Category Archives: history

Rabbis of the Mishnah as a family tree

Famous rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, shown on a family tree-like diagram.

From BimBam (formerly G-dcast)

Talmud-character-chart-1

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The importance of history in Jewish history

A work in progress

History of the Jews Graetz

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
― Michael Crichton

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
― George Orwell

Why is Jewish history important?

The Study of Jewish History in the Jewish Day School, Jon Bloomberg

The Importance of Remembering The best way to honor the memory of Holocaust victims is through Jewish continuity. By Lesli Koppelman Ross

Why is history important?

Why Study History? American Historical Association (AHA)

Why is the study of history important in Jewish history?

If one doesn’t respect the legitimacy of history, there’s no reason to believe in any part of the Jewish faith. If we don’t respect that our historical documents have a meaning, then:

  • there’s no difference between reading the Bible as a Jew, or as an evangelical Christian.
  • there’s no difference between approaching philosophy and science like a Jew – e.g. Maimonides – or like an atheist
  • there’s no reason to believe that the Holocaust happened, and neo-Nazi Holocaust denial would be an equally legitimate position
  • there’s no reason to deny anti-Semitic myths like the blood libel, or the Protocols of Elders of Zion.
  • there’s no reason to say “never again”

 

History confronted by deconstructionism

Bill Crouse writes

Postmodernism is characterized by fragmentation, indeterminacy, and a distrust of all universalizing (worldviews) and power structures (the establishment). It is a worldview that denies all worldviews (“stories”). In a nutshell, postmodernism says there are no universal truths valid for all people. Instead, individuals are locked into the limited perspective of their own race, gender or ethnic group…. the emphasis in this form of reading is never to learn the intended meaning of the author, but rather the subjective interpretation of the reader.

Deconstructionists argue that all writing is reducible to an arbitrary sequence of linguistic signs or words whose meanings have no relationship to the author’s intention or to the world outside the text.” Newsweek, 6/22/81

Objective reality cannot be known. There is no transcendence. The universe is a closed system. Reality is entirely subjective…. Language is a system constructed on the foundation of arbitrary symbols. That is, texts are collections of words and pictures (“signifiers”) that have no inherent meaning or connection to the objective world of things or objects (“signified”). Since language is the medium for communication, and since language constructions are unstable, interpretation is also uncertain. … since the meaning of words (“signifiers”) is derived from one’s social context, ultimate meaning likewise arises from one’s social context. Language can only convey cultural biases.

Consider this incredible description, from a deconstructionist literary critic..

“Until recently, an author was an unproblematic concept; an author was someone who wrote a book. Roland Barthes’ landmark essay, “The Death of Author,” however, demonstrates that an author is not simply a “person” but a socially and historically constituted subject. Following Marx’s crucial insight that it is history that makes man, and not, as Hegel supposed, man that makes history, Barthes emphasizes that an author does not exist prior to or outside of language. In other words, it is writing that makes an
author and not vice versa. “[T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings […] in such a way as never to rest on any one of them” (146). Thus the author cannot claim any absolute authority over his or her text because, in some ways, he or she did not write it.”

Or how about this claim:

“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing […] However. by refusing to assign a ‘secret,’ an ultimate meaning, to the text (and the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases–reason, science, law.”

Rebuttal to deconstructionism

Texts are written by people, and they have a certain meaning. Of course it is possible for people to read new meanings into a text, but that says nothing about what the  author actually intended – It is only a reflection of the mind of the reader.

consensus and reality

Dialogue between deconstructionism and a historian

> I couldn’t disagree with you more — and neither could the scholars of
> mysticism, as I read them. There are different ways of knowing; the
> linear logic of traditional “empirical” scholarship is only one.

