Something went wrong in the Israeli town of Ramat Bet Shemesh. A crowd of ultra-orthodox men, offended by what they deemed the immodest dress of an 8-year-old girl walking to school, shouted at her that she was a prostitute. And then they spat on her. They spat on a child. Can you imagine? Clearly, something went very, very wrong. As a psychologist and member of the observant Jewish community, I am trying to understand what.
Condemnation is easy. It’s kind of like spitting with words. In contrast, understanding is hard, but worthwhile. So, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of these very religious men and try to understand their reaction to the young girl’s “immodesty.”
A preoccupation with modesty is usually a way to protect against sexual thoughts. Such appears to be the case with this community of Ultra Orthodox Jewish men alarmingly preoccupied with female modesty, even when the female in question is a pre-pubescent child.
In ultra-orthodox communities, men are instructed not to have sexual thoughts about women until they are married, and then only about their wives. They are taught not to look at women or even listen to women singing because looking and listening can lead to sexual thoughts, which might lead to forbidden sexual behaviors. Even after marriage, sex and even affection must only occur in the most private and hidden ways. It is not permitted, for example, for an ultra-orthodox couple to walk down the street holding hands. In some very religious neighborhoods, the couple could be verbally or even physically attacked for holding hands in public.
There is an old joke: A man comes to see a psychologist who gives him some Rorschach cards and tells the man to say what he sees. The man reports, in card after card, that he sees naked people having sex in all different positions. The psychologist comments, “You are seeing sexual themes in all the cards,” and the man replies, “Doctor, they’re YOUR dirty cards!”
Similarly, in a highly restrictive environment where all expressions of love and sexuality are forbidden, there is a paradoxical effect causing men to see sex everywhere they look; in other words, to have “sex on the brain.” Thus, even an 8-year-old girl, whose elbows and ankles may be showing, can trigger a sexual response leading to disgust and condemnation.
Tzniut, or modesty, is an important concept in Orthodox Judaism. The concept of Tzniut includes not only how to dress but also which parts of the body may or may not be exposed. Tzniut applies to both men and women but mostly focuses on women and their obligations to be modest so as not to incite sexual thoughts in men.
However, the man is also obligated, according to Tzniut, not to look at women. In other words, the problem is not just that the woman is attractive. The man, must control his urge to stare, and must control his erotic thoughts. And if a man is extremely preoccupied with a woman’s modesty it is impossible to not also be preoccupied with sexual thoughts. But it has become increasingly difficult for the Ultra-Orthodox to remain separate from their more modern neighbors. So the walls have to be built higher and the injunctions stricter. What began as ritual and custom has become transformed into an obsession.
I don’t think it is humanly possible to suppress all sexual thought. In the musical, The Book of Mormon, a young missionary is disturbed by sexual thoughts he is having toward another male missionary. In the hilarious song, “Turn it Off,” he is advised by his fellow missionaries:
When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head,
Don’t feel those feelings!
Hold them in instead Turn it off, like a light switch
just go click!
Really whats so hard about that?
Turn it off! (Turn it off!)
The audience laughs at the song because we know that it’s not possible to just “turn it off.”. But like the young Mormon missionary, that is exactly what young ultra-orthodox men are told they must do. When sexual thoughts are quashed they come out in strange and disturbing forms, like spitting on 8-year-old girls.
As a psychologist and member of the observant Jewish community trying to understand what went wrong I know I don’t have the answer. But I also know we have to engage the men in this community to help them accept the inevitability and normality of sexual thoughts and feelings, even for those who follow the rituals and customs of modesty. And, most important, to help them see that sexual thoughts and feelings are not the same as actions, because when a crowd of men acts by spitting on a child it is clear evidence that those feelings are out of control.