The laws of modesty have, as their main purpose, to enhance holiness in sexual activity. According to the Talmud, the general idea is not to expose parts of the body that should remain covered. It applies equally to both men and women. However, women are the primary targets of these laws, whereas men are generally “let off the hook,” requiring minimal adherence to the laws of modesty. Stringent codes of modesty have been imposed on Jewish women for centuries. For example: a woman’s legs, hair, and voice are considered Herva–forbidden to be exposed.
Orthodox Jews continue to impose these same standards today, but modern Orthodox women no longer follow them to the letter of the law and, most Jews argue that the standards must change with the times. Uncovering a woman’s hair, or listening to her voice is not necessarily sexually suggestive in our day and age.
Tzniyut refers to a much broader category than dress. Intending to establish a “fence of discretion” around sexual activity, the Tzniyut sets apart specific sexual behaviors in order to make them holy.
The question then arises: Since the sexual revolution of the sixties, has the erection of so-called “fences of discretion” (which have become increasingly cumbersome over time) aided our quest in achieving “sexual holiness” or, have they become a hindrance and turn-off to seekers of Jewish spirituality and why?
Feminists certainly raise a number of concerns about Orthodox rules, that have for years been (and still are) used to impede women’s educational opportunities, and restrict their actions in the synagogues. Does not covering the body, denying one’s feelings, ignoring the issues, and forbidding sexual expression make sex more perversely desirable, guilt ridden, less natural, open and beautiful?
Perhaps, in the final analysis, love may prove to be the surest way to achieve holiness in one’s sexual relationship. Unlike species that merely copulate, only humans–as far as we know–are capable of “making love.”
Unethical Sex/Gilui Arayot
In traditional texts, gilui arayot or unethical sex, is understood to mean adultery and incest, both of which lead to the deterioration and destruction of the basic unit of society, the family. “Incest and rape are not sexual acts but acts of violence,” explains Rabbi Gold.
Rape in the Bible, as Raquel Biale explains, “…was not seen as a crime of sexual assault against a woman only because she is female, but rather as a calculated attempt by a man to acquire a woman against her and her parents wishes. Thus, rape is analogous to illegal seizure.”
The Torah (Bible) and the Talmud speak only to rape of a married woman in the context of adultery. When a married woman is raped, she is still permitted to be with her husband, even if she consented willingly.
In order to maintain ritual purity, a Kohen must divorce if there is suspicion that his wife has been raped. Some of the worst cases of rape occur within the family unit, and the Torah is very specific when addressing the issue of incest. By commandment, certain members of the family are forbidden from engaging in sexual relations with each other: a mother, step-mother, sister, daughter, biological aunt, uncle’s wife, son’s wife, a brother’s wife (other than for reasons of a levirate marriage) a step-daughter, or two sisters at the same time.