Last week I wrote about the difficulty of enforcing a tznius standard in some of our schools. I reported the stories of two children of the chronically ill, who by circumstances not of their doing could not meet the “tznius” criteria set by the school and kept being fined for infractions. In their company were others, who because of home circumstances or just plain rebellion joined the ranks of the “non-tznius.” In all cases, the schools dealt with the escalated problem of inappropriate dress by tightening its standard and increasing its list of punishments for transgressing the school standard.
In one case, a new school was started with more stringent criteria that disallowed many who wanted to attend from being accepted. The rational being that the parents wanted their children schooled with students who came from homes with the same values and standards that they kept, feeling it would be safer and easier to bring up their children this way.
Tznius is more than a prescription of what is appropriate and what is not, when it comes to dress. Tznius is a state of mind and the way one carries oneself and how one talks to and behaves around others. It is as much about conduct as it is about dressing. You can be covered from head to toe and still be dressed in a sensuous and inappropriate manner. You can wear long sleeves but still call inappropriate attention to yourself by your body language and how and what you say.
Halachah cannot and should not be compromised. The halachos of tznius are complicated and I do not have the qualifications or the intention to discuss them. Instead, my point is to suggest that there may be a different way of dealing with the problems we are facing in our homes and in our schools in the area of tznius.
A bas Yisrael, a Jewess, has been historically a term that was respected. Tznius in both conduct and dress has contributed greatly to what made the daughters of Israel so different and attractive. I suggest that we teach more of certain tznius-related concepts and values and teach them more effectively to our children. Instead of penalties for choosing inappropriate behaviors and dress, we need to teach our daughters more about the uniqueness and special gift of being a Jewish woman.
We need to give them more to strive for instead of run away from in a manner they can relate to and identify with. We need to continue and more effectively discuss, not just the rules of sleeve length, etc. but how living these rules make us unique, special and held in high esteem. Our daughters need to learn how tznius contributes to self-respect and elicits the respect of others. They need to be taught about body language and its messages and how clothing speaks volumes about who we are and what we want from others.
Young women need pictures of great woman as well as great rabbis hung in the hallways of their schools and they need to be exposed to the exceptional woman of today as well as in our history, whose role models we hold in high regard. Our girls should be able to ask questions without censure and talk openly about the halachos of tznius and other issues that will concern them as they grow into womanhood. Whether it concerns working through issues of family size, marrying a learner or earner and the lifestyles that those decisions will determine, they should never be made to feel that any question, asked appropriately and in the proper forum, is forbidden or that any inquiry makes them less than others in our eyes or – even worse – in their own.
The key, in my opinion, is to teach our children to be proud of whom they are. They need to be taught to feel that it is indeed a gift to be a Jewish woman and that being tznius is a sign of self-love and self-respect. It is something to strive for and embrace. We need to nurture their growth in their observance in a positive way so that it will be internalized instead of resorting to an atmosphere of punishment and ever watchfulness for any infractions of different levels of acceptance and understanding.
If we can do this successfully, if they internalize tznius as an integral positive part of what they believe and are committed to, then we have armed them with weapons for fighting the influences of the outside world. Influences we cannot totally avoid or shield them from in today’s society. All we really can do and must do is give them the self- respect and positive self-image that will hopefully help them make the right choices as independent adults.
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