Identity, Religion, Sex & Gender

Tzitzit, the Deviant Body, and Male Entitlement

image from
I’m a young woman who visibly wears tzitzit. The public nature of my observance of this mitzvah means that when I leave my home, I become public property to many; in the same way that people feel free to comment on the bodies of or even touch pregnant women, people with noticeable tattoos or piercings, and, as has been written about extensively, black women’s hair, when I wear tzitzit in public, my deviant body — at least for those who recognize my fringes — suspends normal expectations of courtesy and privacy. I’m often approached in inappropriate contexts, and even have had my tzitzit grabbed.
Is there any context in which it is ever appropriate for an older man to approach a young woman and inquire about what she’s wearing under her shirt? (Let’s put aside, for the moment, that male teachers and administrators at Orthodox day schools DO police girls’ clothing, as has most recently been brought to light by a senior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.) Yes, my fringes are visible, but the violation of my privacy I face on a regular basis about my tallit katan is appalling. The typical interaction of “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” followed by an awkward fidgeting and mumble about my tzitzit as the asker realizes that they hadn’t actually formulated a question is always unpleasant for me as an introvert, and irritating in its assumption that my unusual garment means I am open for conversation in otherwise rude contexts. (See: the Israeli police officer who interrupted a date to ask.) Curious women are one thing; while I’m often disturbed to be questioned by strangers in public, part of the reason I wear my tzitzit visible is so that the image of a woman in tzitzit will become normalized — when I first began to consider tzitzit, the one image of a woman I’d seen in tzitzit at a partnership minyan flashed again and again in my brain and strengthened my resolve. Even when strange women approach me and ask if I’m wearing standard “boy tzitzit” or a garment made specifically for women, I’ll answer; this question about what is in some ways my underwear gives me a chance to share my views on the mitzvah with more women, and to share with them the resource that is Netzitzot.
Men, however, take a different tone when they want to know about my tzitzit. Even if the interaction begins typically (“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”), it always escalates to a confrontational tone, if not one of outright hostility. I’m consistently shocked by the way men — never peers, always older and better-educated due to their age — feel entitled to confront and debate me. It is as if my tzitzit suspend all of the courtesy, privacy, and in some cases the basic feeling of safety I should be entitled to in any interaction.
Sometimes, the way men use my tzitzit as an opportunity for harassment is obvious – my deviant body provides an opening for creepiness. On a recent evening on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, I was walking alone when I was approached by a man in a black velvet kippah and scruffy beard. He began (in Hebrew) with the usual: “Can I ask you a question?” I nodded unenthusiastically, and he said “are you wearing tzitzit?” “Yes,” I responded. “Are you a man or a woman?” (His use of the feminine “you” in Hebrew made it clear that he was not really confused about my gender.) “Woman,” I said curtly, and moved to walk away. The man then picked up one of my fringes and kissed it – in the process, brushing his hand along my leg. At that point, I began to walk away in earnest. “Wait!” he said, “I want to talk to you more!” “No,” I told him, and began to cross the street. “But I really want to talk to you!” “NO,” I said, and walked away as fast as I could. Later in the evening, I was subjected to a drunken pun from another man about “tzitzit” and “tzitzim” (the Israeli equivalent of “tits”).
Not all interactions I have with men about my tzitzit are as immediately recognizable as creepy. A few months ago, on a summer program for students in or recently graduated from high school, I was sitting in a common area in a college Hillel, studying my Torah reading for Shabbat afternoon. A male peer from the program, who was sitting opposite me, asked a casual question about my beliefs, with an apology if he had disturbed me and an assurance that I wasn’t obligated to answer if I was busy or uncomfortable with the question. I happily engaged in debate with him, but a graduate student sitting nearby soon interjected. Having not been party to any of the previous conversations I’d had over the course of the program during which I’d explained my conception of ritual obligation, the man began to assail me with a series of rapid-fire questions that assumed a familiarity with philosophy that I, as a then-seventeen-year-old with no particular extracurricular interest in the discipline who had for obvious reasons never taken Philosophy 101, lacked. Feeling attacked and uncomfortable, I answered as best I could, then cut him off and left the room to continue learning my leyning.
I sat down in an armchair immediately outside of the room, curled up with my tikkun. I could hear the man still talking to my peers about me. After about ten minutes of productive practicing, a middle-aged man (whom I had apparently not noticed enter the room behind me and join the still-raging debate about my personal practice) walked up to wear I was sitting, and looked me up and down.
“Are you the girl — oh, you are the one with tzitzit!” (It should be noted that because of the way I was curled in the chair and the way he was looking at me, this comment was made with his eyes directed at my ass.)
I nodded and returned to my tikkun, trying to learn one of the final pesukim. The grey-haired professorial-type, ignoring this obvious cue, plunked himself down in the armchair opposite me.
“Do you wear tzitzit to be like your brothers?”
“I don’t have brothers,” I said curtly, returning my focus to Parashat Pinchas.
“Do you want to be a brother?”
I gaped at him.
“No, it’s okay, you can talk to me about it,” he said, “I’m a psychotherapist.”
I gaped at him some more, angry but too thrown off-balance to think of a response. After an unrelated comment about some organization he ran, the man simply picked himself up and walked away. I sat there, confused, upset, and still two pesukim short of having memorized my leyning.
While I did learn the aliyah in time, this encounter (which, it bears mention, also smacked of transphobia) was simply a more extreme example of the ageist, sexist, entitlement unfamiliar men feel to engage with young women through the veneer of a discussion about ideology. Men should never feel like they can aggressively and confrontationally engage with young women about their beliefs or their outfits, and when  they do, their differences in education — what high school student will feel comfortable debating halakha with a rabbi or philosophy with a PhD candidate? — are used as a tactic to silence and overwhelm.
The entitlement of older men to comment on the religious beliefs and experiences of young women came to a head a few months ago in an appalling way. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an Orthodox congregational rabbi and blogger, somehow dug up a piece published by Eden Farber on the New York Jewish Week’s teen writing site Fresh Ink for Teens about her discomfort as a girl attending an Orthodox shul. (Full disclosure: Eden is a close friend of mine and long-time chavruta.) Rabbi Pruzanksy viciously attacked the article and Eden personally — ignoring that at the time of its publication, the writer was fifteen years old. His article deserves a full and angry rebuttal, but the following is a representative quote: “Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.”
In addition to the personal offense I take at comments like “We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine,” there is a deeper attitude of not only condescension, but what for me as a young woman sets off alarm bells of what can only be called creepiness. Why is a middle-aged male rabbi trawling teen sites for two-year-old articles to rebut?
Rabbi Pruzansky’s behavior echoes that of the man who asked me if I wished I was a boy. There is no respect for boundaries, for age dynamics, for differences in education; this disregard of boundaries easily becomes or blurs into outright sexual harassment. When older men appear to treat teenage girls as partners for debate, this is not an expression of respect. This is the most unequivocal display of sexism and entitlement.
Simply because we exist — sometimes, as in the case of my tzitzit, very visibly — and express and act on our beliefs, we are not philosophical cases to ponder or peers to attack (and, obviously, are not merely sexualized bodies). We are articulate, well-read, and confident in our knowledge and practice. We are often happy to publicly and privately speak about the things we believe in, and to risk criticism online and in person for this. This does not make us public property. We are young women. Those who act as if they do not see this factor are those who are most aware of it.

