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One Judaism, Two Perspectives on Dressing Modesty

Orthodox Jewish women enjoy shopping at a clothing fair for women only, held at the International Conference Center in jerusalem. March 27, 2012.

Orthodox Jewish women enjoy shopping at a clothing fair for women only, held at the International Conference Center in jerusalem. March 27, 2012.
Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90

When it comes to modesty in dress there is a wide variety in the way various segments of Orthodox Jewry put it into practice. But the basics are the same for all. Without getting into the details of the basic Halacha, I will just say that modesty for women requires that she cover those parts of the body that are considered “her nakedness” (Erva). Those are the biblical parameters which apply in all places – at all times in public. The rabbinic parameters (Tznius) go beyond the biblical requirement and are relative to the culture where one resides.

So that in places like Iran, a Jewish woman may be required to follow the modesty customs of that culture which go far beyond what is biblically required. In places like America, the biblical and rabbinic parameters are the same. Modesty in western cultural terms do not meet even the biblical Erva standard.

Some of the more right wing segments of Orthodoxy insist on taking matters of Tznius to much greater lengths than Halacha requires – even those that live in westernized cultures like America and Israel. For example, even though an exposed lower leg below the knee is not considered Erva, Chasidic – and many other Charedi communities require that it be covered anyway. And consider it highly immodest if a woman’s leg below the knee is fully exposed.

Which brings me to two articles in the Forward. One by Judy Brown, a woman who is Charedi. The other by Simi Lampert who is Modern Orthodox. It is interesting to see the similarity of attitude expressed by both.

One might think that a Modern Orthodox woman would be put off by the attitude expressed by the Charedi woman. But in both cases they seem to be saying the same thing. Which is that they understand the purpose behind those modesty rules. And both expressed the desire to follow them.

Both women have the desire to look attractive by western cultural standards and have tried on immodest clothing in private just to see how they would look. Both thought they looked great, and both would never consider wearing such clothing in public. They both feel a level of comfort in following the modesty rules.

The difference between them is cultural and not Halachic. In the Charedi culture, the idea of not wearing stockings is considered a Tznius violation. So much so that when an error in perception was made about the Mrs. Brown not wearing stockings even though her legs were covered below the knee, all hell broke loose. Here is how she tells the story:

[T]he young man passing by the yard declared that he had seen me with bare legs. Like a careless whore…

It was Tuesday, mid-August, a (very hot) day… I filled up the baby pool for my children in the yard settled on a plastic chair with cherry ices and dunked my legs in the pool, right where the water spurted from the hose.

It was then that the Hasid passed. It was then that he saw me — beige pantyhose transparent, legs seemingly bare — and, looking quickly away, hurried to tell the rav. I had not seen him at all. I did not know of the bewildered chaos going on in his mind until later that night, when my husband came home and stared at me quizzically.

The rav had called, he said. Could it be true? That I had sat outside with no pantyhose at all?

Of course she was wearing stockings and it was just a misperception on the part of a passerby. The point here is how seriously this Chumra is taken in the world of Chasidim. As ‘modern’ as Mrs. Brown became in other areas, this area is sancrosanct to her.

This would never happen in Modern Orthodoxy. Of course modern Orthodox Jews do not have the infra structure or the desire to dictate how its members dress. As Mrs. Lambert points out:

If my rabbi approached my husband about what I was wearing in my own yard, I’d almost definitely move. The very next day.

While both communities follow the same Halachos of modesty there is no mechanism, or really any pressure in Modern Orthodoxy that would force a violator to adhere to Halacha. One will find that modesty laws are occasionally breached by those I would call MO-Lite. The kind of guilt described by Mrs. Brown does not exist in MO circles, at least not on the level she seemed to have about it.

All an MO Rav can do is teach the laws. He has no method of enforcement. In the Charedi world the peer pressure alone is enough to enforce those rules. In the Chasidic world there are actual social consequences to those violations as suggested by Mrs. Brown’s description of events.

What should be noted however is not the differences but the similarities. Nor will I comment on which system is better off. The point is that serious Jews, whether Charedi or Modern Orthodox take Halacha very seriously. Even when there is social pressure to do otherwise.

Mrs. Lampert concludes:

[N]o halacha should be trivialized simply because it sounds absurd. If it is, I think we should start with the one where we blow a ram’s horn on specific occasions.

Though I see the beauty behind the laws of tzenua, the desire to look like ‘them’ and dress like ‘them’ has always had a strong pull over me. Is the difference between Ms. Brown and myself the result of our different forms of Orthodoxy?

Does the sheltered world of right-wing Orthodoxy truly protect its members from the pull of the secular world, while the fragile balance of Modern Orthodoxy exposes its observers to temptations that halacha denies? Still, there are right-wing Jews who leave the fold, and Modern Orthodox Jews who are true leaders of this generation.

Maybe there’s no lesson here about the cultural disparities between ways of Jewish life. Perhaps it’s just a personality difference between two women who try to live the dual life of a halachic American.

I disagree with her. I think there is a lesson to be learned here. The lesson is that there is no real difference in the desire of members of either community to serve God. Serious Jews ought to be respected no matter what their Hashkafos are as long as they are all L’Shem Shomayim.

Visit the Emes v’Emunah blog.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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One Response to “One Judaism, Two Perspectives on Dressing Modesty”

  1. Muriel Coudurier-Curveur says:

    Modesty is a personal attitude. While it can be taught, it cannot be imposed. One can be immodest in a burka, or modest wearing shorts. When a woman dresses, against her own wishes, in a manner dictated by her community, because she is afraid of the consequences, she is being fearful and even possibly bullied. She isn't being modest. A modest woman is one who choose to act -as well as dress- modestly, even though transgression has no consequences on her place in the community. In short, to be modest, one must also have the freedom not to be.

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