Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Going Overboard on Tzniyus

Baseball Fans love to argue over who belongs in the Hall of Fame. Every fan has his or her own opinion both on players who are not yet in the Hall and on players who are actually in the Hall. We can spend endless hours arguing over the merits of Phil Rizzutto vs. Pee Wee Reese, whether Don Mattingly or Bert Blyleven really should be inducted or if we should induct players who were undoubtedly great on the field, but had off-field problems.

Part of the problem, I suppose, comes from the fact that there is no clear definition of exactly who a Hall of Famer is. Bill James, the noted baseball writer and statistician, said in his book Politics of Glory “The Hall of Fame is a self-defining institution that has by and large failed to define itself.” Since the guidelines of what, exactly, a Hall of Famer is are vague and ambiguous, there will always be arguing about who belongs in the Hall.

A similar problem exists with regard to the Orthodox Jewish community and the concept of tznius. When we hear the word “tznius,” the first thing that pops into our heads is a myriad of restrictions regarding clothing, appearance and behavior – with about 90% of the regulations aimed at women. And yet, the very first mention of tznius (as a concept) has nothing to do (specifically) with women… it has to do with the way we behave in general. The prophet Michah (6:8), exhorted us to “walk humbly with God.” From the context of the paragraph, it’s fairly clear that he wasn’t thinking of skirt lengths when he uttered his famous phrase. It’s clear that the idea was meant in terms of one’s behavior and that it applied to everyone -- men and women.

For good or for bad, however, the concept of tznius has morphed over time, to include restrictions on how women (and, to a far lesser extenet, men) dress and behave. However, as with the Hall of Fame, there is no clear definition of tznius, but rather one that varies greatly over time and distance. It’s kind of funny in a way – no matter where (or when) we come from, we all agree that a esrog is the fruit indicated in the verse pri etz hadar and we all agree that tefillin need to be black and have four parshiyos. Yeah, we may disagree in some minor details (the order of the parshiyos, etc.), but we agree in the main details. And yet, when it comes to tznius, the definition of how women are to dress varies greatly from one community to the next. In some communities a wig is the only acceptable head covering. In others, a wig is forbidden, only a kerchief or a turban is acceptable. In some communities, women shave their heads completely upon marriage, thus making absolutely sure that no one sees their hair (including, I guess, their husbands). And on and on it goes. Since we’ve failed to establish some universal standards for tznius (beyond, I suppose the bare minimum) each community argues for what it thinks is the proper standard.

However, of late, I think that we’ve been taking things a bit too far. We’ve taken the concept of tznius, as it relates to women’s dress and behavior, and begun carrying it to an extreme. Whereas at one time it may have meant simply being modest in dress and behavior, it is now approaching the point where we have ever-increasing restrictions and regulations. It has been noted in more than one place that black seems to be the newest fashion trend among Orthodox Jewish women. However, it that because it is just the “fad of the season” or is it because we’ve become afraid to wear any other color because it might be ruled “untzniusdik?”

There are things that are happening today in the name of “tznius” that would have been unheard of fifteen years ago. Consider the following paragraph from Miraim Shaviv’s recent article in the Jewish Chronicle:

Firstly, standards of modesty are becoming increasingly stringent and require increasing effort to follow. A CD recording by a top rabbi from Lakewood, New Jersey, for example, reportedly asks women not to swing their arms while they walk and not to allow their daughters to wear colourful banana-clips in their hair. Women know that if they wear skin-coloured stockings, they must include a seam so it is clear they are not bare-legged. Schoolgirls do not wear shiny shoes that could “reflect their underwear”.

Shiny shoes that reflect their underwear?! Who thinks these things up?! I can't remember the last time I heard something so bizarre! Do shiny shoes reflect underwear? And even if they do, who looks at girls’ shoes to see their underwear? Swinging their arms? This is a problem?! Colored banana clips is a violation of tznius? Where do these things come from? We’re going from the idea that a woman should dress modestly and not call undue attention to herself with immodest dress to the extreme where she can’t wear anything that is the least bit out of the “ideal” and behave in any way that causes them to be anything other than completely socially invisible.