17 thoughts on “Tzitzit, the Deviant Body, and Male Entitlement

  1. Like many readers, I’m sure, I was quite alarmed by the various inappropriate interactions you’ve been subjected to.
    But in my humble opinion, you can’t have your cake and eat it to. Obviously keeping your tzitzit tucked in would solve the privacy issue, and might actually connect you to the mitzvah in a more powerful way. However, you wrote that you wear your tzitzit visibly “so that the image of a woman in tzitzit will be normalized.” In other words you’re trying to make a political statement.
    If a young lady opts to wear a t-shirt with a brash, controversial political statement, it should come as no surprise that she encounters people who want to make some sort of rebuttal, and — like her — may not be shy about it. I think you should consider other ways to promote your views.
    Whatever you decide, I certainly hope you are spared from unpleasant interactions in the future.

  2. My presumption is that you try to keep mitzvahs in accordance with halacha, but based on the link to the tallit katan you wear, I have a feeling it’s not kosher. (Somehow that would not come as such a surprise to me.) You might want to take a look at O.C. 16, 1, including the Eshel Avraham and the Kaf HaChaim.

  3. Ben, you are part of the problem. The fact that you are sympathetic doesn’t negate the fact that you just victim-blamed her.

  4. “Based on the link to the tallit katan you wear, I have a feeling it’s not kosher. (Somehow that would not come as such a surprise to me.)”
    I have a feeling you’re a shithead. Somehow that would not come as such a surprise to me.

