Sacrificing Souls on the Altar of Modesty

In my work as a therapist serving an almost completely religiously affiliated population, one issue that arises very, very often, is the hot-button issue of “modesty” – or as it’s called in Hebrew: Tzniyus/ tzniyut.

When we talk about this, it often revolves around unhealthy and even traumatic ways that clients feel these messages were conveyed to them within their families, communities, or schools. In particular, women and girls often felt humiliated by the way in which some aspect of a religious modesty breach was pointed out to them when it was a personal confrontation. There is a tremendous amount to be discussed with regard to the issue of modesty as a value, as a trigger, the way it’s relayed, and the way it’s received. And I hope to do some of that in an upcoming talk.


But I was struck by a Rashi in this week’s parsha which I’ve seen many times before, but never appreciated in this way:


It says to construct an altar not with steps but with a ramp, so that “you won’t reveal your nudity on it.” Revealing nudity, gilui arayos, is the phrase used to reference sexually forbidden relationships.

Rashi says that walking on steps would cause the priest to need to take wider steps, which in theory could expose leg. He goes on to say that it’s not really true, since the priestly garments included pants, but it’s here to teach a lesson. If taking wide steps and exposing leg could be considered “disrespectful” to the steps, which have no actual feelings, we learn that even more so, we need to be careful with other humans, who do feel humiliated by disrespect, to be so sensitive and careful of their feelings.


How ironic and tragic that the subject of “revealing nudity” in the most minute sense, has become a weapon of mass humiliation in many religious communities. So many women and girls feel deprecated and sexualized when educators chastise them publicly for the way they’re dressed. Even more egregiously- often these educators are men; to me it seems like the height of hypocrisy, and even a form of sexual harassment, for a grown man, in a position of religious authority, to scrutinize and comment on a girl’s body or attire. But even for a female educator to do so seems to completely disregard the forest for the trees.


The goal of religious education is to graduate young adults who feel connected to G-d and their heritage, identify with their legacy of values, see their teachers as resources, and choose to practice their own iterations of lessons internalized. This is the exact opposite of what happens when spirituality is reduced to picayune externals and used as a power play to embarrass kids into submission. In many institutions, this zealousness has taken on a life of its own, with cult-like ramifications and fabricated minutia.


The message of this altar construction, of common human decency, respect for others, and sensitivity to their feelings is specifically taught in the context of “revealing nudity”- perhaps to remind us that every human is created in the image of G-d and deserves to be treated as such; regardless of your feelings about how they’re dressed.

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