Posted by: cctracker | January 20, 2012

Signs of the Times: Modesty Evolved and Revealed

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

Image via Wikipedia

What are we to think when, in the name of religion,  grown men spit on a modestly dressed 8-year old girl as she walks to a religious school? And what if she is a member of their own religious tradition?

In today’s NY Times Rabbi Dov Linzer presents an illuminating scriptural perspective on “modesty.”  He  gets to the spiritual core of what it really asks of us and to whom the challenge is really addressed. But an evolutionary and scientific perspective on modesty may help make sense of the moral blindness and outrageous cruelty we see in so many cultures. Understanding the depths of both the revealed and the evolutionary truths of a subject like this is vital work for thinking people who want to draw on both for wisdom and guidance.

Link to the column here.

Where does evolutionary reflection on “Modesty” lead? And why bother?

Talking about modesty from the perspective of culture, politics or religion would seem difficult enough: so many layers of meaning to acknowledge, so many threads of individual and communal responsibility to trace within the whole fabric of global and communal life.

Rabbi Linzer argues that the ultra-Othordox men who spit on Naama Margolese have perverted the very soul of modesty. While the sanctity of every person is at the heart of the Torah, these men, at least under certain circumstances, see women as mere objects to be controlled because they stir up mens’ desires. As for the Talmud, Linzer says it declares that men ought to control themselves! He ends the article with this masterful flourish of scriptural theology  and rhetoric:

“Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning “to walk humbly with your God.” 

This is good apologetics. And it delivers a powerful and simple spiritual challenge. But however affecting, we are familiar with the approach. And while we might agree with him, we anticipate the flak:

“Then why don’t these orthodox old men see it that way ?”

“If religion has to work mental gymnastics with its texts and traditions just to affirm common decency it isn’t worth paying attention to in the first place.”

“He’s missed the point. It’s really all just politics.”

Evolution may offer us another angle and send us back into our traditions with a fresh challenge.

What if we consider the possibility that the behavior of these men, conducted in the name of modesty–as far as their conscious awareness is concerned in the name of God–is actually better understood biologically? What is the best way to understand the emotions of anger and disgust these men feel as they spit and hurl insults at a small girl?

If we call it “hatred” we’ve just used another word, like “evil,” to label it. If we blame religion we haven’t explained why the very same pattern of emotions and behavior can be found in in social contexts where religion is absent.We could say “ignorance,” but we’d have to clarify: ignorant of what? The humane and transcendent  message of truth from scripture and tradition? That leads to another question: then why are they blind to that message? Have they chosen to be blind or has someone or something blinded them?

Unlike the familiar, if compelling, way we hear Linzer’s words, the message from those using evolution and socio-biology to explain the inner life and behavior of human beings is fearful and strange for most of us:

Naturalist and Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson

These emotions and behaviors are the product of millions of years of biological evolution and thousands of years of social evolution built on biology. Anger and disgust evolved to attach themselves to what threatens the individual or the group. The cultural artifacts, abstract concepts and behaviors that have gathered around the term “modesty” are, though unimaginably complex, still products of the same process, designed by the “blind” mechanics of nature to serve the thriving of the individual and the group.

So what is threatened by an 8-year old girl’s alternative style of dress?

At one level, the men’s authority, their status in the collective. At a deeper level, the coherence of communal symbols that define the group’s distinct identity. But what it really comes down to, as is so often the case in evolution, is sex. Rich and stable human culture has evolved on the scaffolding of  lineage and clan; traditions that enforce modesty protect them from the chaotic force of our sexual drive. Men are viscerally compelled to protect  from outsiders the wombs from which their offspring will come.

An elder doesn’t have to be conscious of any of this for it to be true. In an evolutionary view, Naama Margolese is a victim not so much of his intentions as of her circumstances. Her pattern of unimaginably complex sociobiological life happens to conflict with his. And deep-seated emotions, with their associated symbols, behaviors and ideas, have evolved to make him feel as if this little patch of sidewalk isn’t big enough for the both of them.

But doesn’t this narrative itself threaten us all? How do we ground our stand against this behavior? Where is the place for human freedom in it? Or more to the point, moral responsibility?