I disagree. We should not dismiss empirical scholarship. If one does so, then one loses the ability to defend any position. On a another forum I was involved in a discussion about the textual origin of the Torah. Some people claimed that logical analysis was not applicable to studying the history of the Torah. In response, Prof. Jacob Love wrote a stunning rebuttal:

As a historian, I also have to deal with an almost constant barrage of claims that history is not based on science, that history can prove that things happened one way and the opposite simultaneously, that nothing can be proven about anything, etc.

Take a look at alt.revisionism (I long ago stopped) and you’ll see what I mean. There is a commonality between the logical framework of the Creationists [religious fundamentalist] and the Holocaust Deniers. And this logical framework extends to most fundamentalist religions. You have to decide whether I, as a historian, can use logical and scientific principles to conclude whether the Holocaust happened, whether a given document is a forgery or authentic, whether an anachronism betrays the true date of a document and apply those principles uniformly to all subject areas. Because if I cannot apply them to yours, how can I do so elsewhere?

> Peshat is not the only interpretive understanding of the Torah.

Well of course. Later readers can bring new interpretations to the text. My point is just this: One should not assume that later interpretations were the actual intent of the
original author, that’s all.

> I’m confused here. Was there one original text whose contents have
> been lost, in your opinion, or was there never one original text? As I
> understand modern Biblical scholarship, it espouses the latter idea,
> so the concept of an “original text” is pretty much irrelevant.

The answer depends on which book you are talking about. As you know, some books were written by one author, others were redacted together from a number of earlier sources. Even those books that were written by one author likely didn’t start off as a pristine text; various prophets may have written down their thoughts in their own words; their friends (or people who listened to their preaching) might have written down their own version of what they heard. It is highly unlikely that all the written material was kept intact. Just like today, in the past one could find different editions of different books, some with certain material that only appears in one edition, some editions with material deleted, etc. A good modern analog is the textual history of the stories of Howard Philips Lovecraft. He wrote his books as recently as 1930 – yet trying to find an authoritative text for any of his stories is difficult.

> Literary critics claim that the original text and the author’s intention is *irrelevant*.
> The central concept of the literary (more specifically, the structuralist and
> post-structuralist) critiques of Scripture is this: language has no inherent meaning.

If that was true, then how could you object to any of my replies? How can you claim such a priviliged position for your own letters? You keep writing posts which expect that readers understand your meaning – yet that isn’t how you feel about the writings of others.

How would you feel if people claimed that everything you wrote was irrelevent? Perhaps those people may be unable to understand what you wrote, and attribute unintended meanings to your words, but none of that changes the basic fact: You obviously do intend your words to have a certain meaning. Why else would you be taking time to write these letters?

You are falling into the same logical trap that all deconstructionists fall into: You dogmatically claim that that the intention of the author is unknowable and irrelevant, yet you demand that others read your own words according to your intent.

> we deny the ultimate equality of persons, because a privileged
> reading implies a privileged READER.

Saying that one can understand an author is a denial of equality? That’s neo-marxist ideology, not rational thinking.

=======================

References: How deconstructionism threatens history

The Importance of History by David Crabtree

Deconstructionism: The Postmodern Cult of Hermes

Have Deconstructionists Destroyed History?; Can We Know What Really Happened in the Past? Skeptic Magazine, Issue 4.4

“The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past ” Keith Windschuttle, Free Press, 1997

Deconstructing Deconstructionism – Dr. Tom Snyder 

“How to think about weird things: Critical thinking for a new age”  Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaugn

Chapter 4: Relativism, Truth and Reality

Overcoming Veriphobia – Learning to Love Truth Again, Richard Bailey, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 159-172

Truth has had a hard time in much recent educational and social scientific writing. Veriphobia, the fear of truth, can be witnessed in the work of postmodernists, radical social constructivists, pragmatists, and others. Although it manifests itself in numerous ways, there remain certain frequently appearing symptoms, and these are examined in this paper. It is suggested that the veriphobic stance is inherently self-contradictory. It is also fatal for serious and meaningful research and inquiry.

