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SUMMER VACATION SERIES
Edited by Aryeh Werth

Is It Proper To Go To A Pool, Beach, Or Boardwalk Where Both
Secular Women And Men Are In Bathing Suits That Are Not Tznius?

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Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Each person must take responsibility for his/her moral life. We live in a society where many men and women dress and act immodestly. This is true not only at the beach, but almost everywhere in public. Whether walking down the street or shopping in stores, one is likely to run into people who are dressed very far from proper standards of modesty. We necessarily must develop inner moral resources that enable us to block out unwanted distractions.

Religiously observant people will try to avoid situations that will lead to improper thoughts or feelings. Different people have different thresholds for what they can or cannot tolerate.

It isn’t uncommon for religious young people to go on “shidduch dates” walking on the boardwalk at various ocean beaches. There are many non-tznius people on the beach and the boardwalk, but these couples concentrate on their own conversations and are oblivious to the non-tznius people. This is true of other religious people who enjoy a healthy walk on the boardwalk and do not get distracted by the presence of non-tznius individuals.

While it isn’t proper to put ourselves in temptation’s way, it’s also not proper to restrict our lives unnecessarily. Each person must know where best to draw the line when it comes to his/her decisions.

– Rabbi Marc D. Angel, director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

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There is a pasuk in Sefer Yeshayahu (33:15) that praises one who “shuts his eyes from looking at evil.” In the Gemara in Bava Basra (57b), Rabbi Chiya bar Aba applies this pasuk to someone who does not gaze at women while they were doing laundry. I am no expert in ancient methods of laundering, but I know that it was done by a river or stream or in a tub of water; apparently the activity also involved immodest dress that passersby might find attractive or alluring. In fact, a few lines earlier, the Gemara rules that even though partners in a courtyard may prevent one another from doing certain activities therein, this does not apply to laundering, because, “It is not the way of the daughters of Israel to degrade themselves by doing laundry” in a semipublic area.

The implication of R. Chiya bar Aba’s statement, as Rashbam comments there, is that one who closes his eyes is praiseworthy, but one who does not close his eyes is neither praiseworthy nor worthy of condemnation. The Gemara then questions the application of this pasuk. What is the scenario? If the passerby could take a different route, he is wicked. If there was no alternate route, then the passerby was compelled to walk past the immodest laundresses. The Gemara answers that even in the latter scenario, where the passerby had no choice but to walk past the laundresses, he can still control himself and avoid gazing at them. That is, as Rashbam explains, one who forces himself to avert his gaze is praiseworthy, yet one who does not is still within the realm of the permissible and is not deemed “wicked.”

Interestingly, the Gemara does not tell us why the passerby had to undertake his journey. To go to minyan? To meet a chavrusa? To get to work? The Gemara does not address this, and so presumably the ruling applies to any permissible activity, even a leisurely one. This brings us to the question at hand.

It seems to me that there are several questions that one must answer honestly in determining the propriety of visiting a pool, beach, boardwalk, water park, etc.:

  1. The goal of the trip must be to engage in a permissible activity, and exposure to immodest dress must be incidental to that goal. There are certainly water-based activities that are permissible and even laudatory – teaching one’s child to swim, for instance. If one is going to a beach, pool, etc., to engage in such an activity, then we can discuss further. If the goal of visiting the beach, etc., is to be in a place of immodesty, then it would be improper in any case.
  2. Is there “another route?” Is it possible to achieve the same goal without the exposure to the immodesty? Are there separate beaches? Is a private pool available? Can they visit the boardwalk at night, when the air cools off and people tend to wear more modest clothing? If there is an alternative, then one who does not avail himself of it is deemed by the Gemara to be wicked. If not, then it seems that it would be permissible, but not praiseworthy.
  3. The final variable is the level of “praiseworthy.” If one is able to avert their gaze, this would indeed be praiseworthy. For those who are fortunate enough to be nearsighted, simply removing one’s glasses while in such places can produce the desired effect.

In the final analysis, the key question seems to be the second one. Swimming, surfing, sunbathing, etc., are all permissible leisure activities on their own. The key question is whether they can be done in a different, more modest context. It would seem to me that nowadays the scenario of “no other route” is very uncommon. Myriad options are open to us, and we must avail ourselves of them.

One final point: The Gemara (and much of the subsequent halakhic literature) refers specifically to a scenario of a man gazing at women. For several reasons, the Gemara was more concerned about the male gaze than about the female gaze, and there may be more grounds for leniency for a woman to place herself in such a situation. Thus, if a couple or family is considering a water-based leisure activity, concerns about a man’s exposure to immodestly-dressed women will almost always be stricter than the reverse. The family should discuss the issue between themselves and undertake an honest assessment of the situation and its potential ramifications for shalom bayis, in addition to the concerns addressed above.

– Rabbi Elli Fischer is a translator, writer, and historian. He edits Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha in English, cofounded HaMapah, a project to quantify and map rabbinic literature, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus. Follow him @adderabbi on Twitter or listen to his podcast, “Down the Rabbi Hole.”

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Today everyone must learn to behave like Joseph, in that just as Joseph was able to overcome his desires to have intimate relations with the wife of Potifar – and he literally ran away from her advances – so too, men and women must be on guard to not place themselves in these compromising situations. Today the dress, particularly of women at the beach or at any public swimming area, is certainly unacceptable, and as Torah observant people should therefore be avoided.

However, if a person is swimming for health reasons, then under certain circumstances he/she may swim there. These include swimming when few people are at the beach as in the morning, or if one swims at a pool, during the later hours of the day when few people are present.

In the city of Efrat, they are completing the construction of an indoor pool with a mechitza, so both men and women would be able to swim at the same time.

– Rabbi Mordechai Weiss lives in Efrat Israel and previously served as an elementary and high school principal in New Jersey and Connecticut. He was also the founder and rav of Young Israel of Margate, New Jersey. His email is ravmordechai@aol.com.

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