How does a young woman determine what is or isn’t immodest when it comes to clothing that falls in the grey area of tznius (i.e., the article of clothing is long enough but its overall look is problematic in the eyes of some but not in the eyes of others)? Does she consult her own conscience? Ask her mother? A teacher?
The modesty of a woman is not only in relation to others; it’s in relation to herself as well. Modesty is also measured in the eyes of Hashem. A person cannot walk around his or her home in an immodest fashion when other people don’t see him or her – for obviously Hashem is aware of everything.
Therefore, a woman must ask herself if she is properly dressed in relation to the One who sees all things, in all places, and at all times. Is this how I want to appear before Him?
She also must ask herself if she is personally pleased with the way she looks. Is this how I would want my fiancé to see me? Would my husband-to-be admire me if he saw me dressed like this?
How a woman dresses is as important as how she speaks. A woman “speaks” to the world via her attire, hairstyle, and make-up. Her surroundings hear this message in the most intimate way – far more than through speech.
A woman therefore has to ask herself, “What am I communicating to everyone?” Am I presentable and self-respecting, or am I disheveled, immodest, and cheap? Am I ostentatious and a spendthrift or am I a responsible individual avoiding extremes? Do I love Hashem or belittle His importance in my life? Do I respect my parents or not?
All these questions – and their answers – are contained in every article of dress. A person has to weigh all the answers.
— Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Tzefas
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Certainly there are both objective and subjective elements to tzniut. Often communities will maintain their own stringent standards that do not, and should not, pertain elsewhere. But the common and overarching objective for every person who aspires to tzniut is the desire not to call attention to ancillary aspects of the human being, such as clothing, appearance, and the body itself.
Breaches of tzniut are always rooted in a flawed self-definition – people who want to be known primarily for their physical attributes instead of some quality that reflects true human greatness such as one’s intellect, spirituality, or moral excellence.
The Torah mandates that a kohen with an obvious physical blemish cannot serve in the Beit HaMikdash, as it senses that onlookers will focus on the blemish and the kohen as an individual and not just an agent, thereby detracting from his divine mission.
If the barometer of tzniut is a conscious decision to be valued by others for the way we express our uniqueness as people and not the way we flaunt our animalistic side, then all three resources listed in the question are most helpful. A teacher can impart what precisely the community standards and expectations are and a mother can flesh out her daughter’s values, thought processes, and conclusions.
Ultimately, though, children leave home and live on their own, so it is critical that they develop the and make their mark in the world, and about their responsibilities as bnei and bnot Torah.
This is the only way they will learn to make healthy and proper decisions as adults.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, mara d’asra of
Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, NJ
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Allow me to respond in two ways:
1. Long-term: Tznius is far more than length and look of clothing. Tznius is also, and perhaps primarily, about attitude and disposition. The word “tznius” is derived from Micha 6:8 “v’hatzneiah leches im Elokecha – and walk modestly/discreetly with your G-d.” It’s about being dignified and behaving in a dignified and refined manner, whether you are with other people or alone, whether you are female or male.
One can be covered from head to toe and still behave in a non-tznius way by one’s body language, speech, and other forms of expression. Thus, in the long-term, an appropriate Torah-based education teaches both women and men to live up to their being created in the Divine Image (b’tzelem Elokim), in behavior, dress, and every aspect of their lives – to walk discreetly with G-d.
A young woman – and, for that matter, any woman or man – educated in this manner will certainly make the extra effort to proactively and pre-emptively avoid any questionable form of dress or behavior. And in case of doubt, she or he would consult an objective Torah-guided person. Indeed, humbly turning for advice when unsure is also a manifestation of tznius/modest behavior.
2. Short-term: One should always be aware that our subjectivity can blind our judgment. Therefore, it is always wise to consult a trusted party when any question arises regarding tznius or any other matter.
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson,
renowned Lubavitch author and lecturer
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The question assumes – correctly, I think – that she would not ask a posek, a (male) halachic authority, because that itself would be a breach of tznius, a man discussing in detail with a woman (not his wife or daughter) what she should and should not wear and what counts as overly attention-grabbing.
It’s a reminder that we need women in our communities who are knowledgeable in, and able to communicate, the Torah’s position on such concerns.
We should also be sure to avoid the trap of thinking of tznius only in the context of women’s clothing. The Gemara says that the prophet Michah included tznius among one of three categories representative of mitzvot generally, and the Gemara singles out weddings and funerals as events to conduct with tznius. For these matters, too, grey areas in appropriate tznius calls for guidance.
As with many areas of halacha, tznius has objective components and less objective components. Where the answer isn’t absolute – where a garment’s “overall look” might be a problem – the answer must address halacha’s priorities as they interact with the circumstances of the individual person’s life. Each man and woman’s tznius – in clothing and otherwise – finds a place on a continuum.
To understand the continuum, we need figures of Torah knowledge who can give us a sense of what halacha demands, prefers, and holds up as an ideal. We need parents and other relatives to communicate our family tradition about where within the range we fall. And then we make personal choices about how we will carry the tradition forward.
It’s all needed so that we can hope HaKadosh Baruch Hu will recognize our answer as our best attempt to live up to the Torah’s values.
— Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, author,
regular contributor to www.Torahmusings.com