References: How deconstructionism threatens science

The End of Science? By Theodore Schick Jr. Skeptical Inquirer Volume 21.2, March/April 1997

A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodern Myths About Science (Oxford University Press)

A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science Noretta Koertge (online essay)

Fashionable Nonsense Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Fashionable Nonsense Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science – article and review

Are Truth Claims in Science Socially Constructed?, Kenell J. Touryan
PSCF 51 (June 1999): 102-107

“Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrel With Science”, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt , Revised edition, 326 pages 1997, Johns Hopkins Univ Press.

References: Deconstruction

Against Deconstruction by John Martin Ellis

Debunking Deconstruction, Philosophy and Literature 13 (1989): 430-34. Denis Dutton

Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” Lingua Fraca, September/October 1996, p.59-67

“Against Relativism: Philosophy of Science, Deconstruction, and Critical Theory”
Christopher Norris, 1997, Blackwell Pub.

Reclaiming Truth: Contribution to a Critique of Cultural Relativism
Christopher Norris, 1996, Duke University Press

“The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida” Seán Burke, 1998. Edinburgh Univ Press

“In contemporary thought, the death of the author has assumed a significance comparable only to the death of God in the nineteenth century, yet no clear statement of what is meant by this notion has emerged in critical theory. In this study, now extensively revised and updated, Sen Burke provides the first detailed explanation of anti-authorialism and shows how, even taken on its own terms, the attempt to abolish the author is fundamentally misguided and philosophically untenable. This second edition features a new section on Derrida and an epilogue dealing with the politics of authorship and issues of technology; and a fully updated bibliography.”

How is the Bible historically true

Which stories of the Bible are historically accurate; which are based on true stories yet not literally accurate; and which could be fictional? What does your religious community teach about this – and why do they teach this way?

archaeology

from Tel Aviv University International

There are three major schools of though

A. Biblical inerrancy

People in this group hold that all the stories in the Bible are historically accurate, including the lives of Adam and Eve. The hold that the Torah’s account of the Biblical patriarchs, e.g. Abraham and Sarah, and the Bible’s accounts of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, and persons such as King David, are accurate in detail, often down to the quotes.

B. Biblical minimalism

People in this group engage in a historical study of the land of ancient Israel, and it’s relation to stories in the Bible. They conclude that the Bible isn’t reliable evidence, in any way, for what had happened in ancient Israel. They often deny that the Israelite people even existed. Many deny that the kingdom of Israel even existed. They hold that the Bible’s stories are almost entirely later fictions, written to create a fictional past identity.

Minimalists write things like:

The Israelite nation as explained by the biblical writers has little in the way of a historical background. It is a highly ideological construct created by ancient scholars of Jewish tradition in order to legitimize their own religious community and its religio-political claims on land and religious exclusivity.
— Lemche 1998

People in the Jewish community, in particular, are concerned about biblical minimalism. Not because Judaism is theologically threatened by this – any academic can believe what they want if they are engaging in scholarship in good faith – but because in practice, biblical minimalism is often used by anti-Semites to attack the Jewish people, and the validity of the State of Israel.

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review is one of the leading critics of the new school of biblical minimalism. In a letter first printed in Ha’aretz Magazine (Nov. 5, 1999) and later on the Biblical Archaeology Society website, Shanks writes that most Biblical minimalists are motivated not by history but rather by politics. Some of the leading Biblical minimalists are openly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Many people use Biblical minimalism to promote anti-Semitism, while other people use charges of anti-Semitism in an attempt to discredit Biblical minimalists.

