I'll start by saying that I don't believe Mayim Bialik is anti-feminist or self-hating or jealous of beautiful women or any other mean or nasty thing being said about her right now in response to her opinion piece that just published in the New York Times, "Mayim Bialik: Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World."
If you haven't yet read her article, Bialik starts by describing her childhood ascent in Hollywood as a "prominent-nosed, awkward, geeky, Jewish 11-year-old." In case anyone has forgotten, Bialik burst onto the big screen as the younger-but-just-as-larger-than-life version of Bette Midler in the 1988 film Beaches.
Over the course of her op-ed, Bialik shares multiple "revelations" based on her own career in the entertainment industry somehow meant to provide... what exactly?
Empathy? No. I've read her piece a few times through and there's not much of that to be found.
Guidance? Perhaps. But to whom? And who asked her for it?
Advice? Possibly, but advice is typically offered in such a way as to outline actual strategies... as well as instructions for how to follow them... Oh, and it usually details WHO the advice is intended for, along with WHY the presenting problem exists in the first place. None of that is anywhere to be found in Bialik's piece, so I have a tough time placing this one here.
Since Facebook and Twitter have been abuzz with similar confusion, and since people I know well and generally respect a great deal seem equally confused by Bialik's message and intention, I believe there is one especially key area of context that should be made abundantly clear.
Mayim Bialik proudly identifies as an Orthodox Jewish woman and this particular statement is central to understanding why that matters in relation to her OpEd:
"I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy... In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in."
When an Orthodox Jewish woman speaks about "dressing modestly," she is referring to a particular section of Jewish law which in Hebrew is called tzniut.
Before I go any further, lest anyone find themselves outraged that someone who writes, edits and speaks for a site about love, sex and relationships thinks they know anything about this topic, rest assured. Tucked purposefully away in my back pocket I happen to have a master's degree in Judaic Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, I was a professional in the Jewish community for longer than I care to remember, I was the wife of a Conservative rabbi for 10 also-longer-than-I-care-to-remember years, and one of the rabbis on the committee that approved the position paper referenced in point number one below was my roommate in graduate school (Hi, Iscah!! Iscah is awesome everyone!).
The entire concept is far too complex to get into here, but in general, this set of codes relates to interactions between the genders, and in particular, it outlines specific guidelines regarding how men and women should dress and behave in each other's presence.
As you might expect, while both men and women are supposed to follow these "rules," the restrictions placed on women are far greater than those placed on men.
There are many reasons underlying the traditional practice of dressing modestly, but these three are the most crucial in order to fully understand Bialik's perspective, and why her thinking is so problematic in the context of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
1. To project humility.
According to "Modesty Inside and Out: A Contemporary Guide to Tzniut," a position paper published by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (the international association of Conservative rabbis):
"Our choice of attire ought to show respect for other people. As Rabbi Zev Farber notes, “The basic idea behind tzniut — and I use the term to refer to modesty in the sexual arena rather than humility — is to desexualize public space and interactions between men and women... To present oneself to others in an overtly sexual way over-emphasizes one aspect of our identity. Social pressure to dress in a particular way counterintuitively limits the individual’s self-expression when they feel compelled to conform to social expectations."
2. To avoid being a temptation or distraction to men.
While most modern articles on this subject that wisely edited to be gender-inclusive, the history and actuality behind much of this relates to the command that women should not serve as distractions to men with their sexuality, and that men should not allow themselves to be distracted by the sexuality of women.
"This attitude issues from a very highly refined sense of shame, an emotion often denigrated today in the name of freedom. Not only did the Bible prohibit removing all clothing, it did not permit wearing any garments belonging to the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5), as this might lead to unnatural lusts, lascivious thoughts, and a freer intermingling between the sexes."
3. To teach women to respect their bodies as a most sacred... OBJECT.
That's right, women. Your body is a holy object to be shared only with your husband.
Side note/fun trivia fact: The Hebrew word for husband is ba'al — the literal translation of which is "owner."
The Hebrew word for wife is isha — the literal translation of which is simply "woman."
So, as Aron Moss writes on Chabad.com, women should cover their bodies not only because they should feel a healthy dose of shame and lead men not into temptation, but also because their bods are so gosh darn precious (I'm paraphrasing here).
You know, like a really special prayer book, i.e., the Torah:
"Covering something doesn’t always mean being ashamed of it. Have you ever noticed how we treat a Torah scroll? We never leave it lying around open. It is hidden behind many layers. The Torah is kept inside a synagogue, in the Ark, behind a curtain, wrapped in a mantle, held tightly closed with a belt. It is taken out only when it is to be used for its holy purpose, to be read during the prayer service...
The body is the holy creation of G‑d. It is the sacred house of the soul. The way we maintain our respect for the body is by keeping it covered. Not because it is shameful, but because it is so beautiful and precious...This is true for men’s bodies too, and laws of modest dress apply to them as well. But it is even more so for women. The feminine body has a beauty and a power that far surpasses the masculine... For this reason, her body must be kept discreetly covered."
So, a) Orthodox Jewish women such a Bialik are making a choice to keep their body sacred and clean, to be taken out only for the enjoyment of their husbands, and b) women who choose, in converse, not to lock their physical being in their husband's closet — "held tightly closed with a belt" — are treating their bodies with disrespect.
Does anyone else remember when Elizabeth Smart explained why she didn't try to flee from the man who abducted and raped her?
She said quite firmly and clearly that this was at least in part because she and the girls in her Mormon school were taught that "When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?"
This is pretty much the same exact thing. Seriously.
There are plenty of other issues with Bialik's statements many other women have already raised and I am sure will still raise in the coming days.
So while I have plenty of other thoughts about her opinions, I don't feel any need to beat that dead horse for the sake of the beating.
But I have seen people on social media defending Bialik's statement by saying things along the lines of, "She is a religious Jew and she is speaking for no one but herself."
Yes, she is.
And to be crystal clear, none of this is meant in any way as a message of disrespect to anyone in either the Jewish community or in other religious communities that also adhere to codes of modesty.
I strongly believe that everyone should feel free to live and dress according to whatever standards they find appropriate and comfortable for themselves as long as they do so without being coerced and without harming others.
But if you don't understand the traditional Jewish take on what Bialik is discussing, not to be rude, but you have NO idea what she means, or what YOU mean when you say such things on her behalf.
We are all entitled to our opinions, but this is too fresh and too sensitive to spout off about irresponsibly on the pages of The New York Times in the midst of an essay that bizarrely combines self-pity, hubris, insensitivity and, yes, 100%, victim-blaming at its most basic level.
Bialik herself has already come to her own defense with this statement she issued on Twitter.
— Mayim Bialik (@missmayim) October 15, 2017
Sorry, Mayim. You can't say things like this...
"In the meantime, I plan to continue to work hard to encourage young women to cultivate the parts of themselves that may not garner them money and fame. If you are beautiful and sexy, terrific. But having others celebrate your physical beauty is not the way to lead a meaningful life."
And then fall back on the sword of how much good you do for women.
We're all human and we all make mistakes and I feel quite certain Bialik will recover from this hubbub just fine.
But can we please go back to putting the onus on the men who commit sexual and violent crimes now, please?
Senior Editor and happily-former divorce coach/mediator Arianna Jeret is a recognized expert on love, sex, and relationships (except when it comes to her own life, of course) who has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Style, Fox News, Bustle, Parents and more. Join her Sundays at 10:20 PM EST for answers to ALL of your questions on Facebook Live on YourTango and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.