The extreme example of this, of course, is the recent case of the followers of Rabbanit Keren in Ramat Beit Shemesh in Israel who have chosen to completely cover themselves and wear multiple layers of clothing in a manner similar to the Afghan women under the Taliban. Thankfully, there have been some rabbis that have called her approach unacceptable and extreme. But as popular culture has sometimes shown us with immodesty, what is extreme today will be “in” tomorrow. Considering the fact that her following (by most accounts) seems to be growing and the general direction that tznius regulation seem to be taking, I wonder when (not if) this will become more mainstream. Rabbi Falk’s book, Oz V’Hadar, which is often criticized for being overly stringent, will one day be looked upon as a book that only “loose girls” follow. “Truly proper tzniusdik girls” will one day go far beyond the restrictions in Oz V’Hadar.

Lest you think that I’m being alarmist, please consider the case of the Mehadrin Buses in Israel. While some may think that it is a good thing to have women sit in the back of the bus, there is certainly no halachic problem with men and women sitting together on a bus. It’s done in communities all over the world without a word of Rabbinic protest. You may decide to choose for yourself not to ride on a mixed bus, but you have no right to try to force the matter on others who do not want to accept this stringency upon them. And yet, a woman was beaten up for refusing to go to the back of a non-Mehadrin bus.

Lest you think I’m being alarmist, we’re approaching the point where we are delegitimizing any forum where women and men might possibly appear in the same place at the same time. Concerts with family seating (as the famous Lag BaOmer concert in Beit Shemesh), weddings, school functions, etc. are being phased out. More and more fundraisers (such as Chinese Auctions) are becoming either gender-segregated.

Lest you think I’m being alarmist, we’re reaching the point where the very image of a woman is a problem. Major newspapers such as the Yated and HaModia have a long-standing policy of not publishing pictures of women. This has, in turn, forced book publishers to no longer put women’s faces on the covers of books, since books with pictures of women could not be advertised visually in a display ad. Women’s faces are being “Photoshopped” out of official photographs. Oorah put an ad in last week’s Yated, saying that if there was enough demand, they would publish their auction catalog without women’s pictures. Is it any wonder that some women have gotten the wrong impression and began wearing face-concealing burkas?

Lest you think I'm being alarmist, we have now come to the point where rabbis issue hechsherim on clothing stores(!) and people commit violence against stores which sell clothing that is in their opinion, immodest.

As with just about all things in life, there is a key word that one must apply to one’s actions and thoughts – moderation. In all things, one must be moderate. Going overboard on anything is a bad thing – and that includes tzniyus. Going overboard on tzniyus regulations to the point where you begin measuring how thick stockings have to be, or how shiny your shoes are or what color banana-clip you can wear in your hair only serves to alienate women from Judaism, not to attract them to it. And when you alienate women from Judaism, it's usually the tzniyus restrictions that are the first thing to go.

The Wolf


Ariella's blog said...

People forget the danger of blurring the distinction between halacha and personal chumrahs. That is one of the lessons to be learned from the cheyt of Adam. His telling her she had to do more than she had to in including a prohibition to even touch the fruit from the Eitz hada'as lead to her downfall. As the nachash convinced her that nothing happened from the touch, nothing should happen from eating. So now women are only to shop at certified stores because they are no longer to be trusted to judge sleeve and hem length and appropriateness of style for themselves. And the women who follow the rabbanit you refer to believe that even their eyes cannot appear in public. It is a huge kula for a woman to allow herself one eye revealed so that she can actually see where she is going! Is there a better demonstration of self-induced blindness?

Anonymous said...

The chumra of shiny shoes reflecting a girl's underwear is one I remember hearing about as a kid, many years ago. I heard it from friends who were catholic and this was something the nuns made a big deal about. Now we know where the rabbis got this one.

G said...

I don't know who would have the guts to use it but you should consider sending this in to various publications.

SuperRaizy said...

anonymous is right. The idea of shiny shoes reflecting up a girl's skirt is immortalized in a great book from the 60s about Catholic school called "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?".

BrooklynWolf said...

Fair enough. I'd never heard of it before.

In any event, how big a concern is this, really? It's still silly, even if it did come from the Catholics.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


Thanks for the compliment. :)

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


Great point! I didn't even think to mention that!

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

". . . weddings . . . are being phased out."

Does that mean that we are going to promote having children out of wedlock or are we phasing out children as well?

"More and more fundraisers (such as Chinese Auctions) are becoming either gender-segregated."