“Modesty” Image by pixelsandpaper via Flickr

I remember another story  about modesty that ran a number of years ago in the Times. United nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon was describing a moment early in his adolescence when he first glimpsed a beautiful woman in what was for him rather revealing western dress. His Korean culture had implanted modesty deep within him: not only was it improper to consume the beauty of a woman with your eyes,  it was not even allowed for a young man to meet the gaze of an unmarried woman not in your family. He described helpless and panicked feelings colliding within him as the young woman boldly invited his gaze. He was paralyzed. He couldn’t look, but he couldn’t bear to look away.

When I read the story, something stirred in me. All at once, I vividly recalled my own dark and confused interior battle with these same forces. On the one hand I was very normal: endlessly fascinated with the way women looked, moved, talked. But–and I’ve still not fully explored the cultural origins of how this came to be–I was a very modest boy. It’s too long a story to tell here, but it has something to do with the religious formation I had as a child. I was taught in a very explicit, imaginative and, I can say now, mystical way to see every person as if they were Jesus. Gazing at a girl or woman to purposely feed my curiosity and desire felt  viscerally wrong to me. As if I were taking something from her. As if I were using her without any regard for who she was for herself.

I was   thinking about all of this on Sunday afternoon as I listened to PRI’s To The Best  of Our Knowledge. The hour was focussed on “Medicine and Compassion.” James Orbinski  of Doctors Without Borders was interviewed about his experience in Rawanda just after the genocide.

Listen to the segment here.

He describes the only moment that made him wretch in the midst of  all the suffering and horrific trauma he had witnessed. He was trying to close the wounds of a young woman who had both of her ears cut off. Her face had been systematically flayed open with deliberate, horizontal cuts to maximize her disfigurement. He vomited in disgust from the sheer intentionality of the act against her rather than horror of the wounds.

But when he turned back to her afterward to continue closing her wounds, her hands reached out to touch him, to comfort and reassure him, to care for him in his suffering. She understood how difficult her suffering was for him to endure. Some time later, when he couldn’t bear to move on to the next patient, it was she who urged him to leave her side, to get on with his work. He never saw her again, but he said that moment revealed to him more to him than any other about the depths of the human potential for compassion. When the interviewer asked him if, after all that he had seen, he was still a spiritual person, his answer was “yes.”

James Orbinski of Doctors Without Borders

How should we understand Orbinski’s disgust?  Or his patient’s compassion?  What can we say about the origins of these emotions? How shall we name the source from which they come? Does evolution say enough? It declares that all that is has come to be is the result of material processes we can understand, measure and explain. If we accept that modesty has, like our thumbs, evolved is there anything else we need to say?

Yes. It is crucial, it seems to me, to say that there is something very different going on within the hearts of the men who spit on Naama Margolese from what is going on within the soul of James Orbinski. It is morally and intellectually wrong to say simply that evolution has lead the orthodox men to one place and Orbinski to another. I believe it is also bad science. Human biological and cultural life have indeed evolved, but the astonishing, conscious and miraculously generous expression of love and compassion Orbinski encountered is, for want of a better word, “new.”

Revelation literally means that which has been revealed. It names that which human beings have discovered, encountered and received, not that which we have manufactured, created or imagined for ourselves. To say that a truth is “revealed” is to say that it transcends us, that it is true without needing us to make it so. Our posture toward revealed truths, therefore, ought to be humility, and for the religious person reverence, before that which is.

The best expression I have ever encountered for what the revealed virtue of modesty is comes from my own spiritual tradition, in this case From Pope John Paul II, but I believe that it can be affirmed just as well by those who humbly embrace the work of science:
Modesty is the humility of the body toward the greatness of the person.”
When the virtue of modesty breaks through to this level, “creation,” so marvelously evolved through the endlessly complex and even brutal chapters of evolution, is “made new.” The spiritual identity of human beings has been revealed. It has been called forth from the flesh. And it holds all who come upon it in heart and mind to account.

Photo by James Burton


  1. Great article.

    • Thanks for visiting, Jasmine. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on related topics.

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