The scholastic position of Biblical minimalism itself is not anti-Semitic. Many Jews themselves hold this view. Some criticism of this school of thought comes about because some rabbis and scholars are concerned about the way that this position is being used to justify pseudo-historical and anti-Semitic beliefs. Other criticism comes about because the position brings cherished beliefs into question. http://www.fact-index.com/t/th/the_bible_and_history.html

C. Biblical maximalism

Biblical maximalism is a historical study of the land of ancient Israel, and it’s relation to stories in the Bible. People in this group hold that the Bible does contain genuine information about the Israelites and Israel. There is no denial of the existence of the Israelite/Hebrew people , or of King David and the kingdom of Israel. They do not claim that the Bible is inerrant, but they do hold that it’s as real as can be expected from a document written in that historical era, and they hold that archaeology shows that this is so.

Articles

Raiders of the Lost Relics

The Use of Municipal City Water for a Mikveh

The Use of Municipal City Water for a Mikveh and a Case Study of the
Seattle Rabbinate in the 1950s

Rabbi Yossi Azose

The purpose of the following essay is twofold. First, we shall highlight an example of a lenient halakhic practice in America that had gained widespread acceptance among the Orthodox Jewish community throughout the first half of 20th century, and the subsequent opposition to this practice by leading Orthodox authorities in the 1950s who successfully challenged its legality, to the point where today it is generally considered beyond the bounds of accepted halakha.

Second, we shall focus on a critical juncture in American Orthodox Jewish history wherein a noticeable shift occurred in the paradigm of halakhic authority, from initially residing primarily within the domain of the community rabbi into the hands of the country’s leading gedolei hador and roshei yeshiva. The effects of this shift have laid the groundwork for a current trend in America that increasingly favors the authority of gedolim and roshei yeshiva over the local Orthodox rabbi.

As a backdrop to our analysis, we shall examine the circumstances surrounding the controversy that erupted over the kashrut of the Seattle mikveh
in the 1950s. This little known story, long ago forgotten by but a very few who are still around to remember, represents a vivid moment in the history of the American Jewish experience when the forces of these two aforementioned sources of authority collided with one another. Though the in-depth, technical halakhic questions involved in using municipal city water to fill a mikveh are beyond the scope of this essay, it is hoped that it will provide both a historical overview, as well as a general summary of the halakhic issues surrounding the matter.

Municipal City Tap Water for a Mikveh Rabbi Yossi Azose

Christological statements in the Zohar

Judaism is traditionally monotheistic, and rejects Christian concepts of the Trinity. Christianity is a trinitarian monotheistic: they hold that God exists as three hypostases, but is one being, having a single divine nature. The members of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will.

Kabbalah Sefirot Tree

he Zohar: Pritzker Edition

But over the milennia Jewish theology and literature has developed in many different ways. In the 15th century a book began to be published called the Zohar (זֹהַר‎, “Splendor” or “Radiance”.) This was described as the work of a Spanish Jewish writer named Moses de León, who in turn said that he found a secret cache of works written by Shimon bar Yochai (“Rashbi”), a rabbi of the 2nd century CE.  Most Jews at the time didn’t accept that this was literally correct, but within another 2 centuries the Zohar became to be seen as the most authoritative and ancient work of Jewish mysticism. By the 19th century large segments of Orthodox Judaism held that it was an article of faith that the Zohar was legitimate. However, much of it is written in an unclear fashion, and even it’s adherents and commentators have a hard time understanding what the precise teachings are.

Most controversial were the sections of the Zohar which paralled almost exactly the Christian concept of the Trinity.

Moses de Leon himself had a hard explaining why the Christian terminology for the trinity is incorrect, while his Kabbalistic/Zohar explanation of the trinity is correct.

Today, at least in public, Orthodox Jewish Kabbalists claim this is a “misunderstanding” of the Zohar – but not only is it correct, we have textual evidence that the Zohar texts used by Christian missionaries are correct. Later Zohar texts used by rabbinic Jews were altered to more quietly allude to neo-Christian, Trinitarian teachings. Attached below are quotes from Studies in the Zohar, By Yehuda Liebes.