That is the greatest idea to have hit the orthodox scene since they invented scotch. Now my wife can't shlep me to those Chinese auctions. Then again, now she actually buys the tickets at the door herself. I can no longer pull the "why don't you go speak to your friend over there while I go buy the $3 million worth of tickets you want and throw them all into the bin for that horrendous looking painting you wanted." My wife is still wondering how if she instructed me to put 90% of the tickets towards the the gift certificate to a jewelery store and not more than $10 worth towards that state of the art computer system, how come we end up winning the computer system. Well, what can I say, its the luck of the draw.

Anonymous said...

Wolf, we as Orthodox Judaism have a choice. We can embrace the mystical path which sees theurgic properties on every single thing we do. Therefore, it is completely logical, following this way of thought that the greater the chumra, the greater the holiness, because there is inherent kedusha in the chumra. Therefore just like shaving off a womens hair has mystical powers so should covering the entire body.
Or we can follow the mesorah of rational Torah of the Rav Sadia Gaon, Rambam, RSRH, and the RYBS. These great luminaries see Mitzvas and Judaism as means to and end off emulating and understanding God. Therefore while chumras have there place, they can also have detrimental effects on our kedusha. This derech, I believe taught properly, can go a long way in solving so many of the current issues we are having today.

PsychoToddler said...

My father's favorite phrase was "everything in moderation." He was old school chauvenist, but even he wouldn't have been able to stomach what the super-charedi's are doing to women. I suspect he would have steered us clear of orthodoxy had he known this was in store.

And you can say all you want about how you have a choice to follow or not to follow. As the father of 3 girls (all of whom are amazingly talented and have a lot to offer), I sure am glad I don't live in one of these communities. The pressure to conform is enormous, not just socially, but now we see that there may be violence involved too.

It's really scary.

Anonymous said...

It's all very simple...what some people lack in terms of the spiritual side of Judaism,they try to make up with novel Chumras on the physical. In any case,a rebbe at my yeshiva once told our class that Machmir should be read" mach mir" as in Yiddish,not Hebrew ie.,what someone makes for himself and not what one tries to force on others.

-suitepotato- said...

I would anonymously suggest that the great rabbonim of our time might be in danger of being infected by breathing in the heady scents of women around in the world and should wear HEPA filtration face masks to prevent smelling female smells both perfume and especially that other one.

After that, one silly thing after another until the chumra-addicted are wandering around hermetically sealed in space-age suits. Keep it up until the silliness becomes so manifest it can not be ignored any longer.

Fight fire with a seltzer bottle.

Michael Koplow said...

I was going to point out that I heard about the Catholic issur on patent leather shoes from my RC schoolmates when I was in school (public), but some others beat me to it. All that I'm going to add is a cry of "Chukkat hagoyim! Chukkat hagoyim!"

Michael Koplow said...

And BT"W, here's a link to a post of mine about nontzniusdik statuary (which would be a great pseudonym).

-suitepotato- said...

michael koplow: thanks for reminding me. I recall that statement now. I wonder why this gentleman inferred that freedom necessarily means freedom from G-d as opposed to freedom from MAN to get to know G-d. As in, you're free to choose G-d if you want. Is he afraid to choose G-d or that he might not?

The deconstruction possibilities are endless.

ProfK said...

Re the patent leather shoes, it goes beyond being a Catholic prohibition. A law, still on the books in Ohio, states:
**Women are prohibited from wearing patent leather shoes in

Anonymous said...

Actually, walking around in a burka is as untzniusdik as walking around in underwear. For one thing it invites attention. For another, ostentatious displays of surface piety are called "yuhara" by Chazal, and forbidden as a violation of tzniut.

Anonymous said...

personally i find stocking with a line up the back very exciting and sexy

Anonymous said...

Pretty soon Jewish women will be told to wear burkas.Some one will darshen that burka comes from the word bracha ie;those who wear them will be blessed(you know,like all those women in Afghanistan).

ProfK said...

Would think that it would be clearer to darshen burka from boureka. Just as the filling is stuffed into the puffy layers of dough the women are stuffed into the puffy layers of cloth.

Anonymous said...

I take pride in operating the website with the utmost of tznius (modesty). When people post a dress for sale or rent, I will remove the hands and face. Call me crazy, but this is a crazy world and you've got to fit in.