularly of children.

It isn’t only about tznius, or yichud, and the community knows it.

It isn’t about sexy sexiness, that’s just a mental model, and the community knows that too.

It isn’t about staying away from the goyim, either; there are many Esavs among us. (Remember, Esav and Yaakov were brothers.)

It is about taking what we know to its logical end.

The community needs to step up and do the right thing. Let’s stop demonizing the secular world. Let’s use its plentiful data.

Let’s protect the weak and put the perpetrators where they belong — away from the non-offending population.

While we’re at it, let’s bankrupt the institutions that actively facilitate and enable the coverup of crimes against children — and give the money to the victims.

It is high time to shut down the “child rape assembly line,” using every weapon in the arsenal.

Copyright 2017 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal’s own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Photo by Aline_geny via Pixabay (Creative Commons CC0).

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