  5. Ben, she didn’t say she refuses to answer all questions about her wearing tzitzit. It sounds like she is happy to answer questions as long as they are respectful and appropriate. She objects when questions are confrontational, creepy, disrespectful, and otherwise inappropriate. Her wearing tzitzit is not encroaching on anyone else’s personal liberties. Some might consider it in-your-face, I suppose, but it’s a far cry from the examples she gave of inappropriate and disturbing attention she has received. I don’t see how you could construe her wearing something unusual (that, yes, some people might find unsettling, but nothing worse than that) as “asking for” her to be treated badly.
    In short, I completely agree with Rebecca M, I just have a feeling you won’t understand what she means.

  6. I don’t think Ben is part of the problem at all. There’s a huge distinction between victim blaming and blaming both the perpetrators in full and the victim for making problems more likely.
    If I intentionally leave my house front-door unlocked to make some sort of statement, any thieves who break in are fully guilty and should be blamed. But I have called attention to my house in a way that obviously will attract unwanted behavior. It’s my right to do it and I did nothing wrong, but I should recognize that there was a causal relationship between what I did and a crime happening to me. Again, that does not detract from the perpetrator being fully to blame.

  7. Aw, R, you’re also part of the problem. It’s kinda cute though how it makes you think Ben’s position is a-ok.
    And no, “well it’s the thief’s fault, but it’s also kind of yours for not locking the door” isn’t actually proper response to someone’s house being burglarized.
    That would be more like, “Are you ok? Do you want to sleep on my couch until the locks are changed?”
    Blaming the perpetrator AND the victim is still victim blaming.

  8. As I understand it, tzitzit are supposed to be visible. But also, as my rabbi told me, wearing them is an act of communication strictly between the wearer and Ha Shem.

  9. I am a man.
    I wear a kippah and tzitzis in public. Jews and non-Jews make weird and inappropriate comments and ask me personal and inappropriate questions about my kippah and tzitzis all the time. Yes, there is an issue with how men speak with women in our society, and the weird questions are not exclusively because she is a woman. People think it’s ok to comment and ask questions regardless of one’s gender.

  10. I’m not saying that the appropriate thing to say to someone whose house was just burglarized is that they shouldn’t have left their door unlocked. I am saying that there’s an appropriate time and place for saying that.
    If the victim is recalling their burglary on a blog, and they mentioned that they left their door open intentionally to make a statement, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to note in the comments on that blog that though the perpetrator did the wrong, what the victim did played a large role in causing the crime more likely to happen to them (which does not detract from the blame of the perpetrator).
    (Let’s keep this logical and civil. No need for the “aw” and “kinda cute” bits)

  11. R, I do apologize for the sarcasm.
    While I do not wear tzitzit, I have also been treated badly (as in, screamed at for 15 minutes straight) by men for fulfilling mitzvot publicly that they wished I was not fulfilling. This is not a theoretical issue in my life, nor in the lives of other readers and commentators here. Please keep that in mind when engaging in these conversations.
    My point still stands that you are wrong regarding what victim blaming is and isn’t.
    People are generally quite good at identifying causality. Adults rarely need to be told “well, if you didn’t want X to happen, you shouldn’t have done Y”. Much more rarely than people who like to say such things like to think.
    Most of the time when people say such things, it’s either because they
    a) identify with the perpetrator too much to condemn them without qualification.
    b) want to believe that they can prevent [unpleasant scenario] from happening to themselves.
    Risk is inherent to life. Sometimes the answer is to play it safer. Sometimes the answer is to try to change the world.
    Avigayil Halperin went into her decision with her eyes open and with much thoughtfulness and courage. She is reporting back to us on what she has experienced. These experiences are not immutable, like the weather. They can be changed, if people (especially men) are willing to change. Are you willing to stand up and be part of this change? What sort of world do you want to live in?

  12. My first question is this: why do you associate yourself with people who behave so horribly? I can see that you hope things will change; as a woman older than you, I can tell you that they will not. Entitlement, as well as entitlement to your body, is part of their fundamentalism. Go and observe and find like-minded people. Don’t hang around with these Orthodox creeps. I saw the writing on the wall when I was twelve, and have never regretted walking away from them. Terrible people who will rationalize anything in the name of HaShem.
    Second, why do you think this is restricted to entitlement to your body? It isn’t. And the problem is not restricted to middle-aged Jewish men. The degree of entitlement — and rage at not having what they believe themselves entitled to — is endemic amongst middle-aged men. It’s absolutely shocking, the speed at which so many men of that age can turn into 200-lb spiteful toddlers, genuinely intent on damaging other people. It’s made me deeply grateful not to be a man, because I cannot imagine what terrible experiences brought them to the point of walking around in the world like this. Especially when there’s so much in the world to be grateful for and enjoy.
    If you’re approached like this again, tell the man that unfortunately a lot of creeps begin conversations with you that way, so he may submit his question in writing to your blog, but you don’t promise a response. If he won’t leave you alone, say, “Please leave me alone now,” and if he keeps talking, start shouting, “HELP! HELP! This man is bothering me, HELP!”
    Ben, above, could not be more wrong, by the way. You are not inviting harassment, and shame on him for trying to tell you that you are.