Example 1

‘The Ancient of Days has three heads. He reveals himself in three archetypes, all three forming but one. He is thus symbolized by the number Three. They are revealed in one another. [These are:] first, secret, hidden ‘Wisdom’; above that the Holy Ancient One; and above Him the Unknowable One. None knows what He contains; He is above all conception. He is therefore called for man ‘Non-Existing’ [Ayin]'”
– Zohar, iii. 288b

Example 2

And this teaching from Zohar (II, 53b)

Hear, O Israel, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai is one. These three are one. How can the three names be one? Only through the perception of faith: in the vision of the Holy Spirit, in the holding of the hidden eye alone. The mystery of the audible voice is similar to this, for though it is one yet it consists of three elements – fire, air and water, which have, however, become one in the mystery of the voice. Even so, it is with the mystery of the three-fold Divine manifestations designated by Adonai Eloheinu Adonai – three modes which yet form one unity. This is the significance of the voice which man produces in the act of unification, when his intent is to unify all, from the Infinite (Ein-Sof) to the end of creation. This is the daily unification, the secret of which has been revealed in the holy spirit.

Liebnes writes :

It is interesting to note that R. Moses de Leon also grapples in the above passage with the problematics of the ten sefirot — why they are not threefold as is the Unity of God (and not only why they are not considered one — a philosophical question) — apparently because the tripartite formulations were of such obvious importance to him. Indeed, in writing his response to the questioner in his work confirming the unity of three,13 de Leon also responds to this latter question:

And as to what you have said concerning the sefirot (divine emanations), that they are ten and not three or more, you have made your point very clear. Nevertheless, all the sefirot are contained within the mystery of the triune singularity, as our sages teach us (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, 3): “The world was created through ten sayings, and of three are they comprised —wisdom, understanding and knowledge14 — forming a single source of reality”, {ibid., p. 134)

Indeed, Abner of Burgos also relied on this triad of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, in order to verify the authenticity of the Christian trinity. Y. Baer, in referring to Abner’s words,15 drew a parallel between them and the words of the Zohar in the Midrash ha-Ne^alam in Zohar Hadash to Genesis (Mossad Ha- Rav Kook edition, 4a) and in III:290a-b (Idra Zuta), and the commentary of R. Azriel of Gerona on the passage in his Commentary to the Aggadoth, claiming that not only could such (trinitarian) quotes be used for Christological interpretations, “but that the aforementioned Kabbalist writers had made use of  the idea of the Christian Trinity in their works.”

Later Liebes writes

In the passage cited by Heredia, we find strong emphasis placed upon the mystery surrounding the second element of the Trinity — the son. While it is true that there is no reason to doubt the Christian origin of this element, in my opinion the use of this element in no way implies a forgery. It is quite possible that these words came from the author of the Zohar himself, for allusions to such concepts are to be found in other passages of the book, as we shall see further on in this study. But first let me remark that even at this point we do have a partial proof of the authenticity of this passage: the very beginning of Heredia’s passage does appear in extant editions of the Zohar in III:263a.24 In this Zohar passage, concerning the first of the three divine names in the verse Shema‘ Yisrael, we have the following statement:

“And this is called the father.” While it is true that the term “father” is regularly applied in the Zohar to the sefirah of hokhmah (wisdom), as it is clearly alluded to here, it is nevertheless unusual for the Zohar to simply enumerate the different names of the divine spheres unless they fit within a specific framework of discourse. Thus, only if we assume that Heredia’s addition referring to “son” is authentic will the use of the term “father” seem appropriate within this discourse.

Moreover, it seems to me that if someone wishes to falsify a document, he will forge an entire passage, so as not to be caught in the act of falsifying material, rather than attach a forged section to an authentic passage. This is so especially after we have noted that there are other passages in the Zohar discussing the triune qualities of the Shema,
which the forger certainly would have known (It is hard to imagine that his forgery just happened to chance on the same idea that appears in the Zohar in these places). Why Heredia didn’t hinge his forgery on one of these passages, which would have suited his purposes better than the one in question — a passage discussing five elements rather than the three found in the Shema — is a serious question to ponder.

