Many haredim are so afraid that if they see women, they will be led astray to sin that they want to hide women – and images of women – in the public sphere, so as not to be tempted. Send women to the back of the bus. No pictures of women – not even modestly dressed women – in newspapers or on buses. And many of them want to impose their views on the rest of Israeli society.
This week’s Torah portion tells us that they are looking in the wrong direction.
This week’s parsha contains the third paragraph of the Shema, which includes:
וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם
“And you shall not stray after your hearts and eyes that lead you to sin.”
This seems backwards. I mean, isn’t the reason some haredim are so paranoid about women because they are worried that if their eyes see a scantily clad woman, that will lead their heart to lust, which will lead them to sin?
So why does the Torah put the heart first and the eyes second? Because the truth is, it’s the heart leads. What the heart is inclined to see is what the eyes will see.
Psychological studies have shown that we see what we expect to see. Expectations can cause people to either see something insignificant, or to overlook something right in front of them. Applied to the question of seeing women, if your heart is open to sin and you see immodestly dressed women, you will see them and be led astray. If your heart is not interested, it doesn’t matter what’s in front of your eyes, it won’t lead you to sin. I’m not claiming to be a tzaddik or anything, but I was in Eilat today, SCUBA Diving on the beach, and despite all that skin on display, I didn’t sin! What self-control, eh?
The haredim who want to erase women from the public sphere are focused in the wrong direction: instead of worrying about avoiding seeing women, they should work on their hearts. If your heart is pure, you can see a woman in a bathing suit on a beach and not be tempted to sin. If your heart is not pure, you can see fingernails peeking out from under a burka and be led to sin.
The same concept applies in other realms, including our relationship with other people. There is a Chasidic story about a man who goes to a new town, and asks the rabbi “how are the people here?” The rabbi answers with a question: “how are they where you come from?” “They are evil, greedy, bad people.” The rabbi says “I suppose you will find them much the same here.” The next day another man comes to the rabbi with the same question. The rabbi again responds with “how are they where you come from?” This time the man answers “they are wonderful, kind people. I wouldn’t leave the community except I must for my work.” The rabbi answers “I suppose you will find them much the same here.” We will see what we expect to see from others.
The same idea also applies in our relationship with God. If you look at the world intending to see evidence that God exists, you will find it all around you. If you look at the world intending to prove there is no God, you will also find no shortage of evidence. There is a parable told of two people who look at a garden. One sees some weeds and thorns, and says “there must not be a gardener taking care of this place.” Another one looks at the same garden and says “wow, look at all those trees and flowers. Surely there is a gardener taking care of this place.”
Whether in being tempted to sin, in our relationship with other people, or in our relationship with God, this week’s Torah portion tells us that intent is the most important thing. Our eyes will follow where our heart leads. May your heart lead your eyes to only see the good around you.
PS: I gave this as a D’var Torah at Mizmor l’David (in Hebrew), an Orthodox synagogue here in my neighborhood. Afterward someone shared with me a great story that’s relevant: A rabbi saw some of his students get on a bus and take of their glasses. He asked them “what are you doing?” One of the students answered, “Rabbi, when we get on a bus, we don’t want to see the women, but we don’t want to create a fuss.” The rabbi answered, “If you wear your glasses, at least you can tell the difference between a woman and a telephone pole. If you take your glasses off, they’re all women!” I also got an interesting piece of feedback from a haredi guy who was there: he said he agreed with what I said, although he wouldn’t have said it. I think that’s one of the problems in the haredi community. Most people are not that radical, but they are not willing to speak out against the radicals for fear of being seen as less as pious.