  13. This cuts in many directions. Once when we where staying an hotel where all guests lit Shabbat candles in the lobby. My sons each light a single candle (like their big sister) and were yelled out and pushed away by women who could not tolerate them lighting. (There were plenty of candles so they weren’t depriving anyone.) BTW, I think one of the reasons that my daughter considered it natural to lay tefillin is that her brothers lit candles.

  14. I’m aware that people here have different experiences. I’m obviously aware that the OP had such an experience. The point of causality made by Ben, and my defense of him, stand despite the fact that some people had such experiences.
    You’re right that most people understand causality. Most people understand logic. But that doesn’t mean that people always use logic or recognize causality. And pointing out correct logic or causality when it seemed to have been overlooked isn’t IMHO a problem.
    I understand you think you understand the 2 categories people tend to fall into when they point out causality. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. I’m not a sociologist. But I do know I don’t fall into those 2 categories, and I wouldn’t assume it about Ben (nor anyway) in the absence of him actually saying something that indicated he actually believes either of those 2 things you suggested he may believe in.
    I hear your support for Avigayil changing the world. Maybe I agree, maybe I don’t The only point I was making though is that the article does indeed seem to be ignoring causality when she says she’s making a statement, yet seems surprised when people react as if she’s making a statement. The way those people make their statement is wrong, and even though that’s not my point I’ll make it clear here that I’m against how those people made their point. But she didn’t seem to recognize the connection between the statement she was trying to make and the fact that people were reacting to it. Ben and I were just pointing that out. No other baggage in our comments related to what kind of world we want to live in.

  15. To “Ben of Ben’s Tallit Shop” – I admire you for taking a position that cuts against your economic interest (of selling tallitot to the 50% of Jews whom you don’t think should wear one). But I find your position abhorrent. Fortunately, I live in the UWS where the major Judaica store has a different attitude. All the people who work there are, to judge by their outward appearance, Haredim. Nonetheless, on the erev Shabbos of my daughter’s bat-mitzvah, for whom I had bought a beautiful tallis at that store, I received a long voice-mail from the Haredi man who sold it to me, effusively wishing us mazal tov at great length and with obvious sincerity and enthusiasm. It was the most wonderful way to go into Shabbos and our simcha. You see, Ben – you can admire people for wishing to serve Hashem in their own way, even if you yourself wouldn’t practice that way. And you can be mekadesh shem Hashem while doing so!

  16. Harassment of any kind isn’t acceptable, and if I was your teacher and posek, I would consult the מפרשים for lenient opinions before saying that you’re wrong for your choice. If the Yeshiva’s dress code barred from you from wearing tzitzit, that’s a different case entirely, but I’m assuming that this isn’t the case.
    However, your attempt to paint this as normative male behavior is what deserves a rebuttal. To use the cliche, not all men are like this. The Rav who taught at my high school, to his credit, never did this to any of the girls in my class, despite the fact that they showed up on many occasions in contravention of the dress code. This trend of generalizing the behavior of men is, in all honesty, very off-putting, and is one reason why feminism in general has a bad name.
    Also, I’ve read Rav Pruzansky’s article in full, and the point he was making, which I understand conflicts with your view, is that women should follow the mitzvot that they are obligated in (Hadlakat Nerot, Challa, and Taharat HaMishpacha, not to mention the many commandments incumbent on men and women alike) before assuming additional obligations. Your attempt to label his article as “creepiness” completely ignores the substance of his argument, and dismisses him from the outset, simply because you disapprove of how he supposedly found the original article. Also, your attempt at comparison of Rav Pruzansky’s response to Eden Farber to what you’ve gone through is baseless because of a crucial difference: You were physically approached at inappropriate times when you reasonably felt you couldn’t back out (student-teacher relationship), whereas this was not the case with Eden Farber. Rebut him if you disagree, but understand that no one was harmed by his response.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents on the issue. B’hatzlacha on your studies at both Seminary and University, and I give you a blessing that your words and actions inspire everyone around you and be a kiddush Hashem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.