How Jewish Modesty Laws Helped Me Cope With My Sexual Assault

Sophie Frieden
August 5, 2020

Growing up in post-secular society, surrounded by secular family, I was raised to believe that ultra-orthodox practices like covering a woman’s hair or observing niddah laws were the product of a patriarchal history. I always held the thought that my mother, a badass, strong, defiant, IT Executive from Boston, did not raise a woman who didn’t shake hands with men or show her shoulders. My past year has forced me to reconsider this.

During the October of my sophomore year of college, I faced possibly the worst time of my life: I was sexually assaulted by someone I trusted and subsequently forced into a complete reevaluation of what I had previously thought to be true. The thing about trauma is that it seeps into every crack of your life; every time you walk by a tall man your heart boils in your throat, or instinctively running away when someone tries to hug you.

After my assault, I took a few months off of college and did what was necessary for my soul; packed my bags and headed to Jerusalem for a few months of Torah learning on a program for young religious women. Upon arrival, I went straight to the kotel with two notes — one asking HaShem for all the blessings possible to my friend and her mother, who took me to the hospital to get my rape kit and held my hand until 5:30 in the morning. The other begged HaShem to reconstruct the ruins of my relationship with my body, my sexuality, and my femininity that had been destroyed; just like the Temple whose border at which I was praying. I had been attacked and destroyed within, and I prayed for my own, tiny Moshiach to rebuild what had been pillaged inside me and repair my soul’s relationship to the body it is in.

The first brick of rebuilding my little temple came from a teacher named Jodie Herszaft, a teacher at Midreshet Moriah, on my first day of Torah class. She introduced me to the idea that the holiest act on Earth, which is the foundation of rebuilding the Temple, is acts of dignity and respect to yourself and others. Respecting myself, I thought, was the first condition of healing that I knew was in my own hands. Not knowing what to do with this information, I did what I could: started wearing clothes which made me feel comfortable and able to navigate the world without fear. This looks different woman by woman: to some it would be a cropped top and shorts. For me and my relationship with the world around me, it’s a long skirt.

The second brick of my home was laid by a teacher named Rivka Pesha, a social worker for young women who had been victims of sexual violence and were rebuilding their own lives afterwards. Rivka introduced me, then, to the idea of shomer negiah for the sake of yourself, and by extension the sake of the soul. The idea of tznius, Hebrew for modesty, began to shift before my very eyes. I had always viewed modesty through secular eyes, ones that rebelled against the societal idea that women are pure until they are touched by a man and instead viewed sexuality as liberation. I spent my first year of college blinded by the idea that sex was empowering to women, but ignored whether or not it was empowering to me. Learning from a Ba’al Teshuva taught me that my soul is not a martyr or a representation of all those like me, it is mine to nourish. Becoming traditionally observant isn’t the deconstruction of empowerment, it is individual empowerment and demanding consent in its rawest form.

Placing the idea of becoming tznuis or shomer negiah in front of me prior to my sexual assault would have felt like asking me to swallow a brick. I would have called it sexist, or oppressive, or even backwards. But shomer negiah after a sexual assault is what I now see as my most radical form of self-preservation. My body is a temple, not in the way a bodybuilder or a yoga enthusiast would say. My body is my holiest of holies, and only those with my consent may enter. I am laying my own bricks every day. Every time I allow myself the grace to deny someone’s advances, or to build my own boundaries, or to firmly enforce my own laws of who and when is allowed to touch me, I feel more power in my femininity than I ever have. I have learned that the feminine experience is inherently holy, but more importantly, there is nothing holier than the demand of consent in whatever form it may take. To empower yourself is to empower which decision is right for you, and for now, that decision is to dictate consent in all facets of my life.

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