I thought I'd share an experience I had this past week.
But first, a small intro, since I never formally introduced myself: I'm originally from Philadelphia, but I'm currently studying at a yeshiva for Jewish women in Jerusalem, Israel. Every weekend, I celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which lasts from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. I am invited to a different family each week for the festivities--eating, shmoozing, praying, learning, and eating some more. I have found throughout my travels that even within the Orthodox Jewish world, there is an enormous spectrum of philosophies, perspectives, and customs.
I spent this past Shabbat with two friends at the home of a young, newly-married Chassidic couple. After Rivky (our cute, talkative financial advisor from New York who doubles as our friend and confidante) invited me to her home, she said, "By the way, I have to warn you. My husband does not look at or talk to women. But he loves having guests." I was startled. I know that Orthodox men are careful not to gaze at immodestly dressed women, or to stare in an inappropriate manner at any woman. I had even heard of this added stringency to which men from some Chassidic sects of orthodoxy adhere, to not look at women besides their wives. But what startled me was how Rivky seemed to beam with pride as she said this. "He is really into guarding his eyes," she continued, her own eyes twinkling.
Sure enough, her husband did not steal any glances of his three female guests. Nevertheless, he warmly welcomed us when we arrived and wished us a good week when we left. He even made us eggs for the traditional, small meal after sundown on Saturday evening. He did all of this with a big smile, but with his eyes directed downward. At the dinner table, he did not talk to us directly. He gently spoke to Rivky in Yiddish, telling her stories and words of Torah. After listening to him intently, she brightly related everything to us in English. Sometimes I saw him smiling or nodding in response to things we said. After dinner, I stayed up late talking with Rivky. Much of our conversation centered on ideas about modesty, in behavior and appearance, something she feels is a pillar of her life and her role as a Jewish woman.
The next morning, we woke up in an empty apartment--the couple had already gone to the synagogue--to find three coffee cups with saucers and shiny spoons placed in a perfect line on the kitchen table, accompanied by a plate of pastries. Each cup contained instant coffee and sugar. When I later thanked Rivky for the thoughtful gesture, she giggled. "It wasn't me. It was my husband." I looked over at her husband, who had heard this exchange. He was sporting a toothy smile.
I walked away from Rivky's home with a refined understanding of a once-foreign lifestyle. And some questions... Is there such thing as too extreme when it comes to modesty? Or is it because we have become so desensitized that going "too far" from the norm of skimpy outfits and cat calls seems equally offensive?
Is modesty a long-lost virtue to which some hold a secret key?