All these considerations have convinced me that the passage Heredia brings is an authentic Zohar passage, which was apparently later abridged because of its Christian connotation and then woven into another discourse on the Shema.

This change was very likely made by the author of the Zohar himself, who was frightened by his own daring after the first version of his work had been disseminated. Other such instances of this phenomenon — different recensions of the same passage, all written by the author of the Zohar — have been well attested.

 

Here is a 25 page article (PDF format) Christian Influences in the Zohar, Yehudah Liebes

Modesty

Jewish concepts of צניעות, tzniut, modesty.

Ashkenazi Orthodox Judaism has developed detailed rules for how women should dress, talk and act, both in private and public. Entire books are written about the subject with laws, customs, measurements, in exacting details.

Here is an example of an Ashkenazi right-wing Orthodox prescription for women:
(I am using these qualifiers precisely, for good reason: Such controls on women’s clothing did not develop in the Mizrachi, Sephardic, or Modern Orthodox community, although now these communities are being influenced by right-wing Orthodox.)

Haredi modest clothing for women

Orthodox authors assure the reader that these are traditional and inarguable, and come from Torah mitzvot that are elucidated in the Mishnah and Talmud.  Perhaps the main problem with their rules about  צניעות, tzniut, modesty, is that until the 1920’s, most of these rules didn’t even exist!

These rules on tzniut were invented recently, accompanied by a deliberate censorship & historical revisionism campaign, to make it appear as if they had always been there. This is a recurring pattern in fundamentalist religious communities.

But are there in fact traditional, Jewish, halakhic rules on modesty? Yes. There indeed are some guidelines in traditional rabbinical literature on modesty that we can learn from, we just should learn about these rules in their historical context.  Some great resources include:

The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, Ed. Martin S. Cohen, especially the chapyer “Public Appearance and Behavior” by Rabbi Gordon Tucker.

 

This quote, without specifics on clothing, gives a Jewish perspective to the idea of modesty:

Kedusha is one of the most important aspects of tz‟niut; “privacy,” “modesty” are not expressions of contempt for the body, the physical, but on the contrary, expressions of their kedusha (holiness). A Torah scroll, for example, is covered, because of its high degree of kedusha. A woman‟s body – as well as a man‟s – is covered, because it is kadosh. The most intimate physical relation between man and woman is reserved, private, not for public display, and not for anytime, anywhere, with anyone – because it is kadosh, special, apart.

As Zalman Posner points out, tz‟niut “is not a question of a bit of cloth, it is a life-mode, perhaps the bedrock of Judaism.” It has not to do with just hemlines or head coverings, but with thought, speech, sexual relations – our sense of who and what we basically are, a sense that our personhood is kadosh, inviolate. The body is not a piece of property, an object to be disposed of casually; it, too, is an integral part of the sanctity of personhood, the kedusha of the Jew.

– Shaina Handelman, “The Paradoxes of Privacy,” Sh‟ma, November 1978

Another great resource is this CJLS responsa “Modesty Inside and Out: A Contemporary Guide to Tzniut”, by Rabbis David Booth, Ashira Konigsburg, and Baruch Frydman-Kohl

___________________________

Excerpt

The choice of clothing is one key area of modest practice. Halakhic literature offers several broad descriptions of appropriate dress, but nowhere in rabbinic literature prior to the 20th century can one find specific and complete dress codes as we find today.

While the Talmud, Rishonim, and Aharonim describe and require certain ritual attire or distinctively Jewish dress, they do not describe any requirements more specific than that married women must cover their hair. Much of the literature focuses on situations and clothing that arouse sexual feelings, what is appropriate in public settings versus private settings, and the response of the viewer.

