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Women's Issues

The Challenge of Modest Dress, Tznius

Question: I recently have become more observant, and I’ve seen in the community amongst the ultra observant woman different modes of dress, which is very confusing and disturbing to me. Some woman wear tight skirts that technically cover their knees and tight shirts that don”t expose any skin but are revealing in other ways. I was taught by my phone partner that women have an inner beauty and it is a shame for them to show off their beauty to men other than their spouse. Why is it than that I see religious woman doing this by wearing clothing that seem at best to be just technically meeting standards of Jewish law but still in violation of the standards of modesty. It also turned out that one woman that stood out was the wife a rabbi too! If you would have seen her, you would have seen that everything about her was calling attention to her figure, extremely long hair (wig) and trying to be a presence in front of other men. I was given advice to write you for a response. Am I off base ? I don’t want to judge others, but isn’t this basic? And aren’t ultra observant people held to higher standards in these areas? Thanking you..

Answer: I am not a rabbi, but a rabbi’s wife and Torah teacher, and therefore I was asked to answer your questions. You raise a lot of different issues and I wish I had time to address each of them at greater length, but briefly, here are some of the main points that should be made:1. Very often we find that people who have come newly to Torah view everything with a straight, whole-hearted sincerity that (sadly) is often lacking in those who grew up with an observant life and tend to take things for granted.

2. So yes, your observations are accurate. And I wish there was a way that your sincerity, depth and honest wish to do the right thing could be conveyed to women in the FFB circles (“frum from birth”—i.e., grew up observant) who don’t see their own behavior clearly for what it is and who sometimes are less careful than the BTs (baalei teshuva, newly-observant).

3. Your telephone Torah partner is correct; a woman’s inner beauty is the important thing. A Jewish woman should look presentable and pretty but at the same time, should dress in a dignified, quiet and not showy manner.

4. Some women think that if they are dressed within the letter of the law—elbows and knees covered, hair covered (for married women)—then “I’m alright Jack.” Sometimes it takes a wise outsider or newcomer like yourself to notice, “No, you’re not alright Jack—or Jill!” A woman can be covered up and yet be very far from modest. If all eyes are drawn to her, and if her body rather than her soul and spirit is the center of attraction, then she has completely missed the boat as far as understanding what tznius (true modesty) really is. I don’t care how many years of Jewish schooling she has had, she is lacking understanding.

5. Some women do know better but find this area to be a very difficult challenge. For a woman who really is very attractive, male attention is like a drug that makes her feel high. Each of us has our Yetzer hara, our area of difficulty and challenge. For some it may have to do with honoring parents or not gossiping—and for some women it has to do with enjoying male admiration. These women 99% + of the time will do nothing wrong—they would never betray their husbands or go against the Torah in any overt way—yet the very fact that a woman enjoys the admiring glances of other men means she is doing something that is not right. And yet—when you realize how very hard it is for some women NOT to draw male attention—you have to have a somewhat forgiving attitude towards them, realizing that we all have our challenges and we all fall down sometimes.

6. Some women—and this may even be true of a rabbi’s wife now and then—mistakenly believe that they are actually doing something positive, and even see themselves as role models, by demonstrating that they can dress in a very modern and fashionable way while keeping to the letter of the law. Yet if they are actually dressing provocatively, they are deceiving themselves.

7. Some women fear that their husbands are in the working world with very attractive women and fear that their husbands’ eyes will stray—so they think they have to compete with the women out there in the “other world.” The mistake here is that while a woman SHOULD try to be as attractive as possible to her husband—and even seductive—this should be strictly in the PRIVACY OF HER HOME, away from outside eyes. Even her own children should not see her in the way that is appropriate only between a husband and wife.

8. It is admirable that you don’t want to judge and condemn others. The fine line you must walk here is to judge and condemn inappropriate BEHAVIOR —but do not judge and condemn other PEOPLE. When you realize that what may be easy for one woman may be a very difficult struggle for another woman, you may look at a woman who is dressed inappropriately with a more understanding eye. Eventually you may find yourself in a position to have a positive influence on some of the women who come into your circle of acquaintance, finding a soft and tactful way to share your insights and wisdom with others. If you don’t already have daughters, some day you probably will (G-d-willing) and you will have to be able to explain to them forthrightly that certain kinds of dress are really not in the Torah spirit, even if worn by some rabbis’ wives. You will need a clear eye and an understanding heart. It seems to me that you already have these things! I wish you the greatest success in the Torah path you have chosen.
—Toby Katz

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