Although rabbinic sources describe many actions as exposing ervah,22 the minimum requirement of modesty is to cover genitalia and anus. This limit depends on two Torah passages, Deuteronomy 23:13-15 and Leviticus 18-20. The Torah prohibits the uncovering of nakedness, or ervah.

The holiness code of Leviticus similarly prohibits לגלות ערוה , often translated as “to uncover nakedness” of someone.

וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִקַח אֶת־אֲחֹתוֹ בַת־אָבִיו אוֹ בַת־אִמוֹ וְרָאָה אֶת־עֶרְוָתָהּ וְהִיא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־עֶ רוָתוֹ חֶסֶד הוּא
וְנִכְרְתוּ לְ עי ני בְ ני עַמָם עֶרְוַת אֲחֹתוֹ גִלָה עֲוֹנוֹ יִשָא…
וְעֶרְוַת אֲחוֹת אִמְך וַאֲחוֹת אָבִיך לאֹ תְגַ לה כִי אֶת־שְׁ ארוֹ הֶעֱרָה עֲוֹנָם יִשָאוּ:

If a man takes his sister and sees her ervah, and she sees his ervah, it is a disgrace….23 He has uncovered his sister’s ervah, he bears his guilt. … You shall not uncover the ervah of your mother’s sister or of your father’s sister, for that is to expose one’s own flesh; they bear their guilt…. (Leviticus 20:17-19)

Reading the two sources together suggests that ervah means specifically the genitals. The punishment in Leviticus is for one who exposes their reproductive organs. Similarly, the organs for urination and defecation must remain covered while in the camp. Brown, Driver, Briggs in their biblical lexicon define ervah as “pudenda,” meaning genitalia.24

According to Rabbis Karo and Isserles, there is no specific body part that needs to be clothed. Rather, it is dependent on context and how people usually behave or dress. 29

As a result, cultural norms have halakhic significance for determining appropriate dress. In a context where it is normal to go swimming in a bathing suit, for example, such behavior is permissible. A man wearing a bathing suit in a business environment is problematic because it is so different to the typical office attire and so will draw the eye. Flapper dresses in the 1920s were initially quite shocking; as society became accustomed to the style, the dresses began to be seen as appropriate.

Shorts or sleeveless tops for men or women may be inappropriate, depending on the context, because they raise similar issues of context and modesty. That is, a tank top might be appropriate at the beach but not in shul, in part, because it surprises. The change in people’s expectations affects their perception of modesty and appropriate attire. By the same token, a person has a responsibility to others and should choose clothing suitable to the context.

One might assume that as women’s breasts in our culture are often hyper-sexualized they must certainly constitute ervah. But this assumption is mistaken. For example, because of the commonplace occurrence of breastfeeding, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (known as Ben Ish Hai, 1835 – 1909) considered the exposed breasts of a nursing mother as any other normally exposed body part.

י”א כיון דהאשה דרכה לגלות דדיה בזמן היניקה הרי הדדים נחשבים אותו זמן כמו כפות
הידים והפנים :

There are those who say that since it is her practice to uncover her breasts while nursing, a woman’s breasts in at the time of nursing are just as though they were the palms of her hand or her face. 30  For the Ben Ish Hai, a nursing woman’s breasts are without sexual connotation.

(Footnote 29) Within much of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox sources, the covering of thighs and shoulders is asserted as a biblical ordained halakhah. Please note, however, that Rabbi Avrahom Karelitz (Hazon Ish) in the 1920s is the first person to suggest that thighs and shoulders must be covered to be modest outside of a prayer context.

Modesty Inside and Out: A Contemporary Guide to Tzniut 
Rabbis David Booth, Ashira Konigsburg, and Baruch Frydman-Kohl

Modern Orthodox responses

Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012

The topic of “tzniut” or “modesty” has recently become a prominent point of discussion in the Jewish community… the common theme… is almost exclusively framing the issue in the context of women. In particular, modesty is most frequently defined in terms of how women ought to dress, how a woman is supposed to behave, and in some general instances the appropriate role of women in Jewish if not secular society. With this focus on women, it is not surprising that tzniut/modesty is almost exclusively construed as a sexual ethic.

In this shiur I challenge this assumption by approaching the topic of modesty not from the socially defined understanding of tzniut, but rather how and when the root “צנע” is used in the Talmud. While the term is certainly used in the context of female sexuality or displays of femininity (B. Ketuvot 3b, B. Berachot 8b, B. Shabbat 113b, B. Sotah 49b), the Rabbinic tradition also applies tzniut to men as it pertains to his relationship with his wife (B. Shabbat 53b) and his mode of dress (B. Menachot 43a).

Furthermore, the ethic of tzniut is asserted in the contexts of going to the bathroom (B. Berachot 8b, 62a), eating (B. Berachot 8b), not displaying one’s wealth (B. Pesachim 113a), and even religious observance (M. Ma’aser Sheni 5:1, B. Sukkah 49b/B. Makkot 24a).

Given the contextual range of the root צנע, I suggest that tzniut in the Rabbinic tradition may best be described not as a sexual ethic at all (let alone a female one), but a general attitude of behavior of which sexual behavior is only one component. In other words, the true Jewish ethos of modesty does not exclusively pertain to sexuality, but rather reflects a universal ethic, one which is equally applicable to men and women in all facets of life.

Current Jewish Questions on Tzniut Modesty. Josh Yuter.

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The Torah quoting earlier sources

Although not well known,  the Torah states that it is not unitary. It quotes earlier songs, poems and books. This is examined in “What was the Book of the Wars of the Lord?” by Prof. Ed Greensten

 
…The song here is not simply presented as part of the text, but the Torah explicitly notes that it is quoting from an ancient written source for the song. (The term ספר, which we ordinarily translate as “book,” denotes any document set down in writing.) [5] What was this book?
 
Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) in his commentary (ad loc.) suggested that the reference is to an ancient and now lost written source describing the various battles fought by the Israelites against their enemies. [6]
R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent.) and Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershom, 1288-1344) offer the same understanding. That this document is a collection of war and victory songs in which the deity is the hero is also shared by modern scholars such as Jacob Milgrom and Yitzhak Avishur in their Olam HaTanach commentary (ad loc.), and Philip Budd in his Word Bible Commentary (ad loc.). [7]
 
…Later in this same chapter comes the Heshbon Ballad, relating to an Amorite conquest of Moab.
 
It may have originated among the Amorites—or it may be an Israelite song, taunting the Moabite enemy. [9]
The Torah quotes the song, which may well have been excerpted from a longer, perhaps even epic, poem, in order to corroborate its assertion (v. 26) that Sihon, the king of the Amorites who ruled from Heshbon, had defeated Moab (vv. 27-30):
 
עַל-כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים:
Thus say the poets:
בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן—תִּבָּנֶה
וְתִכּוֹנֵן עִיר סִיחוֹן.
Come to Heshbon—let it be rebuilt!
And let the City of Sihon be reestablished!
כִּי-אֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן,
לֶהָבָה מִקִּרְיַת סִיחֹן:
For a fire went out from Heshbon,
A flame from the Town of Sihon;
אָכְלָה עָר מוֹאָב,
בַּעֲלֵי בָּמוֹת אַרְנֹן.[10]
It consumed the Steppe of Moab,
The dwellers of the Arnon’s plateau.
 
 
The Torah does not claim that this song comes from the book of YHWH’s Battles, and only says that it was sung by “balladeers” (מושלים).
 
Nevertheless, Ramban (Nachmanides, ca. 1195-1270) argues that this quote also comes from YHWH’s Battles
 
…Another way we can approach the question of this document’s nature is by comparing it to another “book” called HaYashar (“The Upright”) that is cited certainly once, likely twice or thrice, and perhaps even four times in the Bible. [12]